Sidney Lumet’s 1982 courtroom masterpiece “The Verdict” is oft-referenced today in regard to Paul Newman’s show-stopping performance, but it’s the script — the construction — that’s marked the film’s indelible impact on storytelling. Newman plays Frank Galvin, an alcoholic ambulance chaser trying to scrounge together whatever money he can to keep the lights on, when he’s handed an easy payday: a comatose client whose family is suing for malpractice. The case is expected to settle out of court — and net Frank a fat check for very little work — but upon seeing the woman lying there, helpless, left to die or live out her days on a respirator, a fire is rekindled within the once prominent lawyer. He takes the case to trial, against the advice of his peers and the wishes of his clients, leading to a verdict that only really matters to him: Was Frank right to give up after a string of bad luck, or are there cases, people and ideals still worth fighting for?
Whether you’ve seen the film or not — and if you haven’t, by all means, go watch it right now — the story should be familiar to you. It’s a formula copied time and time again, both in film and television, to humanize the justice system; to show why it exists at its core, and not just as thousands and thousands of tricky words written in legalize so as to only be decipherable by top-tier lawyers. In reality, that kind of passion is beaten out of you in law school, if not shortly after. But that doesn’t make for a good movie… unless the lawyer rallies; unless he finds that one, special case; unless it matters to him (or her, though rarely her) as much as it matters to his client.
And this is where “The Night Of” picks up in Episode 2. About a week ago, we wrote our review of the premiere episode, which focused almost exclusively on the worrisome evening of Naz (Riz Ahmed), a college student whose lucky night goes south faster and with more dire consequences than anyone could have imagined. Well, maybe one man could: Jack Stone. Played by John Turturro (in a part originally intended for James Gandolfini, whose name is still attached to the limited series as an executive producer), Stone is a well-known lawyer for all the wrong reasons. The cops mock him because he hangs around the jail house, hoping to pick up desperate inmates without a better option. Other lawyers smear him because his clients are easily poachable (if they’re worth poaching), and judges know him because of the reputation resulting from how he practices law.
In the practical sense, he needs a big case. But, for his soul, he needs the case. And as we saw in the premiere episode, there’s certainly something special about Naz’s case, if only because all the evidence is lined up against him — and the kid still maintains his innocence. While Naz’s guilt or innocence is certainly a fascinating discussion in and of itself as the series progresses, through seven episodes of the eight total, “The Night Of” seems to shift focus away from its rapidly morphing original subject and instead studies the evolution of its initially stubborn supporting player. The case and its result becomes more about what it’s doing to Jack than Naz.
While that may seem like a mistake considering a) suddenly “The Night Of” is another show about a middle-aged white man after initially focusing on a Pakistani-American protagonist, and b) we’ve seen lawyer stories before, but not this tale of a man seemingly incapable of murder who’s so elaborately framed for a gruesome crime (maybe). But the choice is justified and motivated by, depending on your point of view, the A-/B-story’s dark subject matter. Naz’s life becomes so vividly bleak the audience needs respite from a slightly lighter outside world (or at least provide hope to viewers who may not be prepared for the inauspicious nature of Naz’s journey). He’s not a comatose symbol. He’s still a person. His journey just transitions from active to passive, becoming more about the limited series’ overall message, while John’s is designed to pick up the torch for the personal perspective established by Naz in the premiere.
It’s in this transition that “The Night Of” flexes its subtly brilliant powers of seductive storytelling. On its face, the eight-part miniseries could be seen as a reimagining of the procedural, given how much it has in common with the initial scenario of so many “Law & Order” episodes. Younger viewers may see it as a narrative take on “Serial,” illustrating how a system fails those it is designed to protect. Steve Zaillian’s drama does both, but it’s got far more going on under the hood than meta commentary on its premise. By actively engaging on personal and political levels, Zaillian sucks the viewer into a nightmare scenario wholly dependent on two verdicts: first, whether or not Naz is found guilty, but also if he really did it.
Even after seven episodes, it’s hard to say for certain we’ll learn the latter point (I think we will), but both verdicts will affect how “The Night Of” is remembered emotionally and progressively. Rarely is there a program where so much of its overall impact relies on not even the final episode, but two crucial decisions. Part of the fun has been guessing where it will go, and much of my admiration comes from how well Zaillian has balanced the series’ many themes with our underlying desire to simply know what happens to Naz. Racial undertones have stacked up enough weight to make their point without further explanation. Characters are disturbingly real, giving this 2014 tale an air of authority. But what Zaillian wants us to take away from these finely-detailed eight hours of narrative will come down to who Naz is, what happens to him and how that affects Jack.
It’s modern retelling of “The Verdict,” only this time our fate is as tied to Jack as Jack’s is to Naz.
“The Night Of” premieres Sunday at 9pm on HBO.