HBO’s The Night Of has a novel approach. It’s not adapted from an actual book, but this first episode, “The Beach,” plays as if we’re unfolding a big novel page-by-page, flipping our way through the first of eight lengthy chapters. The premium cable station’s latest high-profile mini-series borrows heavily from the likes of True Detective and The Jinx, but it often takes a more perceptive, dilated, observant and attentive route. The New York City-based crime drama, which might read as an overstretched Law & Order episode to some at first, slowly-but-surely becomes more unrelenting and quietly captivating over the course of this exceptional pilot. The intricate details are laid. The characters are all put into their proper place, and the music invites an unsettling, creepy feeling throughout. It’s evident this moody, contemplative limited crime drama, created by screenwriters Steve Zaillian (Moneyball) and Richard Price (Clockers), will surely become something more arresting as it continues onward.
Based on the British mini-series Criminal Justice, The Night Of is not entirely unfamiliar, but never less than well-made, character study centered on Nasir Khan (Nightcrawler‘s Riz Ahmed), a Pakistan-American college student living with his parents in Queens. He’s bright, intuitive but deeply insecure, and he wants to reach out to the world. And Nasir gets that chance when he’s welcomed to a college basketball party in town, thanks to a player he’s tutoring on the team. There’s a problem, though: when his buddy flakes on him, he has no way to get there. But he’s not entirely out-of-options, as Nasir decides to steal his dad’s cab on the spur of the moment and drive his way to get-together in Manhattan. What could go wrong?
Many, many things, it would seem — all relating to Andrea (Sofia Black-D’Elisa), an attractive young woman with a troubled past determined to go far, far, far away from the central city. Mistaking Nasir’s ride for an operating taxi, on account that he didn’t turn his light off, she hitches a ride with the shy young man and soon becomes his acquaintance. They go to the beach, they look out onto the city, they take some drugs, they go to her Upper West Side apartment, they drink a little more, they spill a little blood on the carpet, they have some potentially unprotected sex and then, several hours later, Nasir wakes up to discover Andrea’s bloody body, with no recollection of killing her. Just an average Wednesday night, if you ask me.
It’s not long before Nasir winds up in the station, begging and pleading his innocence, but nobody believes him. And they have no right to believe him, since he looks unquestionably guilty based on all the evidence. But there’s one man who believes in him: Jack Stone (John Turturro), a lawyer taken by Nasir’s case. Or, perhaps, maybe Jack doesn’t believe in Nasir’s innocence. It’s hard to say, especially after this episode. There are some proper questions placed, and there are some expected notes hit, but The Night Of is hardly procedural in its execution. This is a patient, fragile piece of work, something that loves to explore every minuscule detail, mundane oddities and budding American Islamophobia for what it’s worth. It might be a little too slow for its own good, but it’s hardly ever boring. It’s only more fascinating as it goes along, and while it might not become an audience favorite, it’ll certainly win itself a smart audience regardless.
“The Beach,” written by Price and directed by Zaillian, loves to delve into the normality of violence in a post-9/11 world. The episode is as sharply written and impeccably directed as anything I’ve seen this year, on the big or small screen. It doesn’t always reveal a lot, but it knows how to drag the bone around, keeping you wagging your tail back-and-forth, back-and-forth. Even when it gets highly dramatized, or the narrative might seem a little too convenient, it never, ever loses its sense of reality. Everything often feels authentic, honest and very humble. And while this pilot is, indeed, very good, you always think about where it could be changed.
Turturro, though advertised as the lead, doesn’t show up until 67 minutes into this 78-minute premiere, but the respected veteran character actor provides a much-needed source of warmth and humility, which keeps the show from falling into an never-ending pit of sulk and gloom. That said, it’s hard to watch the performance and think of James Gandolfini, who was tapped to play the part, and filmed a version of the pilot, before he passed untimely. You’re constantly reminded, then, of what he could have been and what The Sopranos actors could have brought to the role, especially as Turturro copies a number of his usual mannerisms and quirks. It’s similar to the situation Steve Coogan faced when he filled in the late shoes of Philip Seymour Hoffman in Showtime’s ill-fated Happyish: he does a respectable job, but you can’t forget what could have been. It’s a lose-lose situation sometimes, even when they still win.
Granted, Turturro makes Jack Stone enough his own for it not to sink the entire performance, but the loom presence of the late Gandolfini — whose given a posthumous executive producer credit — is unshakeable. Ahmed, however, makes the role entirely his own, providing a fidgety anxiety and restless inner life that genuinely makes you sympathize with his predicament, even if we don’t exactly know if he’s guilty or innocent (though, like the cops note, the evidence is seriously stacked against him). It’s a strongly rooted performance, and one that shows the young actor as someone with a serious amount of potential, much like show surrounding him.
There are no villains and heroes here. There are only people doing their job and people caught in the eye of the storm. It’s unflinching, incredibly well-made and deeply rooted in reality. Even if it isn’t breaking new ground or shaking up the genre, The Night Of nevertheless promises to become a haunting, powerfully subdued piece. It might stick to the books (even if it’s, again, not based on any books), but it doesn’t need to change procedure. It knows what it’s doing, and we’re hooked in the case. Hopefully this dark knight is going to remain a shinny light for the ever-plunging HBO. They could really use a hit these days.