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Emmys 2017: Revisiting the Pitch-Perfect ‘Night Of’ Pilot

The first hour of the 2016 miniseries is an all-time-great episode of crime television

Riz Ahmed HBO/Ringer illustration

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There is only one (1) quick conversation about eczema in The Night Of’s 80-minute pilot episode. Which, based on the gritty and glacial HBO murder mystery’s subsequent penchant for constant loving shots of John Turturro’s gross feet, may alone make it the best episode overall. It is, in fact, the show’s undeniable high point — and an all-universe crime-show pilot. For lots of reasons, but also the foot one.

Premiering in June 2016, the eight-episode limited series felt like a prestige Law & Order, starting with its creators: Oscar-feted writer-producer-director Steven Zaillian and god-tier crime author and screenwriter Richard Price. Sunday, it’s up for 13 Emmys in the limited-series categories, starting with Best Limited Series overall (maybe), and spreading out to everything from Best Casting (probably) to Best Cinematography (already won). Four actors — Turturro and Riz Ahmed as leads, Bill Camp and Michael Kenneth Williams as supporting — are up for statues, too. They might as well have gotten the calls about their nominations while filming the pilot.

The Emmys’ eligibility window (June 1 to May 31 of the following year) can have a bizarre time-warp effect. The Night Of’s finale aired in August 2016, a full year — and several decades of scripted television, and a century’s worth of sociopolitical calamity — ago. Also, the show as an eight-episode whole got a little wobbly in the homestretch, if we’re being honest. It doggedly refused to answer most of the murder-mystery questions it raised. It forced a few levelheaded characters to suddenly do incredibly knuckleheaded things. It relegated Bill Camp to an excellent supporting role when he could’ve been a world-beating lead. And, as aforementioned, it pointed the camera at Turturro’s feet at every opportunity.

Whether The Night Of qualifies as a Great Show is debatable; whether the pilot qualifies as a Great Pilot is not. It was fantastic to watch in real time, and is well worth revisiting now as an archetypal crime-show setup: the time, the place, the crime, the victim, the accused, the cops, the lawyer, the atmosphere. That the show’s other seven episodes couldn’t live up to the first one only further burnishes the myth.

Opening scene in The Night Of HBO

Titled “The Beach” and directed by Zaillian (who’s up for his own Best Director Emmy), the pilot introduces Nasir “Naz” Khan (Ahmed), a mild-mannered Muslim college kid living with his parents in Queens. The shot above is his parents’ living room; Naz has just driven off in his father’s cab without anyone’s knowledge to go to a theoretically glitzy party in Manhattan. The image is equal parts dull, gorgeous, and suffocatingly portentous.

Naz drives into Manhattan and can’t figure out how to turn on his off-duty light; a Dour Pixie Dream Girl named Andrea (played by Sofia Black-D’Elia) climbs in with a strange request.

Sofia Black-D’Elia in The Night Of HBO

As crime-show victims go, Andrea is a little much, a somberly whirling dervish of sadness and tequila and drugs and knives and sexual availability. They might’ve bused her in from True Detective, if True Detective ever spent much time humanizing its various victims. But her terse, sultry banter with Naz in the cab is your first clue that Richard Price, long beloved as a Master of Dialogue, is behind the wheel here verbally.

ANDREA: “Why tonight?”

NAZ: “There was, like, this party I didn’t want to miss.”

ANDREA: “Was.”

NAZ: “Is.”

ANDREA: “Now.”

NAZ: “Yeah.”

ANDREA: “So you’re missing it.”

NAZ: “Yeah.”

ANDREA: “Because of me.”

That rapid-fire was / is / now / yeah is a masterly flourish, easy for any

hardboiled-crime wannabe to attempt but very difficult to make work as Actual Words spoken by Actual Humans. This scene is the high-class version of the witty, casual conversation that opens most episodes of Law & Order, right before somebody finds a dead body; the first innovation here is that one of the people talking will be the body. The second innovation is that it sounds like real people talking — smart but not perfectly articulate, funny but not overly polished, playful but not distractingly goofy. As a character, Andrea might not’ve held up to much scrutiny over multiple episodes, but in her very limited screen time she and Naz scan as real people, not chess pieces or walking chalk-body outlines.

Sofia Black-D’Elia in The Night Of HBO

They head back to her Upper West Side brownstone, some gritty luridity ensues, and then Naz wakes up at the kitchen table, dazed and oblivious, only to find Andrea in her bedroom stabbed to death. He panics, runs out of the house, breaks back into the house to get his keys, grabs a bloody knife for good measure, runs out again, drives off in a frenzy, and gets pulled over almost immediately.

