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‘The Night Of’ Is a New Kind of Legal Drama

HBO
HBO

After a month on the air, almost five hours of screen time, and one heart-stoppingly interminable pat-down, The Night Of is still slogging through the early stages of a murder case: At the series’ halfway point, Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed) is just set to enter his plea. This is hardly the urgency we’ve come to associate with a fictional murder trial, but Richard Price and Steven Zaillian’s slow-motion crime tragedy is as deliberate as it is distinct from the standard legal procedural.

Think of your typical episode of Law & Order: five minutes of faux-suspense before a beloved New York character actor stumbles on a body; 20 minutes of stern investigation; 20 minutes of open-and-shut legal proceedings, with the occasional on-the-stand confession. The Night Of is almost profoundly uninterested in the investigation part; a suspect almost literally falls into the cops’ lap, and even if we know their suspicions are (probably) wrong, the show doesn’t bother to offer a compelling alternative before moving on. Instead, it fast-forwards to the trial and supersizes it until it fills almost all of an eight-episode series. It’s the opposite of the year’s other critically acclaimed, court-centric miniseries, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which compressed years of action and decades of racial and sexual politics into 10 full-to-bursting episodes.

Instead, The Night Of finds excellence in the cracks a brisker show will simply speed over. When was the last time you saw a plea deal mined for such extended drama, particularly when the outcome is so obvious? But Naz’s decision to turn down his fancy pro bono lawyer’s hard-negotiated offer isn’t about the outcome, and neither is the show he leads. It’s about a scared kid getting the life squeezed out of him by a rapidly expanding kudzu patch of physical evidence, legal troubles, and competing pressures, slowly and then all at once. But plenty of shows feature scared defendants; this one focuses on how that person goes from free to incarcerated.

On television, criminals — or suspected criminals, though most narratives treat them the same — exist to argue with detectives across an interrogation table. They’re here to wait patiently while the lawyers do the heavy lifting. In prison stories, they’re allowed some strength in numbers — but even a show as unflinching as Oz or pointedly empathetic as Orange Is the New Black skips over the municipal meat-grinder.

The Night Of makes a point of following Naz past the walls of Rikers Island and into the terrifying, bewildering ecosystem where he waits out his trial. We stay with Naz as he learns the rules of his new home, then internalizes them: how to look other inmates in the eye, how a lifelong Muslim won’t find friends among the converts to the Nation of Islam, how his reputation as an (accused, not that it matters) rapist and murderer precedes him. It’s a set of alliances and ground rules as overwhelming as the courts’ — and maybe even more so, given their urgency.

The series is acutely conscious of how, from Naz’s point of view, what happens within Rikers has a far more immediate effect on his life than anything that happens without, including his own trial. Naz can’t afford to stay neutral in Rikers’ shadow wars as his lawyer muddles his way toward the truth; he doesn’t have the time, or the muscle. Motions and testimony drag on for months on end, but the improvised acid bomb Naz nearly takes to the face burns now. And so Episode 4 ends with him on the verge of a deal with the devil, if the devil were a boxing champion turned gang leader played by Michael K. Williams.

To watch The Night Of is to be reminded there’s a story like Naz’s on the flip side of every trial narrative, not to mention the real-life horrors perpetrated in real-life Rikers. The miniseries’ unorthodox focus may be a trade-off, particularly in its apparent disregard for what happened to the victim (or even who she was, beyond the pretty, intoxicating bait that lured Naz into this particular circle of hell). But it’s one that calls attention to just how unprecedented its inverted priorities — care for its subject, and a willingness to go with him where other shows look away — truly are. We tend to assume a “legal” show will be a show about lawyers, since they’re the experts — we’re invested in their lives, their victories, their losses. Which is strange, considering theirs aren’t the lives at stake.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.