If the first two hours are any indication, HBO’s upcoming miniseries presents a return to dramatic form for the network. With a pedigree that includes names like Richard Price, Steve Zaillian and Robert Elswit, “The Night Of” is a compelling drama that sounds great and looks even better. It explores exactly how much can go wrong in a single night and how the flaws in our justice system risk long-lasting consequences.
We’re introduced to Naz Khan (Riz Ahmed), an adorably nerdy student who gets invited to a party in New York’s Lower East Side by a basketball player he tutors. When his ride falls through at the last minute, Naz takes his father’s cab without asking and drives from his home in Jackson Heights, Queens, into Manhattan. A beautiful young woman gets into the cab and asks for a ride, derailing his plans and beginning the fateful evening of the title. Naz is later accused of a crime he says he didn’t commit, and he experiences the disorganization and manipulation of the legal system from the inside. His plight is further influenced by his appearance and status as the son of two Pakistani immigrants.
While Ahmed was a key element in what made “Nightcrawler” so compelling, he’s even better here. In the first two episodes (presented as a single unit at Tribeca), he’s tasked with showing a variety of emotions, with fear and uncertainty chief among them. He’s immediately likable and sympathetic, even though the details of the night aren’t yet clear to the audience. In a role initially to be played by James Gandolfini before his death, John Turturro stars as Jack Stone, an ambulance-chasing lawyer who agrees to represent Naz. He’s out of his league with the severity of the crime, but he shares insight into Naz’s plight that the naive young man doesn’t see as he claims his innocence. Turturro’s presence adds dry wit and a bit of quirk to the proceedings, which would otherwise lean crushingly dark. And though Bill Camp (“Midnight Special,” “12 Years A Slave”) is a smaller name, he should see his profile rise in his portrayal of Detective Box, who tries to manipulate Naz in attempting to close his case.
“The Night Of” has a remarkable sense of place. It was shot entirely in New York — and feels like it — and it pays equal attention to the smaller geography of individual locations including a police station and an Upper West Side apartment. It doesn’t cheat the audience or its setting; instead, it does an excellent job of letting the viewer know exactly where you are now in relation to other spots you’ve seen and how that plays a role in each scene and the series overall. That approach resembles another powerhouse, “The Wire,” which did similar work in Baltimore. It’s too early to make definitive comparisons, but “The Night Of” is more similar in feel to David Simon‘s landmark series as well as “Show Me a Hero” than to other procedurals currently on TV. Co-creator Price wrote for the “The Wire,” and though this show has a similar slow burn in its first segments, it picks up momentum and what ultimately happens to Naz in the first two hours feels inexorable.
With Paul Thomas Anderson favorite Elswit for episode one and “House of Cards” DP Igor Martinovic for episode two, “The Night Of” somehow seems at once modern and like a throwback to ‘70s crime films set in New York. It begins with a gorgeous black-and-white credits sequence with an emphasis on the city’s grids and lines. From there, it presents a look that falls in line with the quality audiences have come to expect from an HBO prestige drama.
Through Turturro’s lawyer character Stone, “The Night Of” hammers home the idea that truth and justice aren’t always interconnected. It’s a message that will appeal to fans of “Serial” and “Making A Murderer,” but it has the dramatic weight to find a bigger audience as well. Co-written by Price and Oscar-winner Zaillian, this miniseries may be fiction, but it presents a dramatic New York world that feels very real. [A-]