It can’t be a coincidence that three of the best TV shows of 2016 (all debatable, of course) are all crime dramas about the criminal justice system – and its many, many failings. If you thought Making a Murderer and American Crime Story were special, wait till you watch The Night Of, HBO’s gentle reminder that no matter how many great shows Netflix produces, no one does prestige mini-series like they do. This isn’t TV. This isn’t HBO. The Night Of is the real deal.
It’s a real New York crime story, co-created by Richard Price, that grizzled chronicler of the Big Apple’s bad seeds, and writer/director Steven Zaillian, whose list of credits should ideally be swallowed with a mild sedative. Here goes: Schindler’s List, Mission Impossible, Gangs of New York, American Gangster, Moneyball and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
It’s the perfect little murder mystery – both old fashioned in its procedural approach, and suitably grey for a modern audience that likes looking at what nameless egg people have to say about the latest twist on Twitter.
On the night of October 24, 2014, our story begins. Nasir Khan (his friends call him Nas), a 23-year-old college student steps out of his Pakistani immigrant parents’ house for a night out with friends. He takes his father’s cab without really telling him. On the way, a mysterious, beautiful girl gets in his cab. And who’s ever said no to a pretty girl?
Nas and Andrea hit it off. She’s lonely. She looks troubled. All she wants is company. She takes him back to her house – a posh brownstone. Upstairs in the bedroom, she gives Nas – who, remember, is a good Muslim boy – alcohol and pills. Nas takes it all because, really, who’s ever said no to a pretty girl?
He wakes up, with a jolt but without any recollection of what happened, and finds Andrea brutally stabbed in her bed. He runs. He is caught moments later a few blocks down the street.
What makes this show so great is the enormous attention to detail that Zaillian and Price bring – especially in the first episode. They leave a trail of breadcrumbs, clues that foreshadow twists, but more importantly – clues that tie Nas inexorably to the crime scene. We woke up with him. We were there the whole time. He’s a good Muslim boy, but God does it look like he did it.
An investigation – open and shut, they say – is launched. Meanwhile, Nas is sent to Rikers Island, which, going by what the movies have taught us, is a hell like no other.
At this point in the story, the show really settles in. With the introduction of John Turturro’s character John Stone, an opportunist lawyer who takes on Nas’ case, it gives us one of the most compellingly grey central characters in recent memory. Stone, his body decaying of eczema, his soul of loneliness, is performed brilliantly by Turturro – both confident and self-loathing. Yes, it’s a miniseries, but honestly, no one is going to complain if they announce the further adventures of John Stone. Saul Goodman better watch his back.
It might be just 8 episodes long, but The Night Of shifts gears so seamlessly from crime thriller to gritty prison drama to murder mystery to courtroom drama. While it doesn’t really have many original things to say about the American legal and prison systems – yes, they’re both broken – it does so with subtlety and a focus on character. And that really sets it apart.
You see, in these shows, it’s all about how the system overwhelms the common man. A conviction by the jury would hardly make a difference to Nas. He was convicted to a life of great difficulty the minute he was arrested – he became a man with priors, eternally prejudiced. In order to survive in prison, he has to do terrible things. He is, regardless of the outcome, an innocent. We are supposed to root for him – which isn’t really that difficult. It could very easily have been you instead of him, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nas transforms in prison, and not just physically. The system makes him into the person it had always accused him of being.
The chaotic courtrooms, the lawless prisons, the overworked public servants are all victims of corrupt organisations. The Night Of October 24 wasn’t just a turning point in the life of Nasir Khan, it also claimed the lives of dozens of others.
Zaillian worked with David Fincher on Dragon Tattoo, and it seems to have rubbed off well. The Night Of is a story Fincher does so well – cold, clinical, stylish, misanthropic. The procedural is straight out of Zodiac or Se7en, complete with a grizzled detective on his last case before retirement releases him.
It is entirely reasonable to expect, after having binged this show, to want to watch more of Riz Ahmed, who, as Nas, is a modern hero of an Aeschylus tragedy. I have you sorted: Look no further than Shifty, Four Lions, Ill Manors, Nightcrawler and the terrific TV series Dead Set. With this, and the upcoming Rogue One, Riz Ahmed has finally broken out of the cult.
What a great time for TV this is. If this had a rating, it would be 5 on 5.