Monday, August 29, 2016

The Small Screen: The Night Of

Being that this is only my second post ever about a television series, I wasn't even sure I would write it. The challenge I face here centers around wanting to put some thoughts down for both those that have finished watching the new HBO miniseries The Night Of and those that haven't seen a single episode yet but may consider it in the future. I know many don't have any form of the premium network but look forward to binge watching a series when the DVD or Blu-ray is released months from now. Writing about a series as layered and eventful as this without spoiling anything for those people is extremely difficult, but I feel compelled to give it a shot.

HBO had me with its marketing of this series well before the first episode even aired. I am a sucker for moody, atmospheric dramas, and it was obvious with the little teaser that played on the network often that The Night Of was exactly that. I still recall being absolutely dazzled by the first season of True Detective. How unfortunate that there was a second, and I will get to that idea later when it comes to this series. I am endlessly fascinated by the legal system, but courtroom dramas, by murder mysteries and the unsettling uncertainty of being judged by a jury of one's peers. Wrongful convictions happen, and whether presented on the news in reality or merely a character appearing in a work of fiction, I find myself looking into the eyes of the accused in these situations and wondering...did he or she really do it? If I were on the jury, would I feel comfortable setting the course for the rest of their life? What if I were wrong?

For those that are not aware, The Night Of is an 8 part miniseries that tells the story of Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani-American young man who decides to take his father's cab out on night without permission in order to attend a party. A few different men try to enter the cab looking for a lift, but Nasir (or Naz for short) turns them away, telling them the cab isn't currently in service. A pretty young girl does the same, only this time he is willing to take her. This decision is unsurprising, since the mind of a young male works a bit differently when looking into the eyes of a beautiful woman, but it also would prove to be one that would completely alter the course of Naz's entire life.

After a little adventure in the cab and some drug use,  Naz and Andrea (Sofia Black D'Elia) end up back at her place and just outside her door they quite literally have a run in with two men walking down the sidewalk, as one bumps into Naz. At first this is ignored until Naz hears them use a slur referring to his ethnicity, so words are exchanged. One of the men walks away, while the other says or does nothing. He simply stares daggers at Naz and Andrea as they enter her place. It's an extremely unsettling shot, an unforgettable moment from a series that showcases a number of those. We haven't even witnessed the crime yet, but suspect number one has been established.

Naz and Andrea would eventually have sex, but not before some extremely unconventional and hard to watch foreplay, as it is quite clear that drugs and alcohol can lead to some very strange decisions and also perhaps Andrea is the type of person who gets turned on by some unusual things. A game is played between the two of them involving a rather large knife and the thrilling concept of trying to stab down between spread apart fingers, obviously without drawing blood. This doesn't go so smoothly, and as the blood spills we are already putting together just how bad this looks if the night takes even darker turns. A knife with fingerprints all over it and a stab wound to the palm of a girl's hand, the type of injury that a rational thinking mind would result in a trip to the emergency room. Instead, at this moment they become intimate, but we as an audience are not privy to any prolonged sequence of lovemaking. Instead we cut ahead to Naz waking up elsewhere, a room that turns out to be the kitchen downstairs from her bedroom. How he got there, we do not know. He goes back upstairs to get his things and head home, but that's when he finds her brutally murdered in her own bed. A knife with fingerprints all over it. Suspect number two has been established, and it's Naz, and no one could possibly look more guilty of this crime than him.

Created by Richard Price and Steve Zaillian, if this first episode doesn't have you completely hooked by its final shot, then I am not sure The Night Of is the show for you. I was floored by the first installment, with the performances, the photography, and circumstances and the overflowing amount of intrigue over where the story would go next making me wish this were a Netflix series rather than HBO only so I could watch all 8 parts in a row right then and there. What The Night Of ended up being was a reminder of the power of the television model that existed before the notion of binge watching, the hold a show can have on you when you know you have to wait another full week before you could get answers to all of the questions rattling around in your brain. It's frustrating, yet so fulfilling when that time arrives and you can absorb yourself into another hour of excellently crafted storytelling.

Originally picked up as a series by HBO and set to star the late great James Gandolfini, the production of The Night Of went through some ups and downs, with no bigger down than that of Gandolfini's tragic and unexpected passing. Rather than scrapping the series, which is based on a British program called Criminal Justice, the decision to continue on in his honor was made and the first choice to replace Gandolfini was Robert DeNiro, who agreed to take on the role only to have to drop out due to a scheduling conflict. This lead to the casting of John Turturro, and let's just say if I were an Emmy voter I would already be writing his name onto my ballot and asking where and when I could turn it in. His performance as lawyer John Stone ended up being the soul of the series, the most compelling and likable piece of a show that desperately needed that touch to avoid being too ominous and cold for it's own good. Riz Ahmed does extraordinary work as well as Naz, but his arc is far more torturous given the circumstances he is facing, and he isn't someone the audience can truly root for throughout the series because it is not made perfectly clear whether or not he is actually guilty of the crime.

