I’ll avoid spoilers as much as possible in this review, but given the whodunit elements of the The Night Of‘s story, consider watching the show before reading if you haven’t already.
With Richard Price’s latest project The Outsider premiering on HBO this Sunday, I thought I’d take this occasion to finally put up a post about his 2016 HBO “limited series” The Night Of. I’ve been holding off on this because I expected additional seasons to be forthcoming and wanted to review the series as a whole in one fell swoop, like I did with The Wire. But while The Night Of‘s success with critics and audiences led to revival chatter that lasted over a year after its initial run, there are currently no signs that it’ll return. Of course, one can never say die in the TV landscape that brought us The Conners and a third season of Twin Peaks, so I’ll just cover The Night Of‘s lone existing season here and review additional episodes if and when they come to fruition.
The years preceding The Night Of‘s premiere on July 10, 2016 (my birthday!) were a mixed bag for Richard Price as a screenwriter. The Wire fit his sensibility perfectly, but all his credited TV and film projects following his involvement with that show had been disappointments: The 2006 movie adaptation of his novel Freedomland failed to recapture the praise its source material garnered; his police procedural NYC 22 found him, in his own words, “micromanaged to death” by CBS; and his feature adaptation of the Tom Rob Smith novel Child 44 “stank up the joint” by his own admission. He’d been hurt by Hollywood’s shift away from the mid-budget films that were his bread and butter in the ’80s and ’90s, and it was beginning to seem like The Wire had been a mere fluke in his otherwise rocky search for a place in the new show business ecosystem.
That’s why, as a fan of Price’s work, it was so gratifying to find that The Night Of, while hardly his most personal project, did seem to finally let him off the leash of boneheaded studio/network interference, giving him the space to once again show off his distinctive and captivating storytelling skills. Many of his recent projects had covered the sort of urban crime-based material he’s come to be associated with, but this was the first in years (not counting his acclaimed 2015 novel The Whites) with the wry, weary sound of his own authorial voice. Price himself, never one to mince words, seemed genuinely happy with the result, calling the show “a home run” when I interviewed him the week of the premiere. And this achievement didn’t go unnoticed: Viewership grew steadily, reaching 2.2 million same-day viewers for the finale, and the series ended up on a variety of TV best-of lists, including a recent TIME roundup of “The 10 Best Miniseries of the 2010s.”
Of course, as with many of his TV and film projects, Price wasn’t starting from a blank page. In fact, he and collaborator Steven Zaillian (who directed seven of the show’s eight episodes and co-wrote the final four with Price) were approached by producer Jane Tranter to create an American version of the first season of the BBC drama Criminal Justice, written by Peter Moffat and broadcast in 2008. Night Of viewers will find the broad strokes of Criminal Justice‘s story familiar: A young man (Ben Whishaw in the BBC version) steals his father’s taxi for a night out on the town and meets an alluring young woman (Ruth Negga), only to later discover her stabbed to death and find himself arrested for her murder. As he struggles to prove himself innocent in court with the help of a shabby, eczema-ridden attorney–er, “solicitor” (Con O’Neill), he must also survive his stay in jail, where he receives dubious mentorship from a hardened criminal (Pete Postlethwaite).
Many of the changes that differentiate The Night Of from its source material derive from Richard Price’s habit of borrowing heavily from real life in his work. Once the story had been transplanted to New York, he felt that their cabbie couldn’t plausibly be a white American (“I haven’t had an unaccented Caucasian cab driver in decades“) and decided to make the protagonist Pakistani, partly because he had visited Pakistan with his wife, novelist Lorraine Adams. This choice opened up the scope of the story to include examinations of immigrant communities and Islamophobia, and it fortuitously linked the show to the phenomenally popular first season of the documentary podcast Serial, which was released in 2014 and also concerned a Muslim student charged with the murder of a young woman. Finally, this alteration led to the casting of Riz Ahmed, a British actor of Pakistani descent, as 23-year-old Nasir “Naz” Khan. Ahmed would go on to win an “Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie” Emmy for his performance on the show, and has since played major roles in such blockbuster features as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Venom.
Price also made use of his granular, street-level perspective on crime and law enforcement in America (and the tri-state area in particular). This quality famously informed his work on projects like Clockers and The Wire, and he applies it here to Naz’s legal ordeal (referring to bureaucratic justice system procedures in multiple interviews as “stations of the cross” which the accused must pass through) as well as the hierarchies and customs of New York’s notorious Rikers Island jail: “When [former Rikers inmates] tell you the way they get tattoo ink is by melting chess pieces,” Price told Vox, “how could you not use that? God is in the details.”
Other changes to the story were motivated by a simple need for additional material: While nearly all of Criminal Justice‘s plot points were reused in The Night Of, HBO ordered an eight-episode season, doubling the length of the BBC’s four-episode run. This allowed for the introduction of a variety of supporting characters who could serve as red herring suspects for the murder, and, more importantly, elevated Naz’s down-on-his-luck defense attorney John Stone (“Ralph Stone” on the BBC) into co-lead status. Stone’s eczema itself became a major subplot on the show after serving as a minor detail in Criminal Justice.
Stone was originally going to be played by The Sopranos‘ James Gandolfini, who was an executive producer on the project and even acted in the original version of the pilot way back in 2012. After Gandolfini’s untimely death in 2013, Robert De Niro was announced for the role of Stone before backing out due to a scheduling conflict and finally being replaced by John Turturro, who had appeared in previous Price films The Color of Money and Clockers and apparently almost signed on to Mad Dog and Glory as well. This was a rare star turn for Turturro and he made the most of it, communicating a sense of irrepressible compassion via hangdog cynicism and earning a nomination in the same Emmy category ultimately won by Ahmed.
