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‘The Night Of’ Has a Foot Fetish, and It Stinks

John Turturro’s super-gross eczema subplot has become the actual plot. Knock it off.

HBO/Ringer illustration

“You can stop staring at my feet any time you want,” John Turturro informed yet another horrified onlooker last night on The Night Of. This is patently false.

We are now halfway through HBO’s grim, minor star–studded, and quietly excellent crime procedural, where the procedural overwhelms the crime. (The term “glacial pace” doesn’t quite get at the show’s commitment to slow justice, given how fast the glaciers are melting nowadays.) This zealously zeal-free anti–Law & Order approach is a feature, not a bug, so the fact that we haven’t spent much time so far trying to solve the actual murder is unsurprising. That we’ve spent vast, bleach-kissed oceans of time field-testing eczema cures instead is an unpleasant surprise indeed. Knock it off.

After four episodes, you are well aware that Turturro’s character, the affable and flagrantly disrespected ambulance-chasing lawyer John Stone, suffers from eczema, and is tormented by his unsightly and unremittingly painful feet as he vies to help the young, (maybe) innocent, and (definitely) doomed Nasir Khan beat his murder rap. You know this because it is the focal point of roughly 85 percent of Stone’s screen time. It dominates his conversations with clients, cops, Rikers Island guards, fellow lawyers; “How’s the feet?” is the snide, jovial greeting he receives from virtually everyone, the tragicomic equivalent to Cheers’s “NORM!” He is referred to as “the Guy With the Feet” even when talking on the phone.

For the first two episodes, this was a delightful quirk, a rare sunburst of comic relief amid the operatic gloom. It gave the character immediate depth, and inspired a visceral, wincing sort of sympathy. But after two more episodes in which Stone’s quixotic and humiliating quest for a cure is as prominent a plot point as Naz’s abortive plea deal or his horrifying Rikers misadventures, it’s time to throw in the towel. Or, better yet, burn it. Turturro’s feet have gotten more screen time than the murder victim, and even her crime-scene photos can’t compare in terms of sheer grisliness.

Again: Please knock it off.

As metaphors go, Stone’s eczema is not particularly subtle. An internal rot from which there is no escape … a ghastly procession of experts offering ludicrous, conflicting, and increasingly humiliating advice … the desperate urge to fight back slowly atrophying into valiant resignation … okay, okay, okay. Okay. We get it. It’s an awkward, forced parallel on a show that otherwise deftly avoids such pitfalls. Naz is told to look people in the eye without actually looking them in the eye and watch out for baby-oil bombs; John is told to coat his feet in Crisco and swaddle them in Saran Wrap. (One of those predicaments seems a lot more serious!)

Here and only here, you sense the show’s penchant for sadistic delight, with all the body-horror zombie-toe close-ups and squirmy Foley-artist work as John squishes his way through law offices, crime scenes, courtrooms, bars, animal shelters. He visits two different doctors, and spends precious limited-series minutes grappling with two different suggested cures. (Are steroids worse for you than Crisco? If they allow Fisher Stevens a quick cameo as a bemused pharmacist reeling off terrible side effects, from “explosive acne” to “uncontrollable crying jags” to “shrinking balls,” who cares?)

A question, though: What else do you know about John Stone? What else would you like to know? He’s a bottom-feeding lawyer but, apparently, a pretty good and legitimately empathetic one. He’s divorced, with a teenage son, and a weakness for his streetwalking clientele — cue the tasteful shot of a naked lady cringing post-coitally at his bathroom cabinet of horrors. He’s a magnet for professional condescension at best and outright contempt at worst, but with sky-high upside. We’ve got a lot to work with here! And Turturro is great at processing all these indignities: He disgustedly snaps yet another scrawled prescription out of yet another unconvincing doctor’s hand, redeeming a second lengthy doctor office scene. But, Christ, man. His eyes are up here. This is a gross-out subplot that has somehow become the actual plot.

(Bonus question: Would you find all this more or less personally appetizing if it were James Gandolfini in the role, as was originally intended? Would Jim’s bare, sore-infested feet have been more dramatically compelling? Don’t answer that. Don’t even think about that. Sorry.)

Seriously, knock it off.

The worst part is that the third episode, “A Dark Crate,” gave this show the perfect out: a way to grant the eczema stuff the dramatic weight it apparently deserved and then move on. John starts the episode in way over his head, plea-bargaining feebly with the district attorney and getting only a tailor recommendation for his trouble. Then he loses Naz as a client entirely, and ends the hour standing outside that tailor shop, a full slate of eczema-based foibles immediately behind him and immediately ahead, gazing sadly at a fancy pair of shoes.

Perfect! Very poignant. Nicely done. That’s that, then. But no, Sunday night we were right back at it: the Crisco, the chopsticks, the steroids, the compounding embarrassments, the visceral disgust on the faces of everyone Stone encounters, save Naz or Naz’s parents.

There are redeeming moments, and reams of exquisite Richard Price dialogue to soften all these pummeling blows. (Stone’s very next line, after the whole “you can stop staring at my feet” thing, is, “You know what I really resent? Attractive young women telling me I remind them of their fathers.”) But, look: We’ve got four measly episodes left. (At least until it turns into an “anthology series” next year.) Four hours! That’s, like, one episode of Mr. Robot. There will be, presumably, further investigation. There will be, presumably, a trial. We will learn, presumably, who the murderer is, and what terrible things Naz (who might be the murderer!) will do or have done to him while he languishes in Rikers in the meantime.

Which is to say: We don’t have time for this. We never did, really. People are suffering. Naz especially — and John, too, sure — but also us. And also this guy:

Here is Detective Box, resignedly staring at a photo of John Turturro’s bogus feet. Let Box live! Let him shine! Give him roughly 15 times his current per-episode screen time, starting now. After the pilot, Bill Camp immediately emerged as The Night Of’s breakout star, but he has faded into the background since, stuck in the evidence room while we all perch on John’s shoulder and visit Duane Reade for the umpteenth time. No pair of gross-looking feet should upstage this man (not even James Gandolfini’s). Even amid a universe rife with injustice, cosmic and otherwise, this is too much to bear.

Please, please, please knock it off, The Night Of. Lest the next uncontrollable crying jag be ours.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.