CSI Meets Oz in HBO's 'The Night Of'

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John Turturro (left) and Riz Ahmed in 'The Night Of.'
John Turturro (left) and Riz Ahmed in 'The Night Of.'Credit: HBO

As the credits of the first episode of “The Night Of” were rolling on my screen, I was inclined to file it in my short term memory depository (aka my brain) as another tale of an innocent bystander. Except that he – the protagonist – was not, strictly speaking, a bystander, in the sense that he does not actually stand by, but rather drives, and is even driven – although much later he does, eventually, take a stand. Nor can one say – even after the last episode – that he is completely innocent. Indeed, even he starts to doubt his own innocence. And yet, when all was said and done, viewed and discussed at length (bar spoilers) this is a story of strange and menacing things happening out of nowhere, to basically good and decent people, and marking them for life.

The protagonist of the preceding paragraph is Nasir (Naz) Khan, an American-born student of Pakistani origin living in New York, who tries to get to a party organized by members of his basketball team. He “borrows” (read “takes without permission”) his father’s yellow cab to get there. It just so happens that a mysterious damsel, possibly in some kind of distress, psychological or physical, boards the cab (he doesn’t know how to turn the “on duty” sign off), and as he is too nice to ask her to get out, he drives her where she wants to go: first to the beach, where she offers him a pill, and then to her house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. There they drink, snort cocaine (she clearly tempts and dares him), play risky party games with a knife, and make love. He wakes up in the kitchen, climbs the stairs to the bedroom and finds her very dead, with multiple stab wounds all over her body, and a lot of blood on the wall.

In case you are furious at me for spoiling your future viewing pleasure, relax: it is the very premise of the series, setting the stage for a TV hybrid of three (at least) crime procedurals, involving police work (“CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and many others), both sides of the law (“Law & Order” for the prosecution, “Perry Mason” for the defense), and correctional facilities and their inmates (“Oz”). Within this triangle of edges (all of them sharp) and vertices, Naz finds himself trapped. Naz is played by Riz Ahmed, his big brown eyes taking everything in and giving out very little in terms of soul, strangely calm under the unusually eerie circumstances. All seemingly want what is best for him, and even better for them (I’ll tell you all about them anon), and in the process he – and the viewers – find themselves “forged,” like a knife, in the fire and water of life in general, and the criminal justice system in particular.

“Criminal Justice” was the title of a British TV series produced by Peter Moffat in 2008, which ran for two seasons of five episodes each, and was seen by more than 5 million British viewers. The idea behind it was to follow the tribulations of an individual within the justice system, on his or her way to a trial and beyond. There is a nagging feeling that underneath it all a small prefix lurks, implying that whichever way the cogs of the system may turn, it somehow becomes a story of “Criminal (in)Justice.”

American remake

The HBO miniseries “The Night Of” is essentially a remake of the first season of “Criminal Justice,” changing the scene to New York and the color of the cab from black to yellow. It was on in the U.S. from June 24, on demand online, and since July 10 on HBO, to resounding critical acclaim. There was a rather unusual surge in ratings from 774,000 viewers for episode 1 to 2.1 million for episode 8 (usually the trend goes the other way). In Israel it was screened on Yes Oh and now can be found on Yes VOD.

There is quite a story behind the making of the remake. The original idea was to cast James Gandolfini in one of the main parts – that of a small-time lawyer finding himself in the right place at the right time, in a police station where a young man, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, is being held. That would have been a nice change of fortune for the larger-than-life gangster Tony Soprano – to become a lawyer fighting for justice for his seemingly guilty client, but Gandolfini’s untimely death intervened. The project almost got shelved, but then was resurrected to become a sort of memorial to Gandolfini (he gets credit as an executive producer, and shares it with Moffat, and with Richard Price, who wrote the American version, and Steven Zaillian, who directed it) with the part now being offered to Robert De Niro. That got nixed due to conflicting schedules. Finally, the part of Jack Stone the lawyer who fights both for justice (or at least fair play, or a passable plea deal for his client) and his professional survival against too many odds, was given to John Turturro.

Turturro indeed dominates the series, with his mackintosh coat draped around his disheveled figure. He wanders around with his very no-nonsense, seen-it-all before manner, being pushed out the door and getting in again through the window. On top of being a smart and self-aware take-off on crime procedurals, this is very much an effort – characteristic of recent American TV series – to be seen as much more than an entertainment formula, even aspiring to be labeled as “art” (cf. “True Detective” and “Fargo”). “The Night Of” is full of atmospheric shots of an artistic nature (faucets dripping, cats wandering through the frame, shots included for their sheer visual value). The tendency to invest the nitty-gritty of a gruesome plot with meaningful details is sometimes carried to an extreme – for instance, with the eczema that plagues Stone’s feet. Long minutes of screen time pass with him tending to his feet, in closeups. It is, possibly, a comment on a malady of the judicial system – sore skin that is a sore sight, an affliction of the body that reflects ailments of the soul (it is based on Moffat’s personal experience) – but the result is, at least in this viewer’s view, rather gross.

The other vertices of the triangle that holds Naz in its confines are the very human detective, Dennis Box (played by the wonderfully warm and weary Bill Camp), and the inmates who share his life in Rikers Island jail, where he awaits his trial. And there are all the other usual and unusual suspects, Naz’s parents and their milieu, among them one of his father’s partners in the ownership of the Yellow cab, played by the well-known Palestinian-Israeli actor Muhammad Bakri.

The very title of the series, “The Night Of,” leaves the viewer in the air: Of what, precisely? Is it a veiled reference to “Night of the Living Dead” or to “The Night of the Long Knives,” or to Night of Qadr (Destiny or Decree) mentioned in the Koran (Naz is a Muslim, and Islamophobia is very much a factor in the plot)?

To answer that, you will have to watch the series until the final episode. As I have still to do that myself, I dare to guess that the answer is vague, because that is what the series is really about. It is very much up to the viewer to decide what happened on the particular night when Naz found himself trapped. Very possibly it is all about that puzzling substance called life, in which one is always on the verge of becoming either a victim or a culprit, or both, trying to maintain one’s innocence while doubting it at the same time.