While Stranger Things was unequivocally the sleeper hit of last summer, and deservedly so, there was another gem that garnered much critical praise. Though decidedly not a nostalgia-evoking easter-egg hunt, rife with pop culture references, or indeed a crowd-pleaser in terms of its subject matter, The Night Of not only lives up to the hype, but in my opinion, far surpasses it.
Everyone who watched the mini series talked about what an authentic piece of compelling drama The Night Of is, and boy, they weren’t lying. It’s captivating, right from the very first scene, all the way down to the last silent moments of the closing titles.
A young man of Pakistani descent is arrested for the brutal murder of a pretty young woman, after a night of drugs and alcohol-induced sex, and we follow his journey from the moment he decides to head into Manhattan in his father’s cab, to the first few hours of his life after the trial.
It sounds like every other murder mystery/detective story/court drama ever made, but it’s a far cry from just about anything in that genre; above all, it’s a character drama. As a piece of masterfully made, compelling television, it is as unpretentious as it is impressive. As a story, it is as intriguing as it is absolutely devastating.
Set in New York, it doesn’t elevate the city to an actual character in the plot, the way most NYC-based shows do. We don’t get the usual imposing skyline shots, nor even a passing glance at the glamorous side of the city. The location might have been interchangeable, if not for the significance of 9/11 as a minor plot point to add depth to the lead character.
Similarly, there’s no glitz and glamour in the courtroom, no fancy lawyers in bespoke suits, no Orange Is The New Black view at the ins and outs of prison life, no shiny CSI labs. The show bravely veers off the beaten whodunit path and focuses not on the open-and-shut case from the perspective of the investigation, but on the reality of the drawn-out time the lead spends in limbo, awaiting trial and trying to cope with the harsh reality of life behind bars. It’s dark and gritty, just like the cells in Rikers.
Much like the wheels of justice in real life, the pacing is slow and deliberate. The case drags the way cases do in the real world – yes, even high profile murder cases. The central plot of the show isn’t the crime itself, nor the agonizingly long wait for the trial, but Naz’s journey.
We go far beyond character development as we follow him through the flawed justice system; his is a character transformation, which of course goes far beyond the physical, from shy, meek, geeky college student to hardened criminal, even though he’s not one. And that’s what so gut-wrenching about his story.
His attorney’s story is no less compelling than Naz’s own. A small-time lawyer whose M.O. so far has been cutting deals with the D.A. to get his equaly small-time clients off the hook, his transformation is no less significant, though a bit more subtle.
Much like Naz’s story begins mainly because of a wrong place, wrong time situation, Stone takes him on as a client because he just happened to be at the right place, at the exact right time. He’s probably the most unlikely lawyer to tackle the kid’s defense, and, once again, the show doesn’t gloss over that fact, but instead drives it home.
Throughout the long wait, from the time of his arrest all the way to his trial, we follow not only Naz, but everyone else whose life is affected by the main plot line. We take a close look at Stone’s life, but also at Chandra, the young attorney at the big firm, whose lap the case lands on when bigs-hot partner Alison Crowe decides to dump Naz when he screws up his end of the reduced sentence deal. We follow Sgt. Box, the lead detective who handles the investigation just before he retires, but continues to work on loose ends because something just doesn’t sit right with him. We follow Naz’s family, his mother’s doubts about his innocence, his father’s refusal to turn his back on his son even when his livelihood is at stake.
Details matter on the show. They are elevated into plot points, where other shows (or movies) might rarely even mention them.
The fact that evidence will remain in police custody and possibly never be returned, as is the case with his father’s cab, is important.
Every single piece of dialogue in the prison is important, and crucial to Naz’s survival, from the contradictory advice he received from fellow inmates when contemplating whether he’ll accept Freddie’s protection, to his reluctant descent into drug use and smuggling.
Stone’s unfortunate case of eczema is important; from the way it flares up when the stress gets too much to his immense pride at being able to wear shoes again when those chinese powders temporarily work their magic, the hideous close-up shots to his unsightly sandal-clad feet and his desperate effort to deal with his condition almost becomes a secondary storyline of its own, unfolding parallel to the investigation and trial.
