This review is based on the first three episodes of the series and may contain spoilers.
In the pilot episode of HBO’s new prestige drama miniseries “The Night Of,” we watch as Nazir “Naz” Khan, a quiet, slightly nerdy Pakistani college student makes every wrong move possible. He “borrows” his dad’s taxi cab to drive to a party in Manhattan, but gets sidetracked by a pretty girl who hops in his cab and asks to be taken to the beach. They party a little bit, pop some molly, and have sex. In the morning, Naz wakes up to find her brutally murdered beside him. Did he somehow kill her in the night? Or is he the helpless victim of some horrible set of circumstances? Even before we know what exactly Naz will get himself mixed up in, we can feel the evidence mounting against him. Surveillance cameras record his passage through a toll booth and convenience store, strangers witness practically his every move. But, inside the murdered girl’s house, the one place where witnesses or camera footage might have been helpful to Naz, the only witness is a mounted deer’s head.
It’s a clever opening, allowing us to see Naz’s night out simultaneously through his eyes and through the eyes of the authorities who will be piecing it together. In its attention to the minutiae of investigation, “The Night Of” recalls recent popular phenomena like “Serial,” “Making a Murderer,” and even the O. J. duo (“The People v. O. J. Simpson” and “O.J.: Made in America”). Like these works, “The Night Of” interrogates the limits of our knowledge. How do we know what we know? How can we prove someone did something when we can’t see it for our own eyes? “I don’t want to be stuck with the truth,” Naz’s two-bit lawyer (John Turturro) tells him. Later, the lead detective on Naz’s case (Bill Camp) tries to convince Naz that he can trust him because, unlike the lawyers, he just wants to find the truth. Naz wants nothing more than to tell the truth, but who would believe him? And would it help anyway?
Based on a British series called “Criminal Justice,” “The Night Of” was a passion project for the late James Gandolfini, who receives a posthumous executive producer credit, but it seems very much the work of Steven Zaillian, who co-wrote the series with Richard Price, and directed all eight episodes. Zaillian—primarily known as a writer but also the director of films like the underrated family melodrama “Searching for Bobby Fischer” and the surprisingly rigorous “A Civil Action”—tends to work with well-worn formulas, but through careful character shading and an attention to real-world detail, he makes them seem fresh. And that’s exactly what he does here. “The Night Of” will not blow anyone away with its shocking originality; it is essentially a good ol’ fashioned murder mystery, but one with beautifully drawn characters, fine-tuned acting, social detail (which will hopefully be expanded on in future episodes), and well-paced suspense (particularly in the pilot, which quietly ratchets up the tension, almost without you noticing).
Khan, with his big puppy dog eyes, is charming and exudes innocence. His performance is reminiscent of the real-life Adnan Syed, whose ingratiating manner was the essential component to “Serial”’s success. One simply can’t believe a guy like this could do what he’s accused of. Brilliant character actors fill in the margins, including Camp, whose beautifully understated average-joe act belies his wiliness, and Michael K. Williams, who plays a powerful prison lifer with menace so quiet, it seems to be lost on Naz entirely.
It remains to be seen whether “The Night Of” will deliver a satisfying conclusion to its mystery. (Anyone who stuck with “The Killing” has been burned by this sort of series before.) But I’m more interested in whether it will expand on its themes or simply circle around them. The first three episodes of “The Night Of” hint at potentially fascinating avenues of inquiry—the Pakistani community in Jackson Heights, Queens, casual racism toward Arabs, the “Twilight Zone” that is the American criminal justice system, and the nature of truth in the judicial process. No series could fully explore all of these, but hopefully “The Night Of” will probe at least a few of them.
As a final note, it’s worth pondering why American media continues to approach the criminal justice system primarily through the eyes of non-black, non-latino outsiders. “Making a Murderer,” “Serial,” and “Orange Is the New Black” have all told stories about criminal justice centered on non-black, non-latino characters even though black males are the single largest sector of the prison population, and black people are far more likely to serve time in prison than whites. More than one-third of black males without a high school diploma is currently behind bars. That’s a national crisis, and while these works do not ignore the racism in the criminal justice system, none of them has told its story from the perspective of young black men. Even “The Wire” “balanced” its focus on young black men with an equivalent emphasis on the police. I write this not to disparage “The Night Of” or any of these other works, only in hopes that the people in a position to create this work will someday find their way to centering the perspectives of the people who most directly targeted by the carceral state.