Ugh, The Night Of
HBO’s latest prestige piece completes it’s dissatisfying run
The makers of HBO’s The Night Of want you to know that Riker’s Island is a terrible place. They want you know that the police are tired and boring and the prosecutor would really like a better line reading from the coroner about that thing they took off this guy. I don’t actually know how to gauge my spoiler level here. The Night Of just wrapped, so loads of people haven’t seen it. But if you haven’t seen it, why are you gracing this hot take with your click? Wait a minute, why am I questioning a click?! What was I talking about? Oh, yeah. The Night Of’s spiritual center is that it wants to be the film negative version of Law and Order, the anti-procedural. Richard Price (the Clockers dude) has plenty of police procedural cred and Steve Zaillian is responsible for plenty of tense dramas. These guys know the rules and they hate them so so so so much.
And they break those rules but good in the first episode, a stupendously nail-biting 80 minutes. You wait with baited breath for the crime you know is coming after Nasir Khan has the night of his life with Audrey Cornish looking to escape something when she gets in the cab he kinda stole from his dad. And then when Audrey is brutally murdered, which you just know is coming and the brutality of it is just so much more intense that you thought possible, making Law and Order: SVU seem tame by comparison (cuz it is on that terrestrial network who isn’t as cool as HBO). And then you wait with baited breath during the comedy of errors that results from Naz hamfistedly attempting to escape the scene of a shocking crime. Naz makes one appallingly stupid decision after another but the police don’t catch up with him for sooo long that you get to know how a police precinct runs in the middle of the night (hint: it’s boooooring). And then Naz is (finally) arrested for said crime which we are mostly sure that he didn’t commit. Mostly.
This is first episode, The Beach, is really extraordinary in its attention to the mundane details of the police, basically all of the things that Law and Order skips in order to keep the drama going and it centers our attention and our sympathies on someone that the system would normally crush beneath its ponderous, plodding feet, but who occasionally survives in TV Land. Not on HBO, oh no. You are going to get the crushing gritty realness of THE SYSTEM, man. This cuts to the heart of what Price and Zaillian really want to accomplish with The Night Of: they want you to know that all is not well in America’s criminal justice system.
I am sympathetic to that cause. Ever since Ferguson exploded after Michael Brown’s death and the #BlackLivesMatter movement gained steam and a level of organization, I have been gripped by the stories of the dysfunction at the heart of our criminal justice system. Riker’s Island is the place that Stabler and Benson go for occasional chats with suspects. It’s also a brutal place that breeds criminals, tortures juveniles with solitary confinement, and consumes lives thanks to the glacial pace of what is supposed to look like justice. And Riker’s is a freaking jail. No one is supposed to do hard time there, but somehow people get stuck there for years anyway. The Night Of’s instincts to burn police procedural platitudes to the ground by foregrounding the crushing burden of the system are spot on. It is so hard to watch Naz become the kind of monster that he clearly was not when he made the mistake of having the night of his life with a stranger who happened to have the wrong enemies. But it’s a true story for too many.
So why I don’t lurv the heck out of this noble minded show run by serious professionals? The story’s trenchant, the acting is really solid. Riz Ahmed, who plays Naz, balances hardness with naiveté so well that even when he gets his neck tattooed, we long for the sweet kid who caught a horrible break. John Tuturro (the Jesus!) plays his attorney, John Stone, and aside from the feet thing (I’ll get to that) has this goofy optimistic world weariness that is heartbreaking when it shatters on the hard rocks of “reality.” Bill Camp, one of the many “That Guys” of The Night Of, plays Detective Box with such subtlety and weariness that we kind of feel bad for the guy railroading the sweet kid we don’t want to be guilty. The signposts of quality are all over this joint.
Unfortunately, The Night Of veers between gritty realism, sensationalism, and sentimentality, at a start and stop pace that loses crucial details while it shifts into and out of gear. The crime that sets the wheels of this story in motion is grotesque and violent and upsetting. What follows is a string of spectacularly stupid choices by Naz and a looong series of just completely mundane police things in the inexorable machine of criminal justice. But before we know it Naz is doing bad things for some dude in jail, he’s smoking dope, and getting himself inked. The camera lingers forever on Stone’s psoriasis cracked feet and he has a pharmacist (a dead pan Fisher Stevens) who is mysteriously out of Viagra and a very inopportune time for John and why the eff are we seeing any of this in a police procedural?! Seriously, you get to know John’s feet, and there might be a metaphor in those cracked, itching, aching limbs, but it is so strained that it makes hate the fact that I even considered torturing the metaphor in front of you. And somehow Stone takes in the murdered woman’s cat because . . . well, for sentimental reasons. Between Stone not being able to get laid and Naz smuggling drugs for his new prison buddy, the cat gets some toys. And that’s an episode of the most important drama on television?
What The Night Of strings the viewer along with is its persistent refusal to address what would otherwise be the focus of a Law and Order type story that isn’t as interested in the system, but is only interested in the story qua drama. There is no hero cop, there is no deus ex machina piece of evidence that needs to be rushed into the investigation or the trial or the trial at the last minute. There’s half a good idea in there, but it also makes for a terribly draining viewer experience, as well as an epic bait and switch. Why start with such a violent crime? Will people be bored by an injustice that doesn’t involve the gory death of a beautiful woman? Ok, fair, they might. But if the system is the story, why do we spend so much time with Stone’s feet? What does the cat mean? And why on earth is the final episode so intent on destroying the lives of everyone involved in this sordid crime except for the murderer? The ending of this story is perplexing, not in its steady refusal to let anyone be redeemed, but in the ways in which that lack of redemption doesn’t happen. The finale is an acknowledgement that maybe crime story tropes exist for a reason and we shouldn’t completely ignore them, which is exasperating. One critic called the ending of The Night Of unsatisfying, in a good way. And I can see that point of view. But I would call it dissatisfying, in a bad way, instead. Don’t be like me. Don’t get involved. Don’t believe the hype. The system destroys everything. Except the cat.