And while Ahmed and Turturro nail their marquee roles, there are great performances to be found throughout the supporting players, from The Wire‘s Michael K. Williams as Naz’s Rikers mentor Freddy Knight (a composite of multiple Criminal Justice characters) to Bill Camp as stoic homicide detective Dennis Box to Glenne Headly as Alison Crowe, the high-powered lawyer who briefly handles Naz’s case pro bono. Steven Zaillian (along with Episode 4 director James Marsh) got great work pretty much across the board from a huge ensemble cast, which is particularly exhilarating because this is, again, the first time in a long while that Price’s celebrated gift for dialogue has been given free rein outside the pages of his novels. The Night Of‘s characters operate in an environment of senseless violence and grinding bureaucratic absurdity, and their words convey both seen-it-all world-weariness (“It’s gonna get pretty photogenic out there,” a cop says of a murder scene sure to attract the attention of neighbors and the media) and bewildered obliviousness (“Clothes?” a police officer asks a witness, looking for a description of a suspect, only for the witness to nod and answer, “He wore clothes”) with authentic-sounding and revealing obliqueness.
As a Price fan, I was particularly amused to see a couple of his trademark turns of phrase reappear here: “Freddy wiggles five fingers up on that tier,” a Rikers inmate tells Naz, “and five people are dead in the Bronx,” paraphrasing a line used in several other Price works (more commonly as “He wiggles his fingers, five people die in Oklahoma”). Similarly, Price has identified a drunk’s eyes as looking like “two cherries floating in buttermilk” not just here but also in NYC 22 and his novels Lush Life and The Whites. The Night Of even brought us Price’s first onscreen cameo since the 2006 Freedomland movie, as an illicit Viagra dealer who meets up with Stone in a bar bathroom.
While critics generally appreciated The Night Of‘s excellent execution, complaints did emerge by the time the series had wrapped up. Some commentators were unsatisfied with the final(?) explanation of the murder or the seemingly inconsistent actions of Naz’s rookie attorney Chandra (Amara Karan). Others found fault from more of a social justice perspective, focusing on the show’s alleged disinterest in its central “dead girl,” the casting of Iranian and Indian actors as Naz’s Pakistani parents, or the handling of race within the justice system: Mayukh Sen, writing for Vulture, argued that “The Night Of traffics in pitting Naz against his black tormentors… [T]he main tension hinges on the question of whether Naz will become one of ‘them’ instead of examining how Naz and his fellow [Rikers] prisoners are casualties of the same carceral state.” Indeed, the show’s insistence on the unique nature of Naz’s situation (“You smell like innocence,” Freddy tells Naz, “[and] that makes you one of a kind”) seems at odds with the attempt at a systemic critique of a broken system–he’s surely not the first innocent person, in either legal or spiritual terms, to find himself in a Rikers cell.
And while this next point isn’t a flaw so much as an unavoidable feature of a realistically grounded show, certain moments in The Night Of feel surprisingly dated upon rewatching in 2020. This is of course most notable in the long-shelved pilot episode, which features a “teabagger” reference, the casual misgendering of an apparently trans arrestee, and a joke about a communist-obsessed “throwback” cop which now has a tinge of irony given the resurgence of socialism as an ideological force in America. But I imagine that even the overarching subject matter of a man wrongfully accused of violence (including sexual assault) against a woman would now be viewed at least partly through the lens of the Me Too movement. Less than four years after it aired, The Night Of has become a striking illustration of what a dramatic cultural inflection point the year 2016 ended up being.
But, again, it’s also a master class in engrossing storytelling, and it provided some important programming continuity for HBO: Almost exactly a year after the smash hit True Detective crashed and burned in its second season, The Night Of proved that there was still an appetite for darkly atmospheric premium cable crime dramas, paving the way for Big Little Lies, Sharp Objects, the 2019 return of True Detective itself, and Richard Price’s latest project, The Outsider. He seems to have carved out a niche for himself at HBO, and I’ll be happily following his work there while I await the arrival of his next novel. Expect my reviews of The Deuce and The Outsider in October 2020 and March 2021, respectively.
A few other notes:
• Criminal Justice had two seasons, but the second told an entirely new story with different characters. However, The Night Of does seem to have borrowed one idea from that second season: A jailhouse attack involving a sort of homemade napalm made from baby oil and hot water.
• This show went through several title changes, at first re-using Criminal Justice before stripping down to just Crime and then settling on The Night Of.
• While The Night Of‘s fixation on process recalls The Wire, other elements seem to echo more recent Richard Price works: Detective Box’s inability to move on from the Andrea Cornish case after retiring is strongly reminiscent of the cops from The Whites who can’t let go of their titular “white whales,” while a quick reference to the “two-one” precinct sounded to me like a sly nod to NYC 22.
• Director and co-writer Steven Zaillian went on to write The Irishman for old Price collaborator Martin Scorsese.
• Michael K. Williams wasn’t the only Wire cast member to appear here: J. D. Williams, The Wire‘s Bodie Broadus, shows up as a reluctant witness. There were also a couple actors I recognized this time around from having seen them in Richard Price’s next project, The Deuce: Mustafa Shakir (Rikers inmate Victor here/Big Mike on The Deuce) and Don Harvey (“Detective Tomalikis”/”Danny Flanagan”).