A new eight-episode miniseries for HBO (co-produced by the BBC and based on the short-lived British series ‘Criminal Justice’), ‘The Night Of’ has the potential to become the most talked-about show on the pay cable network since the first season of ‘True Detective’. It’s a taut mystery that takes aim at the criminal justice system in America – but the most surprising thing about HBO’s new show is that it almost never happened.
Way back in 2012, HBO put together a deal with its former ‘Sopranos’ star James Gandolfini to make a pilot for this series (then still mirroring the ‘Criminal Justice’ title of its British counterpart), with Gandolfini playing the part that would eventually wind up in the hands of John Turturro. However, after shooting the first episode with Gandolfini, HBO passed on the pilot, deciding not to go forward with the show. A few months later, the network executives changed their minds and gave the greenlight for a one-off miniseries rather than a full series. Gandolfini was set to shoot the remainder of the episodes when he died tragically in the summer of 2013. The on-again/off-again project was once again off.
Then HBO announced it would complete the project in honor of Gandolfini (who’s still listed as an Executive Producer even on this final product). Better yet, HBO nabbed Robert De Niro to replace him. Alas, a scheduling conflict prevented De Niro from committing to the show. Instead of cancelling the project yet again, John Turturro (a good friend of Gandolfini’s) stepped in to make sure the now-titled ‘The Night Of’ could finally make it to air. With such a troubled history, the fact that the series finally got shot is a minor miracle. The fact that it’s so damn good is a major one.
Both produced and written by Steven Zaillian (who also directs all but one of the miniseries’ eight episodes) and Richard Price (who was a writer on ‘The Wire’, among other projects), ‘The Night Of’ tells the story of young college student Nasir Khan (called “Naz” by his friends, and played by Riz Ahmed), who finds himself in a world of hurt after borrowing (i.e. stealing) his father’s cab to head into New York City for a party he’s been invited to by some college pals.
Naz is all ready to go to the party when he learns that his best friend won’t be able to go, thereby leaving him with no way to get there. One of my few minor complaints about this first episode is that Naz makes all the wrong decisions as the night goes on – which can either be seen as the stupidity of a twenty-something kid or convenient for the plot, depending on how cynical one wants to be. The first such stupid move is when he decides to take his father’s cab in order to get into New York City on his own. Why not call his own cab? Take the bus/subway? Call another friend? Hitchhike? Because the story won’t work unless he takes that cab, dammit! Just go with it… don’t nitpick Nasir’s choices, or you’re going to become very frustrated very fast.
Even though Naz has his cell phone on him, he apparently doesn’t have a data plan to pull up Google Maps (again, there’s a lot of “Why doesn’t he just…?” going on in this episode) and soon finds himself lost in the big city. On top of that, he can’t figure out how to turn off the “On Duty” light on the cab, which causes him to have to get help from police to get rid of a couple of guys who just jump into the back. The next person that jumps in, however, Naz is less worried about getting rid of. It’s a beautiful young girl (played by Sofia Black-D’Elia) who tells Naz she wants to go to the beach. (‘The Beach’ is also the title of this first episode.)
Naz does the next best thing and takes her to a point overlooking the East River where the girl (whom we’ll later learn is named Andrea) offers Naz some drugs. (Ecstasy, maybe? I confess to not being able to visually ID most illegal drugs.) He doesn’t take it at first… then looks deeper into her eyes and changes his mind, proving that guys can be sheep for a knockout gal. Then it’s back to her apartment on the Upper West Side, where Naz gets into a racial confrontation with a pair of young African-Americans before entering. Once inside, Andrea breaks out the alcohol, gets Naz to snort some cocaine with her (a drug I can visually ID!), and has him play this crazy game where she takes a kitchen knife and slams it down toward her hand – barely missing hitting a finger. She then asks Naz to do it to her… and he stabs her right in the hand. This only seems to turn Andrea on. Instead of heading to the hospital, the two of them head up to her bedroom for some passionate sex.
