Great television series can be found everywhere these days, including some surprising places like Lifetime and USA, not to mention all of the streaming possibilities. Still, when HBO offers a prestige mini-series event, it gets our attention. HBO still represents quality for most people. So The Night Of has a lot going for it from the start, and it must be said, for the most part, it delivers on its promise. The first of eight episodes is as good as TV gets, and if the rest of the series can’t live up to that introduction, it’s still plenty good. The story of a Pakistani-American college student who is the prime suspect in a brutal murder case, The Night Of casts a wide net as it examines the effects of institutions on people, not just victims but the people working within those institutions.
That first episode takes us through a long night where college student Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) meets a girl, has some wild times, wakes up to find she has been murdered, rather accidentally gets arrested, and spends time waiting in a police station before he is finally locked up. The dread is overwhelming ... it’s almost guaranteed they can’t keep this up for eight episodes, and they don’t, but at least the audience gets to breathe. Ahmed is the best thing about the series ... somehow, using only his eyes and the way he walks, he shows us Naz as a scared kid who gradually, in his time in jail, becomes harder. It is the most subtle kind of acting, and needs to be seen to be believed. John Turturro, perhaps the biggest name here, is fine in a role originally intended for James Gandolfini ... his defining visual characteristic is his eczema. There are a few other names I recognized in the cast, most notably the always great Micheal K. Williams, along with Jeannie Berlin, Glenne Headly, and Williams’ old Wire buddy J.D. Williams.
Richard Price and Steven Zaillian are trying to do at least two things here, a character study and a procedural. The procedural is what makes us wonder what will happen next, and of course, the inevitable whodunnit angle keeps our attention. There is no reason why these two can’t coexist, that we can learn about how the process affects the people it swallows while also learning what happened on the night of. But in the final episode, the procedural took over, and not for the better. Bill Camp plays a retiring cop, Dennis Box, who identifies a suspect on the first night (Naz) and doesn’t look at anyone else because the initial evidence is good, and, one assumes, he wants to go home with his new golf clubs. They needed to establish this about Box with more clarity, though, because in the final episode, feeling uncertain about the case, he finally applies his strong detective skills to the case, becoming convinced Naz was innocent. If Box was as good as he seems, he would have done this work sometime during Episode Two, but that wouldn’t make much of a mini-series. Meanwhile, several characters throughout the series act like morons, not because they are stupid but because it allows for an eight-episode mini-series. So Naz gets himself in a predicament, but he makes it infinitely worse by pocketing a bloody knife that turns out to be the murder weapon. One of his attorneys, who seems as bright as any other lawyer, kisses Naz in front of a jail camera ... dumb ... and later smuggles drugs to Naz in her vagina. The only reason she turns stupid is so Turturro, who has just sat at the defendant’s table the entire trial, can give the closing argument (he does fine, the speech is fine, but it’s like a movie about horse racing ... the ending is always great because horse races are exciting, and this works because closing arguments always work).
When you spend seven episodes with something as good as The Night Of, you won’t want to have stupid things turning up in the last episode just to make the mystery more entertaining. Zaillian and Price work hard to elevate The Night Of above the usual crime drama, then turn it into something far more ordinary at the end. It’s a shame, because much of that last episode is equal to what came before. The result is a series where the first episode was an A+, the next six episodes were A/A-, but the last episode fluctuated between A and C.