The Night Of review: a good crime drama that falls short of greatness | The Knowledge Dynasty

The Night Of review: a good crime drama that falls short of greatness

HBO’s new show challenges notions about race, religion and class in relation to the US justice system but it isn’t as radical as it might have been

No one can say that The Night Of isn’t good television. HBO’s new limited crime series, which kicks off its eight-episode run on Sunday at 9pm ET, has everything we’ve come to expect from prestige pieces that covet Emmys: morally ambiguous protagonists, gritty cinematography, a story with social ramifications, a score that sounds like a kazoo got stuck in a bug zapper, and a role for Michael K Williams to play a quiet tough guy. But just because it’s good doesn’t mean that it’s great. In fact, unlike some other awards bait, it has a hard time transcending itself to say something truly original.

The story might sound familiar to anyone who listened to the first season of Serial. A college student, Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed), steals his father’s taxi to drive himself to a party. A young woman gets in the car thinking it’s for hire and Nasir drives her around New York City while they drink, take drugs and have sex back at her place. He wakes up in the middle of the night and finds her dead, stabbed 22 times, and doesn’t remember killing her. Just like in Serial, the golden boy’s image is repeatedly tarnished by small infractions and circumstantial evidence until everyone questions whether he’s capable of killing someone.

Of course, there is some question about his innocence, but anyone who’s looking for a mystery should dust off an old copy of Miss Marple instead. In fact, the detective work is so bad that it takes six episodes for anyone to ask how this young woman with no job has an entire brownstone on the Upper West Side to herself. That’s the first thing that would pop into the head of any New Yorker watching.

The point of the series isn’t to unravel the crime, but to look at the toll it takes on Nasir Photograph: HBO

The point of the series isn’t to unravel the crime, but to look at the toll it takes on Nasir as he goes into the criminal justice system an innocent and it slowly turns him into a hardened criminal. There’s also the impact it has on the life of his lawyer, Jack Stone (John Turturro), an ambulance chaser with ads on the subway shouting no fee until you’re free. Stone is exactly the type of hang-dog sad sack you’d expect to see in this kind of program. He’s divorced, his kid is embarrassed of him, he sleeps with prostitutes, he suffers from extreme and unsightly eczema on his feet. He never lived up to his true potential, and there is just something about this case (and this kid) that makes him put everything on the line to win it. He’s like Saul Goodman from Better Call Saul, but if he didn’t have any ties in electric colors and had all the fun sucked out of him.

There is plenty of subtext in The Night Of that glows through the surface, like anti-freeze floating in a puddle. It’s what you would expect: how poorly Muslims are treated in this country, how the American prison system is fundamentally flawed, how there are no winners in murder cases, how prejudice of all kinds seeps into every action of ours, and how unintended consequences of those prejudices can ruin lives. That subtext doesn’t save the show from seeming a bit like any of the other crime shows on television, it just makes the show feel like How to Get Away with Murder if it just took three semesters of post-colonial literature and was on its way to a gallery opening.

Just because it is expected doesn’t mean that its not compelling storytelling or a show that many will find worth watching. It’s more realistic and humane than just about anything else on the tube, but it just doesn’t have that thing that makes you want to say: This is my favorite show in the whole world and I can’t wait for the next episode to find out what happens. Maybe that’s because the subject matter is so weighty and the implications so ponderous. Or maybe because, as deft and original as this is, it ticks all the boxes of the things that discerning television viewers are meant to be on the lookout for.

Screenwriter and Clockers author Richard Price and director Steven Zaillian are doing good work here adapting the 2008 UK drama Criminal Justice. If HBO were smart, they’d let these two take a stab at reinventing True Detective into something tight and coherent that won’t smother the audience under ridiculous speeches and the bodies of brutalized women (though this is yet another HBO show predicated on violence toward women). As daffy as it turned out to be in season two, at least True Detective was approaching the world from its very own perspective. The Night Of, for how good it is, doesn’t seem to have that original of a vantage point, and that this well-made show can’t catapult itself to greatness is the biggest crime of all.

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