Drawing influences from The Wire, this HBO show boldly tackles race in the face of the criminal justice system.
After a string of disappointments and a lot of drama, HBO can finally rest easy with its promising summer murder mystery series The Night Of. Based on the BBC show Criminal Justice, The Night Of follows Nasir “Nas” Khan (Riz Ahmed), a smart young Pakistani American who finds himself at the center of a police investigation after a night on the town goes horribly wrong. The show recalls the procedural aspects of Law and Order and True Detective, but operates more like The Wire in its examination of race and the criminal justice system through the eyes of the investigators and the accused. The show’s first episode, titled “The Beach,” breaks down the events of “the night of” as Nas remembers it, and then some. In true procedural fashion, we get to play detective and guess what could happen next or what bits of information could be relevant to the case as it unfolds. If this first episode’s slow burning suspense is a sign of things to come, then The Night Of has the potential to become one of HBO’s great television series.
The night begins as Nas prepares to attend a party downtown only to have his carpool buddy bail on him at the last minute. Rather than stay home, he secretly takes his father’s cab and on the way to the shindig he meets a mysterious young woman looking for a ride. They detour to her apartment for a wild night of drinking, substance sniffing, sexy times, and a rather disturbing but sort of harmless knife game. A few hours later, Nas wakes up in the kitchen with a fuzzy memory and the sobering realization that the girl is dead. And not just passed out dead – cold, bloody murder dead.
Upon fleeing the crime scene, Nas gets pulled over for a traffic stop by two rookie officers. Smelling alcohol on his breath, the female officer asks him to step out of the car for a breathalyzer test. Before he can blow the whistle, the officers receive a call to investigate a nearby break-in. The cops stick him in the back of their police car to deal with him later and as they make their way to the scene of the crime Nas realizes they are headed for the girl’s apartment. Thus begins a suspenseful series of events as we wait to see the fate of poor Nas at the hands of these bumbling, overworked cops.
The influences from The Wire are apparent in the show’s realistic portrayal of urban life and gritty depiction of law enforcement officers. J. D. Williams makes a cameo as a spirited witness not unlike Bodie Broadus, his street-smart character on The Wire. (The promos also showcase an upcoming appearance by Michael K. Williams.) Screenwriter Steve Zaillian (Gangs of New York, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and crime fiction novelist and The Wire writer Richard Price (Clockers, Freedomland) serve as the show’s creators, drawing from their experiences in crime and suspense genres as they craft together scenes filled with tense realism. Each sequence builds layers of suspense as Nas falls deeper and deeper into trouble, escalating to the climactic body search scene at the police station handled expertly by episode directors Zaillian and James Marsh (Theory of Everything, Man on Wire).
The Night Of is as timely as ever with its exploration of issues of race and the criminal justice system. Just as The Wire exposed black and white racial tensions in Baltimore, Maryland in the early 2000s, The Night Of reveals anti-Muslim sentiment in New York City in 2014. When Nas meets lawyer Jack Stone (finely played by John Turturro), he is asked about his citizenship, race, and politics – or, simply put, how he “feels about America.” Jack even quizzes Nas on his knowledge of potential baseball hall of famers. The show displays the problematic climate of race discussions as one character bluntly uses racist terminology to refer to Nas, while another comes across as too politically correct or perhaps just ignorant, describing Nas as “light-skinned black or Latino” or “could have been Caucasian, sure.” Even if he’s never set foot in Pakistan, Nas is questioned about his American-ness simply because of the way he looks. He is guilty until proven innocent and his naiveté is exploited by veteran Detective Box (Bill Camp) who knows how to get the answers needed to indict Nas. Their interaction serves as prime example of the scary things that can happen once you fall into another person’s control and cannot escape.
While the show does not reveal the actual crime as it takes place, we are with Nas before and after it. We do not know for sure if he is guilty or innocent but we’re with him all the way. We are faced with the challenge to figure it all out as the show progresses. Riz Ahmed – an English actor and rapper recently introduced to Hollywood in Nightcrawler – plays Nas with a calm innocence. It will be interesting to watch his character unfold over the course of the investigation as he is sure to reach a breaking point. John Turturro’s appearance in the pilot is short but crucial, and there is no doubt we will see more of him in future episodes in the role originally slated for James Gandolfini then Robert De Niro (the former retains a posthumous Executive Producer credit on the show). Turturro is a surprising casting choice as the underdog lawyer yet he pulls it off with a tinge of humor (what’s with the sandals?) and his tough-talking swagger.
It may be too early to tell if The Night Of can reach the canonical status of The Wire, but it’s definitely got potential. It will be fascinating to see how race will play in the story especially once Nas enters the prison system and when his family starts to get more involved. The IMDB cast list features a lot of black and brown faces which is a welcome addition to HBO’s typically all-white lineups, save for shows like The Wire of course. Unfortunately, this diverse casting usually only happens in shows about black and brown criminals, though greenlighting a series that touches on race like this is a step in the right direction at least. If this show can deeply explore current issues such as racism and the broken police system while staying true to the integrity of the story, it will make for truly must-see TV this summer.