Sometimes, I think Richard Price should write all of our television. At heart, Price is a novelist. He’s written some of the greatest crime stories of modern times (including Lush Life and Clockers). While his books fall under the crime genre, they are so much more than that. He researches deep into the ways in which cops really work and what life on the street is really like. His novels pry into urban life and shine a light into places most other novels do not dare show. As such, his writing finds a truth so often missing from genre fiction.
Now and again, he puts down the novels and writes for television and movies to earn a better living. He’s no slouch there either having been nominated for an Academy Award for The Color of Money and was a regular writer for The Wire, otherwise known as the greatest television show ever made.
In my better moments, I sometimes think that John Turtorro should be in everything. That man knows how to act. He elevates everything he is in.
Price and Turtorro (along with co-creater/director Steven Zaillian) teamed up for the recent HBO limited series The Night Of and boy, is it good. Based upon the British series Criminal Justice, The Night Of does a deep dive into the American criminal justice system detailing both its righteousness, its inherent corruption, and the influence it extols on all its players both good and bad.
Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed) is a good kid. He gets good grades, works hard, and tutors football players after school. He is of Pakistani descent and he’s a Muslim. That’s been hard in a post-9/11 world living in Queens, but he gets by. One night, one of the footballers invites him to a posh party in Manhattan. Nasir “borrows’ his dad’s cab and heads to the party. He gets lost. He doesn’t know how to turn off the cab's ON DUTY lights. People keep jumping in expecting a ride. He kicks them all out. Then Andrea (Sofia Black D’Ellia) steps in. She’s young and beautiful. Instead of kicking her out, Nasir says “where to?” They ride around talking. They stop for beers. She gives him ecstasy. They go to her place, have more drinks, she gets him to snort something. They have sex. Nasir wakes up in the kitchen hours later. He can’t remember what happened. He goes upstairs to say goodbye. Andrea is dead. Cut open. Stabbed multiple times. Nasir runs. Then goes back. He left his keys in the house. He has to break in. He cuts himself on the broken glass. He leaves again. In a panic, he takes an illegal left. The cops pull him over. He’s caught.
All of this takes place in the first half of the first episode. The rest of the show details how the criminal justice system handles the murder. Detective Box (Bill Camp) quickly decides Nasir is the killer. He finds ample evidence to indict him and never seriously looks at anybody else. Assistant District Attorney Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin) takes Box’s queue and sees an easy conviction.
John Stone (John Turtorro) is a low-rent lawyer slumming for business at the police precinct when Nasir catches his eye. He immediately sees another pay check then a career boost handling a murder case. Inside prison, Freddy Knight (Michael Kenneth Williams) sees Nasir as something innocent in a world full of guilt and takes him under his wing, trains him in the ways of life inside, and exploits him for gain.
Everybody sees an angle. Everybody uses Nasir for their own purposes. Nobody comes out clean.
At its best The Night Of takes a realistic, unflinching look at the system. Price’s eye for detail fleshes out even the smallest characters, gives weight to the tiniest of moments. It's a procedural that takes a long look at the inner workings of the procedure and shies away from the typical melodramatic twists that plague this genre. But it's also a character study. It shows just how deeply prison can change a man. Nasir goes from a thin, shy, bookish kid at the beginning of the show to a swaggering, unflinching, hard-as-nails gangster by its end. His family become broken shells, having to live with the thought that their son may be a murderer and all their friends and neighbors having turned on them.
Nobody is untouched.
Some of my favorite scenes are with Detective Box. He’s not the superhero seeking truth, justice, and the American way that you get in so many of these crime shows. He’s just a guy doing a job. He’s really good at that job, but it's never anything more than that. He wants to turn Andrea’s name from red to black, wants to close the case. Guilt or innocence have nothing to do with it. Just get enough evidence to prosecute.
The acting throughout is excellent. Turtorro and Ahmed get all the acclaim, and are rightly praised, but all down the line everyone plays their part perfectly. Special notice should be given to Poorna Jagannathan who plays Nasir’s mother. She doesn’t get a lot of screen time and even fewer lines, but man, does she play it for all it's worth. Her face, her gestures, show everything. This is a mother torn apart, and we feel every nuance with this performance.
It's not a perfect show. There is perhaps too much attention paid to John Stones’ eczema. There is too little attention given to how little blood is on Nasir when he flees the scene. There are two scenes late in the series that perfectly set up the ending but that feel so completely out of place for the character to almost completely ruin it for me. Almost. I find that I can forgive it for those moments but it does tarnish a nearly perfect piece of television.
The Night Of is great TV. Well crafted, extraordinarily acted, richly thematic. I was (mostly) kidding when I said that Richard Price should be writing all of our shows, but The Night Of proves once again that we should all be paying attention to everything he writes.