You’d think that remaking an acclaimed show would be one of the easier jobs on U.S. television. After all, it’s not like someone’s handing you a “Dr. Ken” script and saying, “Here, make this funny.”
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Yet, let’s be honest, there are more laughs in “Sophie’s Choice” than there are artistically or commercially successful TV remakes. For every “Homeland,” there are a dozen “Gracepoint” fiascos (and the dire redo of “Broadchurch” flopped despite shipping over the original’s star and creator).
So we should be grateful for “The Night Of,” which debuts Monday at 23:00 on Yes Oh (it’s halfway through its run on HBO in the United States, with talk of a second season in the air). As well as busting the myth that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition, it’s also an intelligent, completely gripping crime drama.
Like all good dramas, it has a fascinating back story laced with tragedy and intrigue. The BBC series upon which it’s based, “Criminal Justice” (2008-2009), was written by ex-barrister Peter Moffat. He drew on his 10 years at the criminal bar to shine a light on the British penal system and was just as interested in showing the harsh realities of life for a prisoner on remand as solving a murder case.
The show ran for two seasons in Britain and showcased the talents of Ben Whishaw (“The Hour” and, more recently, the terrific espionage drama “London Spy”) and the late, great Pete Postlethwaite.
HBO snapped up the remake rights in 2011 and brought in the heavyweight writing talents of Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) and Richard Price (“Clockers”). In truth, this almost seemed a tad excessive – like hiring Lin-Manuel Miranda to write your school play.
Next to sign up was James Gandolfini, who saw the role of a street-smart lawyer as the perfect follow-up to some small, long-running gangster show he’d done for HBO. Sadly, Gandolfini passed away in June 2013 at 51, casting doubt on the series’ future. (A similar thing happened with Shalom Auslander’s Showtime comedy “Happyish,” which lost its mooted star when Philip Seymour Hoffman died in 2014. It later made it onto small screens with British comedian Steve Coogan attempting to fill Hoffman’s shoes; no prizes for guessing that things ended saddish on that one.)
Robert De Niro signed up to replace Gandolfini on “Criminal Justice” (as it was still called at the time), but then dropped out in April 2014 citing a scheduling conflict.
Fast-forward two years and one clumsy title change later (presumably a reference to “Where were you on the night of,” although it could also be “The night of the long knife,” given events in the first episode), and HBO is finally getting some much-needed critical love for a drama that doesn’t actually feature dragons.
One could argue that the long gestation period has worked in the show’s favor. Then again, another recent HBO show, “Vinyl,” was in development for 20 years and look how that one turned out (or on second thoughts, don’t bother looking).
From London to New York
Having just rewatched the first episode of the British “Criminal Justice” series before seeing the feature-length debut of “The Night Of,” it seems the smartest thing Zaillian and Price have done is to retain most of the original plot while relocating it from London to New York. (It feels a little remiss that the opening credits proclaim that the show is “created by” Zaillian and Price but not Moffat, who gets an executive producer credit along with Gandolfini and half of the New York phone book.)
Like in the original, our protagonist, Nasir (or Naz), is a dorkish young man who still lives at home with his parents. (We should mention at this point that Riz Ahmed, the British actor who plays Naz, is actually 33.)
He seizes upon a chance to escape his conformist life in Jackson Heights, Queens, after being invited to a party in Manhattan by a cool college acquaintance. So, one Friday night – October 24, 2014, a screen caption dutifully tells us, as if this is some real-life crime recreation a la “Making a Murderer” – he “borrows” his father’s yellow cab and heads toward Downtown.
He keeps on annoying Manhattanites who are trying to flag down a cab because the taxi’s “on-duty” light is lit (haven’t these people heard of Uber?), and eventually the inevitable happens and someone gets into the cab while he’s parked.
And, wouldn’t you know it, it’s the most beautiful but troubled young woman in Manhattan (Sofia Black-D’Elia), who asks him to take her to “the beach.”
We can tell Naz isn’t really a cab driver because he doesn’t immediately whack the meter on and take the scenic route to Long Island. Instead, he says he can probably “do a river,” thus beginning our series’ epic journey – one that will take us into the heart of darkness, but only after a stop at a gas station for snacks.
Given that the eight-part series (three more than the U.K. original) is about one man’s descent into the hellish justice system and his attempts to survive both penile and penal probes (don’t ask; let’s just say that men’s prison won’t be half as much fun as Litchfield Penitentiary), it’s probably safe to reveal that Naz isn’t arrested for impersonating a taxi driver.
One episode in, there are two significant changes from the U.K. series – and only one of them is funny. In the original, a young British police officer discovers a crime scene and promptly tosses his cookies in spectacular fashion, being treated sympathetically by colleagues. In the remake, a police officer witneses a similar crime scene (“It’s the Battle of Gettysburg”) but is instantly warned against being sick by a battle-hardened New York detective (“Tell me you’re not going to barf!”)
The main alteration, though, gives “The Night Of” the potential to dig much deeper into American society than “Criminal Justice” did about Britain’s. Ben Whishaw’s character was a real milquetoast (his mom even brings him a sandwich at the police station), a mouse thrown into the lion’s den. By making the new protagonist of Pakistani descent, the remake puts race front and center.
At various points Naz is described as a “towelhead,” “Arab” and “Gunga Din” – and lord only knows what Donald Trump is going to say when he finds out about this young Muslim sitting in a police cell. It’s a smart move, especially if the series manages to portray his family as more than just stereotypical, hard-working immigrants (although the jury’s still out on that one).
There are two other key characters introduced in the first episode: Police Det. Dennis Box (Bill Camp), who announces his presence by rolling up to the crime scene in the middle of the night with Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” duet blasting from his car speakers. A no-nonsense dude, he looks like he could play good cop/bad cop all by himself.
And then there’s Jack Stone (John Turturro), the lawyer whose eczema has suddenly become the unlikely talk of the internet (although, the web being the web, maybe that’s not such a surprising development).
Stone’s first appearance comes just 12 minutes before the end of this 79-minute-long episode (I know, that’s the kind of observation that would help me survive pretty well in any prison, right?), but it’s well worth the wait.
It’s impossible not to imagine what Gandolfini would have been like in the Stone role (Turturro looks like he’s going to nail it, of course). But it’s also impossible not to imagine what De Niro must be thinking if he’s watching this classy drama. I can only hope he’s regretting skipping it for “The Intern” or – oh dear lord – “Dirty Grandpa,” and is currently on the lookout for a new agent.