Naz wakes up later that night in the downstairs kitchen, not knowing how he got there. He goes upstairs to say goodbye, only to find Andrea’s dead and bloodied body in the bed, the victim of multiple stab wounds. Panicking, Naz doesn’t call the police but high-tails it out of there, despite his DNA (including his semen) being present, not to mention his fingerprints all over the apartment. Only when he’s outside does he realize that he left the keys to the cab inside, and the door locked behind him. He has to break one of the windows on the door to get back in, an act which a neighbor across the street witnesses. Inside once again, he finally realizes all the evidence he’s left there, so he grabs the knife from earlier in the evening and haphazardly tries to wipe the prints from some of the items he’s touched.
Nasir’s evening goes from bad to worse when a pair of New York’s finest pull him over for a traffic violation on his way back home. They can smell the alcohol on his breath and are about to take him to the station when a report of suspicious activity (from the neighbor who saw Naz running out of the apartment) comes in. So Naz winds up in the back of the police car as the two cops go to investigate – and he’s still there when the body is discovered and other officers arrive on the scene, including the police’s chief investigator, Dennis Box (Bill Camp). Although the witness to Naz’s running away tells the cops he took off in a cab, the two officers we met earlier don’t yet put together that their cab driver could be a suspect; they misinterpret the guy’s statement to mean that the suspect hailed a cab instead of drove away in one.
Box eventually has another officer drive Naz back to the police station where he sits and waits and soon realizes that he still has the bloody knife in his jacket pocket. He even stupidly thinks about just walking out of the station at one point – which is exactly the point at which Box and the two officers that originally arrested him return from the crime scene. The female officer of the pair proceeds to pat Naz down and pulls the knife from inside his jacket at almost the precise moment that Box is telling his co-workers about the type of murder weapon they’re looking for.
Thinking they now have their man, Naz is processed by the police. Box gets him to agree to a DNA sample from his mouth, as well as a swab off his penis. He also interrogates Naz, and this is the point where you hope our lead character will explain everything that happened, but instead he just makes himself look more guilty by saying things like, “She was nice.” Later, Naz eventually asks for a lawyer, but at this point he’s already been through the booking and interview process.
With Naz sitting in a holding cell, defense attorney Jack Stone (Turturro) comes strolling into the station. He’s there to talk to one of his clients, but can’t help seeing Naz sitting all alone in his cell. Stone asks a few questions about him (although he initially forgets to ask what he’s being held for) and decides to take Nasir on as a client. He talks to Naz in his cell and is disappointed to hear the things he’s already agreed to without an attorney present. He informs Naz to keep his mouth shut from this point forward and if anyone asks him anything, just respond, “Talk to my lawyer.” It’s only when he’s on his way out that Stone learns that Naz is being held for murder.
The episode ends back at Naz’s home, where his father (played by Peyman Maadi), mother and brother finally learn of Naz’s predicament after Naz makes a phone call to his dad. His father goes to drive to the station to see his son, only to realize that his cab is no longer parked outside. The final shot of the episode shows the father in the middle of the street with a cat crossing in the background – a reminder to sharp-eyed viewers that when Andrea first took Naz into her apartment, she let her cat out the back door because Naz is asthmatic. Was an unlocked back door how the real killer got into the apartment? This seems like a not-so-subtle hint.
As I mentioned earlier in this recap, this first episode has our main character doing a lot of things that we as viewers (knowing that Naz is going to get arrested for murder) can see will come back and be used as evidence against him later. It also presents us with a string of possible suspects along the way (I’m currently keying in on a hearse driver played by Michael Kenneth Williams who seems a little too watchful of Andrea and Naz when they fuel up at a gas station) to keep us guessing and wondering if any (or none) of them had something to do with the murder.
Most important is the fact that this first episode is excellently directed and wonderfully acted, particularly by Riz Ahmed (whom audiences will get to know much better this winter, as he’s one of the key cast members in the new ‘Star Wars’ film, ‘Rogue One’). Ahmed brings both a vulnerability and likability to the character that helps to engage viewers in the story.
I could say so much more about this episode, but I’ve rambled on for a while now and it’s your turn to spout off. What did you think of it, and do you have any theories about who killed Andrea and why?