So let’s start by talking about what the show isn’t.
It’s not remarkably new or innovative. It doesn’t take the prestige drama format and try anything remotely unique with it. It’s still a story of men and women (tho mostly men, amirite?) who walk in shades of gray between right and wrong, good and evil, and it’s set in the New York criminal justice system. There’s nothing here you haven’t seen done on other shows many, many times before.
But rarely have you seen this type of show done so well. Every element of The Night Of drips with fastidious quality, from the perfectly framed shots (mostly courtesy of series co-creator Steven Zaillian, though The Theory of Everything director James Marsh drops by for an episode) to the quietly literary scripts by crime novelist and series co-creator Richard Price (with occasional assists from Zaillian).
Everything about The Night Of feels like a sigh of relief — that HBO can still make a drama this good, that the seemingly threadbare crime drama genre still has some life in it, that there are still new spins to be found on "low-rent but good-hearted defense attorney" or "innocent kid in over his head."
In short, The Night Of doesn’t try anything new, because it’s confident it can make good decisions that will keep it on track.
Here are five of them.
1) The story unfolds like that of a novel, taking its time
They really want you to understand the life of Nasir "Naz" Khan (an electric Riz Ahmed), so that you’ll instantly see why a mysterious woman getting into the back of his father’s cab — which Naz has borrowed, without permission, to go to a college party — feels like a dreamy escape from his everyday life.
That woman ends up dead, and Naz — asleep and high on any number of substances when she is murdered — is the primary suspect. We don’t see the killing happen, and thus don’t see the killer, but because we’re already on Naz’s side, more or less, we likely suspect he had nothing to do with it.
This certainty is what The Night Of spends its next several hours unraveling, even as it introduces a handful of other credible suspects in the woman’s murder. Meanwhile, by taking its time and telling its story methodically, The Night Of can also build its vision of New York City as a place quietly seething with tension, whether racial (the Pakistani Naz is called several racial epithets reserved for Muslims and Arabs), class-based, or power-based.
Like a number of other TV series — The Wire and Orange Is the New Black, most notably — The Night Of depicts its characters as being generally good people who are trapped in systems that cause them to do despicable things. (Price, who worked on The Wire, comes by these comparisons naturally.) Yes, the show is a whodunnit, on some level, but it’s mostly about what it means to disappear into the criminal justice system.
2) The show doesn’t skip past the stuff that other series gloss over
The Night Of really does want to work through the entire legal process, step by step. It devotes a whole episode to the contemplation of a plea deal — even though we know there are several hours left in the season and suspect Naz won’t take the deal for that very reason.
This gives the series the added power of explaining several quirks of our criminal justice system.
It’s easy to see why a first-time offender like Naz is immediately targeted for a generous plea deal, even though he’s accused of a heinous crime. It’s also easy to see why the cops don’t particularly want to entertain other theories as to who killed the woman; that would mean reopening the case, when there’s more than enough evidence to tie Naz to the murder. Everyone is overtaxed and overburdened.
The Night Of is also smart about depicting the way a media circus slowly develops around the case, and how said media circus is far more interested in Naz’s trial because the victim was pretty, young, and white. When a similar crime befalls a black woman, the cameras stay far away.
At its heart, the show is a really long episode of Law & Order that pays a lot more attention to the "order" side of things. (With that said, it’s probably also the best TV legal drama since the early seasons of The Practice.) And by chronicling every step of the process, The Night Of digs deeper into the many rotten layers of the American criminal justice system in a way that many other shows simply haven’t.
3) The characters are actual people, not stereotypes
Yes, you’ve encountered the defense lawyer with a heart of gold a million times before. But you’ve never encountered anyone quite like John Turturro's Jack Stone, an ambulance chaser who seemingly accidentally ends up attached to Naz’s case when he’s just in the right place at the right time.
And you’ve never seen a variation like the one that Price’s script and Turturro’s performance have created. Jack is a guy who spends almost as much time worrying about his eczema as he does worrying about his casework, and someone who tries to do right by the murder victim’s cat.
Turturro carries with him a rumpled dignity that instantly invigorates a character who could have felt tired in other hands. When Jack enters the story late in the first episode, it feels like Dad is coming home after a business trip. (The Night Of started life as a star vehicle for James Gandolfini — who is still credited as an executive producer — and he was set to play the Jack role.)
But there are tons of other great characters scattered throughout the show, all of them played by tremendous actors. The Wire and Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Kenneth Williams turns up as a jailhouse kingpin who takes Naz under his wing, while the great stage actor Bill Camp exudes both empathy and treachery as a casually fascist detective.
Yes, all of this has been done before. But at every turn, Price’s writerly flourishes give The Night Of’s characters more depth than the usual stock figures. The result is surprisingly invigorating.
4) The series exudes a casual diversity
Make no mistake: The Night Of is the kind of dude-driven crime drama that HBO cut its teeth on. There are significant female characters, to be certain, but the scales tilt slightly in favor of the XY chromosome pair.
However, in contrast to the overheated machismo of True Detective, The Night Of exudes a partly cloudy empathy. Price and Zaillian show compassion for all of these characters, and they offer a vision of New York that intuitively understands the divisions between races and classes.
In particular, they take their time developing Naz’s family and showing us the family’s experience with the sort of casual racism that dismisses anyone from countries like Pakistan as terrorists in the making. In an early scene, Naz is walking with the woman he’s just met when he’s accosted by two men who mutter invective, thinking he can’t hear them. He does, and turns, seeming ready to confront them, before sagging back inside himself. It’s a telling moment.
But the series’ diversity extends beyond the Khans. Different religious creeds become a subtle plot point, as the show finds room to include characters of nearly every major racial background, all the while delving into how they fit into the greater tapestry of New York.
The Night Of, in other words, is a testament to how this sort of dude-driven crime drama can still pack a punch. It’s at once familiar and surprisingly different.
5) It looks darkly gorgeous
Zaillian and cinematographer Robert Elswit don’t attempt anything too flashy. Some shots that run parallel to characters as they stride down long corridors in the prison stand out — but the pair is always careful to frame scenes so the actors seem trapped in labyrinthine underground passages, or overwhelmed by the giant buildings looming behind them.
The Night Of’s imagery seems to be arguing that you can’t fight city hall — somewhat literally — and the frequent use of tracking shots and framing that contains actors in the lower half of the screen make for a visually distinctive show that’s fun to look at.
Make no mistake: Nothing on offer here is as wild as the swamp fever dream of True Detective’s first season or even anything from your average episode of Mr. Robot. But Zaillian and Elswit subtly create a world in which characters trapped at one end of the web might create tiny ripples that become earthquakes at the other end.
That sort of meat-and-potatoes filmmaking is elemental to The Night Of’s appeal: Find a good story, cast good actors, and make sure it looks like a million bucks. Then get out of the way and let the audience do the rest. It’s too soon to tell, but I’ll be very surprised if the show doesn’t become this summer’s big TV obsession.