Ahmed is fantastic in the lead role here, navigating the arc from winsomely meek to lovelorn to scared shitless in the pilot alone. He deserved the love from both the Emmys and the Star Wars expanded universe. But The Night Of truly hits its stride only when Naz is overtaken by the cops and the detectives and the coroners and whatnot, because all those people are amazing, or at least the way they speak is amazing. Prestige-TV-wise, cops and detectives tend to be either erudite super-geniuses (see Sherlock) or plainspoken heart-of-gold neighborly types (see Fargo). Given the New York City backdrop here, it’s also hard not to go back to Law & Order, a perfectly fine and workmanlike show full of workmanlike people who still reel off punch line after punch line. What separates Price’s work here is a caustic weariness, a bitter nonchalance that helps all these people make it through another shift. What they say is funnier because it never really feels like a joke.

Police officers in The Night Of HBO
A police offer in The Night Of HBO
A scene featuring police officers’ dialogue in The Night Of HBO

Bonus points for this exchange between two cops, immediately after discovering Andrea’s body:

COP 1: “Are you puking? Tell me you’re not puking.”

COP 2: “I’m gagging, I’m not puking, OK?”

COP 1: “For fuck’s sake, you gonna do that, you can do it in the trunk of your car. This is a nice neighborhood.”

Writing like this makes Price worthy of all the accolades, and makes The Night Of worthy of Price. The journey that Naz takes in the pilot — from his house, to the cab, to Andrea’s house, to a drunk-driving arrest, to a cop car that ends up driving him back to Andrea’s house to watch from the outside as her body is discovered, to the precinct where, at excruciating length, the bloody knife in his pocket is finally discovered — is wildly improbable, but also wildly engrossing.

It’s a nightmare scenario populated with the wittiest and most exasperated agents of law enforcement imaginable, from Afton Williamson as the exhausted cop who first picks Naz up to Ben Shenkman as the withering cut-up answering phones at the precinct. The dialogue throughout is so blunt and sharp and blue-note-perfect it almost qualifies as magic realism. But you never doubt that they’re reacting as real people would react. Cop shows rely on their cops to project a world-weary, seen-it-all, unflappable vibe — the various heroes of the various CSIs bicker and flirt and bullshit amid piles of dead bodies and never seem bothered in the slightest. There’s plenty of that nonchalance here, too, but it’s a nice moment when the guy who shows up to photograph Andrea’s body takes a deep, sad breath before he starts snapping pictures. And when the knife is discovered, and Naz emerges as a profoundly guilty-looking murder suspect, they put him in a cell and all gather around to stare at the security-camera footage of him sitting in the cell. It’s an acknowledgement that something this garish doesn’t happen every day.

A scene featuring security monitors in The Night Of HBO
A scene featuring a group of police officers in The Night Of HBO

In the light shirt there is Bill Camp as Detective Dennis Box. He’s set up as Naz’s major adversary, the grizzled and dogged and fearfully revered arbiter of truth and justice whose job is to nail Naz for a crime we’re reasonably certain Naz didn’t commit. Box pulls up to the crime scene blasting opera; he pulls in a shifty, trash-talking eyewitness (J.D. Williams, a.k.a. Bodie from The Wire) for questioning with an almost violent ease.

Bill Camp in The Night Of HBO

The pilot climaxes with a Naz-Box interrogation-room showdown that would double, for Camp, as an excellent teaser clip when his Best Supporting Actor category is aired Sunday night:

What we’re gonna do when we’re done here, just so you know, is run some tests. You know why? Because you’re a crime scene, Nasir. Just like the house, and the cab, and Andrea. And it’s our job to collect everything we can from a crime scene. And here’s what we’re gonna find if you ask me. Her in the cab, the cab on her. You in the house, the house on you. You on her, her on you. The knife on you, her on the knife.

Naz insists he didn’t do it. Box shrugs and says they’ll talk again later. And as the series progresses, they do, but The Night Of might peak with that first Box speech. Its rhythms are easy enough to attempt — You in the house, the house on you — but it’s very rare to encounter great writing that doesn’t feel like Great Writing, like every word out of everyone’s mouth is a sonnet, symmetrical and pristine. You can imagine that dialogue gracing the first season of True Detective, but you can also imagine the hundreds of words of screwball tough-guy philosophy that would’ve accompanied and diluted it. Box is just tough, just wise, just articulate enough. You almost wish the show’s next seven episodes never left that room, that table. But of course, Naz needs a lawyer.

John Turturro in The Night Of HBO

John Turturro, as the flagrantly disrespected subway-poster lawyer John Stone, may very well walk off with the Emmy Sunday night, and that would be just lovely. He shows up only at the tail end of the pilot, but eczema aside, he emerges in subsequent episodes as the show’s One True Hero, jovial and self-deprecating and affably valiant. But he’s almost better as a brief grace note, just one more face and voice in a huge ensemble of wildly appealing people just trying to do their jobs. Fargo, for example, is an often great show where every character is a capital-C character, a riotous collection of tics and idiosyncrasies. But The Night Of’s pilot does more with less; every human and every line is but a humble brick in a monument of lush, suffocating dread. It’s an inexorable slow-mo car crash wherein every word both sings and stings, a gorgeous setup that unfortunately would’ve made any possible comedown feel like a letdown. It’s entirely possible that in the very best theoretical version of this show, it would still peak early, peak here. But there is no shame in that, if you peak like this.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.