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‘The Night Of’ Knows Exactly What It Is

The ‘Wire’ descendant reminds us of what made TV’s Golden Age so great

HBO
HBO

Take a peek at The Night Of’s DNA and you know what you’re getting. Starting this weekend, the eight-part miniseries bridges HBO’s Sunday night gap after Game of Thrones and before Westworld, and it’s hard to think of a better condensation of what the channel’s contributed to television for the past 20 years. Along with filmmaker Steven Zaillian, The Night Of was created by Richard Price, crime writer and alumnus of The Wire, and it’s a direct and self-contained descendant of that series, like last year’s Show Me a Hero. The cast is littered with familiar faces — not just from The Wire , but also The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. (Its lead role was even developed for James Gandolfini, who gets a posthumous credit as executive producer.) The Night Of is a solid, hard-boiled story of individuals and institutions — the newest branch of a very specific family tree.

And The Night Of’s good genes bear out. As a document of race and criminal justice in America (which is to say, criminal justice in America), as a cross section of institutions that are paradoxically soulless and made up of soulful people, and as a portrait of prejudice as a self-fulfilling prophecy, The Night Of delivers on a particular strain of the old-guard prestige-TV promise.

That promise begins with a premiere that, at 90 minutes, could stand alone as the best thriller of the year. The night in question begins with the son of a Pakistani cab driver borrowing his dad’s livelihood for a trip into Manhattan; it ends with a 22-year-old woman stabbed to death in her Upper West Side home. In between, the episode lays the groundwork for the grueling investigation of Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed). We see what Naz looks like to the outside observer. We see the impulsive decisions later held against him. We see a passerby’s casual Islamophobia escalate and turn against Naz’s Jackson Heights community.

Naz himself is a cipher, ironically more so as his murder case reveals more about him. But a chance encounter at a police precinct connects him with John Stone (John Turturro), a lawyer who’s also a far more compelling presence to build a series around. He’ll be familiar to anyone who’s spent time in New York, right down to the garish subway ads promising “NO FEE ’TIL YOU’RE FREE” in English and Spanish. It’s a style best described as Zizmorian, but weirder: Eczema forces him to wear sandals over his Crisco-and-Saran-wrapped feet, a cross between the Padres mascot and a workaholic leper. He’s the temperamental inverse of Naz, and he follows an opposite trajectory as the trial moves forward. Matched up with a client by sheer coincidence, Stone becomes the unlikely moral center of the case.

It’s dark stuff, and not just figuratively. The Night Of shows frame after immaculate frame of a city bled dry of color. Characters are marooned in shadow or isolated at the edges of a frame, more so as Naz grows isolated from his pretrial life and leans into the identity — violent criminal — that the trial and his fellow inmates have left as his only option. It’s also everything we might expect from a series with this lineage: relentlessly bleak, occasionally wry, and — in the courtroom and jail scenes especially — committed to representing American justice not as we’d like to see it, but as it actually is.

Like the show and novels where Price cut his teeth, The Night Of doesn’t traffic in heroism. Stone and Naz are surrounded by people doing what they earnestly believe is right: the homicide detective who thinks Naz is guilty (why wouldn’t he?); the co-owners of Naz’s father’s cab, who kick their partner out of the business when his son gets their source of income confiscated. By the time we learn Naz’s prison mentor took another (!) murder charge so his family can visit him at Riker’s instead of traveling upstate, it sounds positively … sweet. Everyone’s helpless to do anything but what the law, their jobs, or the carceral system has positioned them to do. Stone is the only one with some measure of autonomy, and even then it comes at a steep social price.

The past year has seen a reckoning with the fallout from prestige, or at least the shorthand for it that’s trickled down to the rest of television. Just because a show shares certain surface traits with the Golden Age’s founding texts doesn’t mean it shares their quality — a fact that creators are starting to acknowledge, sometimes on the page and sometimes off. Shows have begun to subvert the idea of the antihero even as textbook antihero shows get panned, then restructured, then reluctantly cancelled. In its second season, AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire shifted its focus from yet another misunderstood genius to two women trying to get their hardscrabble gaming company off the ground, a move that read as both smart storytelling and a graceful mea culpa. And the ferocious backlash to a character death on The 100 forced its writers to publicly reckon with the ramifications of an increasingly widespread way for shows to signal that they — like, say, Game of Thrones — were free to break the rules. (A plot twist seemingly intended to mark the show as an edgy drama unafraid of casualties played instead into a much uglier trope.) Tonal bleakness and sudden axings have matured into rules of their own.

The Night Of doesn’t escape these rules entirely — the less said of the manic pixie murder victim, the better. Instead, the show reminds us why they came to be in the first place: because the stories that shaped them have a power that’s still unmatched.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.