The titular evening in HBO's The Night Of, in the words of one character, "started with a stolen car in Queens and ended with a woman brutally stabled to death in her bed." What happened in between is the crux of the eight-part series, which has its official premiere Sunday night. If you're not one of the 1.5 million people who have already checked out the first episode, which has been available on On-Demand since late June, make it a priority this weekend to jump on board.
Co-created by writer/director Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and author Richard Price (Clockers, Lush Life), and based on the British drama Criminal Justice, The Night Of is a classic slow-burn murder mystery. It's also one of the rare shows in this era of binge-watch TV that is best consumed in a week-to-week format, rather than in one sitting (at least until you get to Episode 5, whose ending will make you long for the ability to click "Next Episode"). In short, don't let yourself get too far behind on this one.
The plot follows Nasir "Naz" Khan (Riz Ahmed), a Muslim college student who lives with his parents in Jackson Heights, Queens. On the fateful night, he takes his father's cab without permission in order to attend a party, gets lost, and reluctantly ends up with a female passenger named Andrea after she jumps into the car and ignores his protests about being off-duty. She's young, attractive, and fairly flirtatious, so Naz agrees to give her a ride. Soon, they're back at her place, where she gives him drugs, alcohol, and a lesson in knife play. One thing leads to another, they have sex, and Naz wakes up with no memory of what happened after that, and one huge problem: Andrea's lying on the bed, brutally stabbed to death, and Naz's blood and fingerprints are all over the apartment and the knife. So he does what any novice maybe-criminal would do - shoves the likely murder weapon in his pocket and flees the scene, making enough noise to wake the neighbors as he does so. You can guess what happens from there.
Anchoring the show is John Turturro as attorney John Stone, who represents Naz and is plagued by a roaring case of foot eczema. He's a good lawyer (and, it turns out, an even better detective) but his subway-advertising, ambulance-chasing tactics to get clients make him as recognizable to members of the community as he is disrespected by his peers. It's a role that was initially inhabited by James Gandolfini in the show's original 2013 pilot, so it's hard to watch Turturro without imagining how the Sopranos star would have portrayed the character, though this is an Emmy-deserving turn by Turturro.
Supporting players include The Wire's Michael K. Williams as a prison alpha dog who takes Naz under his wing; Bill Camp as the lead detective, who recognizes early on that something about the case doesn't add up; and Amara Karan as a young defense lawyer. Jeff Russo's excellent opening theme, with its stutter-y strings, is also worth a mention. It carries with it a sense of foreboding, and the rest of the score keeps the tension at an elevated level throughout the episodes.
With Price (who also wrote several episode of The Wire) penning the story, even the ripple effects of Naz's alleged crime are thoughtfully constructed. By Episode 3, its tentacles have ensnared the two men with whom Naz's father shares a cab, who are losing out on their livelihood every day the vehicle sits at the police station, being held for evidence. The series also doesn't shy away from addressing the racial implications of the case head-on. Numerous characters referring to Nazir as "that Arab" (he's Pakistani), and one police officer referring to him absentmindedly as "some Muslim freak," with Naz's parents in earshot.
Ahmed is stellar as Nasir, whose physical and psychological transformation as he adjusts to prison life (in more ways than one) is remarkable. As the series progresses, Naz becomes less and less of a sympathetic character, challenging viewers' initial assumptions about the case. In Episode 5 in particular, we see a side of him that makes us consider... maybe he did do it? And the questions only ramp up from there.
The Night Of is True Detective-like in the sense that, as the investigation continues, the major players come into contact with fringe characters of varying degrees of creepiness, all of whom emerge as would-be suspects. But unlike True Detective, the series never gets bogged down with complexity as these various elements weave together. Given that it's unlikely we're going to see a third season of True Detective, The Night Of is a more-than-worthy replacement on HBO's slate.
Some twists in the first episode seem questionable at best, if not outright forced (before he's even a suspect, Naz gets brought back to the crime scene under "coincidental" circumstances that are very convenient), but for the most part, the storytelling is solid, and the mystery is one that will keep viewers playing along, acting as armchair detectives in the comfort of their own homes. Like any whodunit, we don't know whether Naz committed the crime, but the fun twist of The Night Of is that even Naz doesn't even know whether he did it. Or does he?
The Night Of premieres Sunday at 9/8c on HBO.