That last part is an important point and one of my personal favorite portions of the story, the fact that Naz is not presented as neither a victim nor a murderer to us until the latter half of the final episode when the truth of that night comes out. Whether or not you believe he did it is up to each individual viewer, as a number of possible suspects and their motives are presented but all the while we are given a deeper and more disturbing look at the past and present of Naz, the boy who initially seemed far too innocent to be capable of such a crime...but is he? Is anyone in The Night Of innocent? One thing is made abundantly clear in this series and that is the fact that to be human is to be flawed, with every one of the characters facing their own demons along the way.

Unfortunately the series is not perfect. It loses some steam during some predictable prison sequences that delve into tropes that seem too on the nose for a show that seemed so deliciously original at one time, and these are the times when Turturro is so valuable, the ying to Naz's yang, the man outside that gives us something to follow closely and someone to root for. When focusing on Turturro's John Stone, a seemingly inordinate amount of time is spent focusing on aspects of his character that may not feel important like his battle with eczema or his quest to save a cat from its death at a kill shelter, but to dismiss these pieces to his puzzle shows a failure to understand just how well a character can be fleshed out by terrific writing without lengthy or exhaustive exposition. We see how unbecoming Stone is and we understand his career choice to be one of those gimmicky lawyers who looks to plea out his clients quickly and collect his check. The kind of lawyer often referred to as an ambulance chaser, someone who waits from a call from the desperate in order to make a little cash, only instead of injury settlements John Stone dabbles in those that are obviously guilty and just need someone to try to lessen the blow provided by the justice system. He neither looks or acts the part of a high profile, trial attorney and he never planned to be one until he got one look at Naz in a holding cell, and something about him lingered in his mind enough to turn around and go back to talk to him. Something different from those he normally approaches. Something potentially...innocent.

Another issue I took with The Night Of came in the form of the character of Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan), not so much her because her performance was fine and her part of the story is vital, but the direction the writers take her later on in the series. Remember when I started this off by talking about how challenging this would be, writing about a show like this without spoiling anything for those who haven't seen it? Well, here we are. I won't go into detail about what I didn't care for with Chandra, but you will know during episode 7 when a certain moment happens involving her character that seems to be so out of place and thrown in randomly. The finale ends up using this moment to move the story forward, so at least it had a purpose, but it still just didn't sit right with me. It felt like a cheap way to allow Turturro to shine more, but the good news is he did, with a speech given by him during that finale being the perfect and essential clip to show at the award shows in the future.

As for that whole second season issue I mentioned quickly in regards to True Detective, a title that now leaves a sour taste in the mouths of those that watched the second season when the first was basically a masterpiece...leave The Night Of alone going forward. Let these 8 episodes be it. I know for many this doesn't seem right, because how could something so good be taken away so quickly? How can I not want even more answers, even more perfectly explained closure since all is not tied up with a little bow on it here? Because for me, the story was told, and given the thematic meaning behind what we watched and the characters we followed for these eight weeks, the bow is in fact tied on. There is nothing more to adorn to this present that HBO gifted us. I have already come across an article or two wondering if HBO would green light some additional episodes of the show in the future to follow what happens after all of this with these characters, but some ambiguity can be exactly what the doctor ordered from time to time, and honestly not much is even that ambiguous anyways. After all that darkness and dread, The Night Of closes with a shot that is certain to put a smile on your face, and with how fried my nerves were watching the twists and turns of the finale, I needed it.

For those who may question how plausible certain pieces of the story were, like the fact that police still had not reviewed certain seemingly obvious pieces of evidence until the very last episode when closing arguments are being made at the trial, consider looking into some real murder cases that happened that feature some stranger than fiction type of head scratchers along the way, like the highly publicized Making a Murderer case involving Steven Avery and the now recently freed Brendan Dassey. Hell, just watch an episode of two of 48 Hours Mystery or Dateline and you will see at least one inexplicable decision made by police or criminals or attorneys that will have you saying aloud, whether to yourself or those you are watching the show with "How they hell did they miss that?" or "What kinda person would screw that up?". What seems like sloppy writing in The Night Of sadly happens all the time. Why?

Because to be human is to be flawed, and no one is truly innocent. That is certainly the case in the new superb miniseries The Night Of, and if you haven't checked it out yet, find a way to do so.


If you did watch the show, what did you think? Are you satisfied with the way it ended? Would you like to see more of the story in the future? Let me know, I would love to discuss this tremendously detailed and fascinating television series with you.

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