Throughout all eight episodes, everyone serves a purpose, no detail is a throwaway. From the desk officers on duty at the precinct to the put-together lawyer who approaches the Khans and offers her firm’s services pro bono, every character matters. Even the snarky pharmacist who embarrasses Stone, or eye witnesses Trevor and Duane Reede, who are among the few who offer some much needed comic relief (and seriously, who didn’t crack up at Trevor’s “who’re you trying to be, Michael Jackson or Mickey Mouse with these gloves?” line at the laundromat?).
Even poor Andrea Cornish’s kitty becomes a character, and is acknowledged by as such by severely allergic Stone as he bids her goodnight and informs her of his comings and goings through closed doors. And let me just say, Stone instantly endeared himself to me the moment he started caring for the cat, just as he broke my heart the minute he returned the poor kitty to the pound, right up until the emotional last seconds of the final episode.
[requisite spoiler warning]
All this might have been less impressive had the show not stuck to its guns with the realistic angle right to the very end. The Night Of makes a point of addressing how hit-and-miss Naz’s case was – indeed, most cases that are eventually tried in a court room. The split verdict is a strong reminder of how easily things might have gone the other way, as is the detective’s insistence of pursuing the other lead – which he arrived at very late in the trial – and the D.A.’s refusal to retry the case.
And what we get is a good, hard look at how it could have all played out, had Sgt. Box not been a man of integrity, had Stone been discouraged by the Khans’ dismissal, had any one of the hold-outs in the jury been persuaded to change their votes and remain in deliberation until they came to a unanimous conviction (or acquittal). Salim goes from cabbie to delivery man; Safar goes from sales person to cleaning lady. And, more importantly, Naz goes from terrified newbie going through the motions at Rikers to tattooed tough guy, tight with the gang leader, smoking crack and beating up inmates.
The situation isn’t magically set to rights when Naz gets out. Just like in real life, this kind of story rarely gets a happy ending. There’s no doubt that the Khan family’s wounds will take a while to heal, if at all. Naz isn’t quick to forget how his mother pulled away from him in her moments of doubt; his entire family is shunned by the local community. Nothing is as it was before, least of all Naz himself. His release from prison doesn’t signal a triumphant return to the life he once knew; the real “celebration” isn’t the awkward family dinner, but his contemplative moments by the river as he indulges in his newly acquired drug habit. It’s soul-crushing and devastating and lingers much longer than the 8-episode arc of the show.
And as for Stone? His winning closing argument doesn’t propel him into the stratosphere of the storied underdog attorney who dazzled the masses with his legal prowess. He returns to his humble home and the cat he rescued. His wife doesn’t run back to him with open arms, his son is probably no less embarrassed to be seen with him, and he’s back to wearing those god-awful sandals and scratching at his feet with chopsticks. Life goes on, as it does for newly unemployed Chandra. And it’s not glamorous and wonderful; it isn’t even particularly gratifying, despite the positive outcome.
A couple of side notes:
Coen brothers’ favorite John Turturro is excellent as always, and the rest of the cast were no less brilliant, but can we talk about the revelation that was Riz Ahmed? The young Brit gives the performance of a lifetime – his eyes alone speak volumes even when he doesn’t utter a word; when he does talk, his accent evolves as much as his character does (and if not for IMDb, I’d have no idea he’s not an American).
No less impressive than every other aspect of the show, from the teleplay to the direction and photography, the score was simultaneously beautiful and haunting, and complimented the scenes and the general mood perfectly.
I only have but one gripe about this otherwise flawless show, and I’d call this nit-picking but I’m sure any Pakistanis out there would consider this rather significant:
When bigshot attorney Alison Crowe decides to visit Naz’s parents to try and steal the case out from under Stone, she brings along second generation Indian junior partner, Chandra; she speaks Hindi to the Khans, and they reply in the same language.
Does no one in Hollywood know that they speak Urdu in Pakistan? Rather, does no one care enough to do the research? Crowe’s reply of “close enough” when the young lawyer tells her that her parents are from Mumbai is indicative of the general public’s ignorance when it comes to distinguishing between races and cultures hailing from the Middle East, not to mention the islamophobic bias (and is pointed out plenty of times throughout the show). But a simple google search of “Pakistan language” would have sufficed here. Kumail Nanjiani does a brilliant bit about this very same gripe in his Beta Male special, and it’s as to the point as it is hilarious.
It’s annoying that they’d go to all the trouble of creating a show that’s much more realistic than your average crime drama, only to screw up details that, however minor they might seem to you and me, would probably be of importance to any viewer of Pakistani descent.