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Cast your mind back to when you were younger, maybe in your final year of college. You’re sneaking out to a party but you get a little side-tracked because you meet someone, your night gets a bit crazy and you end up wasted and having a one night stand. You pass out, and wake up in the kitchen of this stranger’s house, you head up to the bedroom and find the person you’ve just spent this wild night of passion with has been murdered. Stabbed to death. What the fuck happens next?
That’s the premise for the HBO mini-series ‘The Night Of”.
Originally called Criminal Justice and based on a BBC series of the same name, The Night Of is a crime story that, even though it is a work of fiction, really reminded me a lot of the hit podcast Serial.
I’m not big on courtroom/legal dramas, there’s only a few really good ones in my opinion, and quite frankly you can’t beat To Kill a Mockingbird. Which sounds pretty highbrow coming from this usually sci-fi, superhero, comedy, horror, action movie reviewer. “Oooohhh you can’t beat to kill a mockingbird darlinnnng, Gregory Peck is just delicious as Atticus Finch”… I’ve got enough drama in my life already! Movies and TV are my escape.
HBO just know how to put on great shows. I lazily stumbled across this one and I was hooked from the first episode.
It is top notch story telling.
Riz Ahmed is a young actor that is on the rise my friends (you might remember him as the Pilot in Star Wars Rouge One or seeing him pop up in the Nightcrawler or Four Lions) he plays a shy Pakistani-America college student named Nas.
Nas is a typical young man about to transition from school into the real world and he’s faced with all the challenges that come with being that age, however as a Pakistani-American he also feels alienated in his own city because of his Pakistani descent. I guess that comes with the territory in a post 9-11 New York City. Which, having visited is a largely beautiful, proud and hospitable city, but I’ve only experienced it through a privileged white males eyes, so what the fuck would I know?
One night Nas boosts his dad’s taxi to go to a party in Manhattan. He’s stopped at a red light, a young girl thinks his cab is available and hops in, she’s hot and mysterious, Nas is a young red blooded dude, he obliges by giving her a ride. As a result of this fleeting moment in time his party plans go completely off the rails and to cut a long story short he ends up spending a passionate evening with this mysterious stranger, with a little bit of drugs and alcohol on the side. He wakes the next day to find her dead and that’s where the rollercoaster takes off Nas is up to his ears in shit as he finds himself at the centre of a murder investigation.
This is a fantastically well written story by Richard Price, Perter Moffat and Directors Steven Zallian and James Marsh which makes the whole series incredibly easy to immerse yourself in.
The people that inhabit this story are all very normal, moving through their lives, with their own problems coming together to get to the bottom of this crime and figure out what happened to the poor girl at the centre of the investigation.
The cops aren’t these moral crusaders for justice, they’re overworked and under-resourced just trying to get to the end of their shift and more than happy to pass on any work that might lead them to doing any overtime when they’re already exhausted. In other words, they’re normal people doing a job. Nas’ parents are resilient, doting and just trying to make their way in a society where it’s clearly an uphill battle given their ethnic background. The lawyers range from being down on their luck ambulance chasers to self-serving ego maniacs, only wanting to be a part of this case to boost their profile. Then there’s the government officials who just want to move this one out of the headlines, get it processed and move onto the next crisis.
It all sounds a bit grim but it’s actually really refreshing to see something put together with one foot planted in what could pass as the real world. As a result, when you think about the situation Nas finds himself in you really feel for how fucked this kid is going to be, regardless of whether he did it or not and whatever decision is handed down.
There’s no clean-cut heroes or villains, every character has strengths and flaws. In fact, if there is a villain in this series it’s quite possibly the justice system that all the characters find themselves at the mercy of. I think The Night Of really holds a mirror up to that system and the society that lives within it.
It’s not all about Nas though. The supporting cast are superb in this show. Bill Camp as detective Dennis Box is a great, as is Amara Karan as legal intern who is in way over her head Chandra Kapoor.
But, the absolute show stopping standout in this series is John Turturro as John Stone—the bottom-feeding lawyer who spends his evenings trawling police stations in search of clients. He ends up stumbling across Nas and convinces him that he is the man to represent him. He is a self-deprecating realist who has been beat down by the system to the point where he can compartmentalise the cases that come in front of him and just look at them as a means to pay the rent, he is a troubled guy, with a questionable conscience that appears to have left whatever glory days he once had very far behind him.
His psychological makeup aside, he also suffers from almost crippling eczema which sees him covering his feet in Crisco, wrapping them in cling wrap and wearing sandals throughout. It’s an interesting plot device, as the tension mounts and he gets deeper into the case his condition worsens and it just kind of adds to the whole plight. If Turturro’s John Stone is the hotdog, his eczema is the mustard.
Interestingly John Stone was originally to be played by Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini before he passed away. He was already in the unaired pilot episode and took the lead as executive producer of the show, of which he is still credited. Following his passing the character was going to be occupied by Robert DeNiro who ended up backing out due to scheduling conflicts.
Massive shoes for Turturro to fill, or should I say greasy sandals. Turturro was actually mates with Gandolfini too, he went to his wedding, and he attended his funeral. I don’t know if that connection has anything to do with how well he puts this character over, but he honestly acts his arse off in this show and it is so great to see someone who has been such a fantastic supporting actor in so many movies step up into a central role and own it the way he has here.
It doesn’t get any more perfect than The Night Of, it’s dark, brooding, incredibly well shot, and asks some very powerful questions of society, justice and the machinations of the legal system in general.
Clocking in at 8 Episodes it’s a great rainy weekend binge watch. It doesn’t overstay its welcome and you’ll probably find you knock it over quite easily in a couple of days. It ticks all the boxes.
As I said before, I’m generally not a fan of courtroom or legal dramas but The Night Of really is something special, 5 out of 5.
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