Is HBO's 'The Night Of' Worth Watching, or Just Another 'True Detective'?

Be not afraid, Richard Price and Steve Zaillian's new crime drama has effective, if familiar, charms.

From the urban aerial views of opening credits, to its noir-ish color palette, to its slim, ominous font branding, HBO’s new crime thriller The Night Of spells post-True Detective television. But this is, mostly, only an aesthetic diversion, and that’s for the best. The show is largely the work of Richard Price, the author and screenwriter behind acclaimed novels Clockers and Lush Life and a bunch of great episodes of The Wire. Unlike True Detective, Price’s work tends toward the quotidian, mining details for symbolic significance, as opposed to TD showrunner Nic Pizzolatto’s examination of the cosmic. Eeriness is incidental, not a general modus operandi.

So if you are worried about drowning in a well of HBO prestige-TV pretension when delving into The Night Of, which opens up with the daunting hour-and-a-half long premiere which ran on Sunday night…well, perhaps you should be wary. However, the well is not the one you might expect. HBO has a lot of explaining to do after the embarrassing, dick-swinging, hackneyed trope collage that was the now-discontinued Vinyl. A series from a time-tested commodity like Price is probably a safe and wise direction for the network to be heading at this juncture. But the question remains: What does The Night Of truly add to crime television? Is it anything you would truly regret passing on?

The detailed portrait of the murder conviction and trial of Nasir Khan (Nightcrawler’s Riz Ahmed) — a college student from Jackson Heights, Queens accused of a brutal murder — is crime television for the age of nu-true crime programming. It’s drawn-out and highly detail-oriented: The pilot unfolds in painstaking real-time. Parallels to the first season of the genre-defining podcast Serial are hard to mistake.

The likeness is not just the result of both narratives involving a Muslim man being accused of a crime of passion, or damning evidence working against him. It is the prevailing struggle, dramatized across both series, to determine whether the defendant is a “good boy” or not — how a smart, conscientious, loving son and honor-roll student could come to brutally kill a young woman. Price manages to show us the night of the crime in the first episode of the HBO series while leaving Naz’s innocence uncertain. The prevailing impression, however, is that he was, somehow, set up. Throughout the show, we get flashes of Naz’s hazy memories of the night, without clarification of their import: the primary times the show gets Pizzolatto-delic.

If there are TV stereotypes here, they are the time-tested gambits of the crime procedural rather than the ‘10s cerebral event drama. The NYPD’s head detective Box (Bill Camp), the show’s most morally ambiguous figure, blasts opera in his car like Inspector Morse and Kurt Wallander before him. The de facto anti-hero, John Turturro’s “no fee ‘til you’re free” pick-up defense lawyer, Jack Stone, has a broken family life and dissipated, anti-social habits (e.g., scratching at his chronic eczema with a letter opener, only maintaining functional sexual relationships with prostitutes, and so on). For all the characters working on the case, the “work” pushes them away from functional, civilized living, just like HBO’s most iconic fuck-up police detective — one who Price once helped breathe life into — Jimmy McNulty.

Riz Ahmed as Nasir Khan

Barry Welcher, HBO

Yep, this shit has The Wire all over it, down to the prominent castings of alums Michael K. Williams and J.D. Williams, the former Bodie Broadus. Like that show, The Night Of does an admirable job of creating a feeling of the atmosphere, geography, and infrastructure of a particular metropolitan area — here, it’s in an extremely limited amount of time as well. There’s a certain gratification to seeing Box theorize the path of Naz’s stolen cab in Sharpie across a map of NYC’s five boroughs; the geography of the precinct in which Naz was arrested, the courthouse, and Rikers Island become important.

Here, Price does what he does best: wringing inherent meaning and, more importantly, deeper audience engagement by being existential. He weaves details too banal for the Law and Order-esque mystery shows of the world and more standard dramatic beats into a hard-to-characterize tapestry. If any clear moral emerges out of all the careful world-building, it is one that both The Wire and your favorite true-crime saga of the past three years also share: The American criminal justice system is broken, but it has always been. From the brokenness has come a new, very clear game to be played, and everyone is shackled to the roles they have to play — that many others have played before them. The amount of potential “good” anyone can do is incremental.

Perhaps what is most special about The Night Of — in later episodes which I will not spoil here — is that it also explores the poisonous hierarchies and rituals of prison life. This was tangentially crucial to The Wire, but The Night Of explores the psychology of this experience on a deeper level. Where Making a Murderer could only capture Steven Avery’s life through phone recordings, The Night Of goes inside Rikers to detail how prisoners come to terms with their incarcerated reality, and the events which got them there. From there, the show ripples out to explore how and why the “criminals,” as well as everyone else affected by the crime, undergo seismic changes as a result of it.

If The Night Of occasionally makes unrealistic plot jumps — or occasionally, makes Naz and Stone’s misfires a little too ill-advised to seem believable — it makes up for it with a expansive humanistic vision, as well as the tightly controlled pacing and terse verbiage which makes the best crime shows impossible to tear one’s self away from. No, the Price-written show is nothing vastly unfamiliar. To some, it will scan as exactly what was advertised. But there are, from Naz trembling in the precinct waiting room on, palpable truths to be learned about the reality of life in the system. In The Night Of, time doesn’t need to be a flat circle for this world — so much like our own — to be breathtakingly well-realized.

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