The best television crime dramas allow the audience to take on the position of amateur detective. They introduce a crime that has occurred without offering all of the details. They produce a primary suspect but permit other suspicious characters to permeate the periphery of the story to allow doubt and outside suspicion to creep in. They also force you to feel the terror and thrill from multiple perspectives, whether it be the victim, suspect, or someone investigating the case.
HBO has had great success with this in the past. True Detective’s stellar first season was a case study on how to do craft the perfect crime drama, wjile coincidentally the show’s disappointing second season displayed everything that could go wrong with a crime drama like this. It is imperative to show and not tell the audience what is happening, allowing them to come upon the facts in an organic way. In season one, the audience was right there with Marty Hart and Rustin Cohle as they solved the mystery. Season two, however, due to too many convoluted storylines that never came to a cohesive head, was reduced to Colin Farrell explaining the entire season in a train station to a character that you still weren’t sure who he was.
On Sunday, HBO’s newest crime drama, The Night Of, premiered and the first hour and half of the show hit all the right notes. Coincidentally, HBO returned to much of the same formula that produced True Detective’s first season.
While The Night Of was based on BBC’s drama Criminal Justice, the similarities with True Detective are ever present. Both were written by novelists, Nicolas Pizzolato for TD and Richard Price for The Night Of, and both have talented directors behind the camera for nearly the entire season, with Cary Fukunaga for the former and Steven Zaillian the latter (the exception being episode four of The Night Of, which will be helmed by James Marsh of The Theory of Everything and Man on a Wire fame). Both series star Hollywood talent with the McConaughey-Harrelson dream team and John Torturro (although Torturro’s role was meant for the late, great James Gandolfini before his death) with emerging star Riz Ahmed (set to star in Rogue One come December), respectively, and both draw on the deep bench of HBO regulars.
The result of returning to the formula that proved so successful in 2014? An all-around brilliant 90 minutes of television.
NOTE: Spoilers from the premier of The Night Of after the cut.
The Night Of begins innocently enough, with Nasir Khan (Ahmed), a young and quiet Pakistani American who is the tutor for a college basketball team. Naz, as he likes to be called, earns the coveted invite to a party with the team along with his friend Amir. He returns home to eat dinner with his father, a New York City taxi driver, mother, who works in a clothing store, and younger brother. Throughout dinner, Nasir’s excitement is palpable, to the point that even his mother’s disapproval does not dissuade him from attending the party.
A night that is seemingly full of promise, however, begins turning south when Amir calls to tell him he cannot drive to the party. Not to let this opportunity to finally make it into a different social circle go to wait, Naz takes his father’s cab without permission and heads to the party. His failure to turn on the cab’s off-duty light serves as the second seemingly unimportant moment that will eventually lead to his downfall.
While searching for direction on the side of the street, a young, beautiful, and mysterious woman (Sofia Black-D’Elia) named Andrea enters the back of the cab with the request of going to the beach. There is an edginess to this girl that is felt by Naz and the audience alike. Something about her is simultaneously discomforting yet engrossing, and this sense is only escalated by her solemn muttering that she “can’t be alone tonight.” Naz, who admittedly throughout his entire life has done everything asked of him, acquiesces to all of her wishes.
As her requests and behavior become more erratic, however, the tension of the episode also ratchets up. After a foreboding confrontation with a hurst driver, who plays the role of fortune teller when he asks if she wishes to be his next passenger because of her smoking habit (who may or may not have followed them from the station), Naz and Andrea find themselves on the shore of the Hudson, where she convinces him to take ecstasy.
The two then head for Andrea’s home and as they arrive, experience another tense encounter. As two young black men pass, one, Trevor, (The Wire alum J.D. Williams) makes a joke about Naz’ ethnicity. As Naz confronts the man, Andrea is able to pull him away into the house but not without the two men offering some suspicious looks at Naz, Andrea, and the home.
Once inside the home, Naz and Andrea ingest more controlled substances and begin drinking tequila before taking turns playing “the knife game.” When Andrea asks Nas to play using her hand, he is initially hesitant but once again cannot say no. It is difficult to put into words how much squirming is involved from the audience’s perspective as Naz’ streak of bad decisions continues. Predictably, he drunkenly jabs a knife directly into Andrea’s hand. Instead of immediate panic, it serves to turn her on and the two head to the bedroom, where they have some pretty rough sex, as Andrea tracks blood throughout the apartment and claws at Naz’ back, leaving scratches.
The next we see of Naz he is waking up at the kitchen counter. When he goes to tell Andrea goodbye he finds her, stabbed considerable more than the last time he saw her, blood covering every object in the bedroom. Naz again panics and runs but leaves his keys in her home. He is forced to break back in to retrieve his keys – and also the knife he stabbed her with – which is when a neighbor catches him in the act and calls the police.
While Naz likely wouldn’t have made it far anyway, he compounds his problems by making a left turn where he isn’t allowed. New York City acts as a character on its own throughout “The Beach”. The cities’ mess of tangled cross streets conspire to ensnare Nasir in the perfect storm that led him to pick up Andrea and cause him to be pulled over by sheer coincidence. The police pick him up just as they are called away to the break-in at Andrea’s home. Naz’ dream night is quickly descending into hell, one isolated event at a time.
Naz is forced to watch as police investigate the home but somehow no one puts it all together that he is the culprit until he is brought back to the station. Even then, they almost do not realize his significance. It isn’t until they search him to cut him loose and find the knife that they realize why that young man was in such a rush to make that left turn. He is then immediately IDed by his pal Trevor, who happened to turn up at the crime scene just as the cops did, suspiciously asking “Did he kill her?”
The naive Naz is an easy target for seasoned Detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp), who manipulates him into saying a bit too much. It isn’t until he meets Torturro’s Jack Stone, an equally world weary lawyer, that Nas seems to stand a chance. And that is where we left off, with enough suspense to give weaker audience members a heart attack. The stage is set for what is to come, the investigation of a young man whose poor decisions either placed him in the worst place at the worst time or commit a horrible act. Who knows which way it will go from here.
One thing that is clear, however, is that HBO has struck gold on this project. The premiere was shot, acted, and written perfectly. The attention to detail in the way the camera lingers on every moment, from a gate being left open to a cat being left out back, is masterful. As Riz Ahmed brilliantly recedes into the corners of the screen from his fear, it is filled by Torturro and Camp, who are captivating the second they step on scene. Now, don’t take me saying Ahmed shrinking from screen is an insult. His superb acting makes the audience with writhe with every gut-wrenching moment of Nas’ nightmare.
The Night Of is a crime drama made for the golden age of television and delivers on the expectations that come with an all-star cast and peak billing on HBO. It is the heir apparent to True Detective first season that the network has desperately been missing.
By Matt Atwell