In an era of binge-watching TV series new and old (for me , the new was/is Bloodline; the old was The Shield and now The Wire), there are still some new shows that offer the old-school, one-week-per-episode manner of piquing your interest — and can make you just as obsessive as when you watch every single episode of The Sopranos over a weekend.
Such is the case with HBO’s latest “limited series,” a gripping crime story called, The Night Of. Based on the BBC series “Criminal Justice,” the eight-episode drama stars John Turturro (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler) in a story about a complex New York City murder case — and tinges of race, politics and social mores: A night that begins innocently for Pakistani-American college student Nasir “Naz” Khan turns horrific after he meets a mysterious young woman. In custody and awaiting his formal arraignment, Naz realizes that his survival — or perhaps his demise — rests not with his attorney, John Stone, but with a particular inmate at Rikers Island.
As of this writing, the penultimate episode aired last Sunday, and I’m already crawling the walls to see how this ends. The Night Of is the most compelling crime drama I’ve seen since True Detectives (first season).
Loaded with a cast that, for the most part, has gone unheralded (with the exception of John Turturro), TNO is loaded with characters that are as real as they come, brought to life by actors that are invariably pitch perfect. Bill Camp’s performance as Sgt. Detective Dennis Box deserves an Emmy nomination based on the first episode alone, as he portrays a 33-year veteran of the NYPD not with the usual (read: sterotypical) cynicism and swagger, but with introspection, compassion and a level of competency and decency that rivets the viewer. Ahmed, while not as compelling (and hold that thought), adroitly moves within his character’s layers of bravado, deception and insecurity and makes you sympathetic, even as you squirm as his true character is revealed. Naz’s mother, played flawlessly by Poorna Jagannathan, has what seems like less than 10 words an episode, yet you feel every bit of her pain as she is assailed by doubt, heartbreak, shame and guilt. Of all the cast members, her performance is the most sublime.
Turturro owns his part part as Jack Stone, a sleazeball gutter lawyer whose ads (“No Fee Til You’re Free!”) all over buses are nearly as cheap as his suits and whose excruciating eczema on his feet is almost too much to watch. But, sleazy as he is, he believes his is a true calling, even as he views his client through jaded eyes. “The truth can go to hell,” Stone tells Naz early on, “because it doesn’t help you.” Turturro took the part after Robert DeNiro couldn’t, and for that, I’m grateful. Turturro nails it.
I can’t help but think of the recent sort-of-documentary around the Steven Avery case when watching each episode, as information is revealed in layers, like the peeling of an onion, and the viewer is pulled from one verdict to another as Naz’s case progresses through the judicial system and Naz himself navigates his way through a terrifying existence at Rikers Island. (Due to his bail being denied, he is ordered held until trial.)
The jail sequences are the weak point of what is otherwise an airtight show. Naz instantly transforms from a scrawny, skittish college kid into a hardened prison thug in, literally, in one jump cut, from knuckle tattoos and a shaved head to a dangerous alliance with the convict kingpin (the superb Michael Kenneth Williams), who turns him into a drug mule and introduces Naz to crack cocaine — in his cell at Rikers. This, apparently, is to set up the fact that Naz is not quite the nice kid we think he is and that he has secrets of his own, but the transformation is too sudden and jarring to ring true.
Yet, even though this strains the suspension of my disbelief, The Night Of is engrossing and smart. It’s easily the best new series of the summer.