The Night Of is a compelling study of the judicial system in post 9/11 New York
When critiquing and analysing any form of media there is always the danger of exaggeration. There is a risk of overplaying the flaws of a film or the pitfall of heaping too much praise upon a TV show. Hyperbole is evidently a writer’s worst enemy. So I sincerely and unequivocally mean it when I write that there are not enough superlatives to describe The Night Of…
HBO’s The Night Of is an eight-part miniseries chronicling the events surrounding the death of a young woman in New York. You would be forgiven for thinking there’s nothing untoward or unique about this synopsis. However The Night Of soon reveals its true colours as a much smarter and more provocative beast. What sets the show apart from its peers is the level of detail. The narrative is driven meticulously by the processes, language and culture of the law and order system. Never have the intricacies of a crime and its aftermath been handled with such deft magisterial control. The show’s ingenious writers Richard Price and Steven Zaillian are surgical in their treatment of both the characters and the unfolding dynamics of the case. The pilot episode is a perfect example of the writers’ desires to linger uncomfortably long; creating a slow burning tension that gnaws away at the viewer’s nerves.
All of this drama is generated by our potential murderer Nasir Khan, played by peripheral star Riz Ahmed. Conveying the same quiet charisma he brought to his role in Nightcrawler, Ahmed creates an endless well of empathy as Nasir. Every decision, nay every mistake he makes, generates another piece of incriminating evidence. Through Ahmed’s overtly expressive eyes the audience are privy to an all too relatable soul; whose terror and isolation elevates as the reality of his situation dawns upon him. Ultimately it’s the show’s sobering commentary on the cost of a life behind bars which really strikes a resonant chord. Even if Nasir is found not guilty there is no certainty that his fading innocence will last his imprisonment.
The supporting cast provide stellar performances across the board. Michael Kenneth Williams is terrifyingly calm as the prison kingpin; however it is Nasir’s lonely lawyer John Stone who steals the show. The role was originally envisaged for James Gandolfini, but with his untimely passing and the likes of Robert De Niro passing on the part, the door was opened for John Turturro. On paper Turturro seems like a strange replacement for the previously mentioned actors, but he shines as the eczema ridden attorney, bringing a much welcome warmth and amiability to what is an undeniably bleak story.
It would be easy to label The Night Of as being progressive, for simply placing the story around a Muslim protagonist of Pakistani descent. In actual fact what makes the show truly pioneering is its infrequent use of this aspect of the character. Yes, it is referenced to in terms of its societal effect and yes, it does play a part in the racial politics of the trial. The show however makes it clear that there is far more lurking inside Nasir than his religion and what truly defines him is that he is an American. An American accused of a murder he believes he did not commit. The bravery in highlighting the possibility that a Muslim can be a regular person and not the post 9/11 terrorist the media wishes to depict is admirable. In this way The Night Of is a propulsive show for both television and within the wider world which requires, nay demands, compulsive viewing.