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The Night Of: Welcome to Dead Girl Town

The eight-part miniseries keeps a tight focus on the perpetrator as protagonist.


Is there anything more tiresome than waiting for a dead girl to get dead? Anyone who watches HBO’s new eight-part series, The Night Of, will recognize the dead girl at the story’s center as soon as she sidles into the frame: still breathing, but visibly doomed.  “I really would like to get going,” the girl (Sofia Black-D’Elia) says wearily, after climbing into a cab. The cab is driven by Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed), a shy twenty-three-year-old who lives with his parents in Queens. He’s out because he borrowed his father’s car on the sly so he could make it to a party in the city. Instead, he crosses paths with a seductive dead-girl-to-be.

“How far uptown?” Nasir asks the girl. “Far,” she says, throaty and fragile, gazing out at the streets that flick past her window. She is a little bit Laura Palmer, a little bit noir heroine, a little bit of every beautiful, damned damsel you have ever seen on TV. That creators Steven Zaillan and Richard Price are so able to telegraph the role she will soon play is a testament to just how familiar we are with the dead girl trope—and how thorny an enterprise it is to undermine the crime stories viewers have grown so used to.

Perhaps Zaillan and Price believe that you can’t complicate the beautiful-dead-girl story without leaving its structure intact. They may even be right. One of the most compelling things about The Night Of is how much it does feel like the kind of boilerplate procedurals it seems determined to rise above. The dead girl does get dead, and in fairly short order—though The Night Of’s pilot, which is almost long enough to be a feature film in its own right, gives her the time to bring Nasir home, ply him with drugs and liquor, and reach endgame by faithfully following the don’t-fall-for-me-kid-I-got-troubles flirtation handbook. Nasir blacks out, wakes up, and finds the dead girl in her final, inevitable form. He flees, hindered by a glut of bad decisions and worse luck—he cuts himself and bleeds all over the crime scene, takes the apparent murder weapon with him, gets spotted by a handful of eyewitnesses for good measure—and is arrested almost immediately.

In a show like Law & Order or CSI, this chain of events would take about ninety seconds. In The Night Of, Nasir’s arrest—his fear, his confusion, and his time spent waiting in the precinct, apparently forgotten until he is suddenly, horribly remembered—unfolds with gut-churning slowness. The process is bewildering to Nasir, who also knows just as little about what violence he may or may not have committed, and what violence he may be capable of, as we do.

The most revolutionary thing The Night Of does is also so simple that you may not believe how little it’s been done before: It presents an alleged perpetrator as a protagonist. The lawyers, detectives, corrections officers, and parents who also populate the series move in and out of the frame, but this is not their story, and none of them offer the kind of comfortingly authoritarian presence we might hope to cling to. For us, there is only Nasir, who, quiet and doe-eyed and seemingly determined to take up as little space as possible in whatever room he’s in, forces us to study him closely if we are to guess what he is thinking at all.

The only way to watch The Night Of is to empathize with the accused. In this way, the show seems to owe a debt to the overwhelming success of Making a Murderer and Serial. (Like the podcast’s first season, The Night Of also presents us with a young Pakistani protagonist whose experience of the criminal justice system is indelibly influenced by his status as a presumed terrorist or Muslim extremist). But these recent successes have been controlled by the demands of the documentary format. Is it possible to blend the slow, quiet, inconclusive revelations of narratives like these with the predictable pleasures of the police procedural as we know it?

 The Night Of tries to answer this question, and the answer is, well, sort of. By trying to address viewers’ desires for the gifts these mutually exclusive genres provide, Zaillan and Price sometimes simply end up splitting the difference. The clearest example comes with the dead girl herself: Did we really have to start this way? Couldn’t we, as viewers, be trusted to follow a narrative that didn’t begin with yet another young woman’s brutalized body?

The creators’ apparent fear of appropriating too much of the flash-bang sizzle of network procedurals also means, at times, that the series is just plain dull. The Night Of takes place in a dreary, muted New York. The city itself seems terminally sleep-deprived. As Box, the detective charged with investigating Nasir, Bill Camp emanates a menace so understated that it almost makes the viewer gravitate toward him all the more: whatever damage he is capable of inflicting at least comes from a coherent philosophy, which is more than the worldview of the series itself provides. But Box, too, works within the stylistic dictates of his murky, somber metropolis. He is all murmurs and slow appraisal and flickering comprehension. For almost the entirety of its first episode, The Night Of carries the distinction of being the quietest crime show on TV.

Almost, because in the first episode’s final scenes, we meet Nasir’s lawyer, Jack Stone (John Turturro)—a grunting, grimacing, shuffling, schvitzing, eczema-scratching, ambulance-chasing unmade bed of a man, one part Alan Dershowitz and two parts Lionel Hutz. Stone immediately takes on Nasir as a client, and his reasons for zeroing in on the boy are just as unclear, and just as intriguing, as Nasir’s level of guilt. On the detective show assembly line, the dead girl is responsible for seducing the viewer. In The Night Of, these duties fall to John Turturro, who by this point is likely more than used to being the best thing about whatever production he’s in. The Night Of is no different.

“Don’t go anywhere,” Stone tells Nasir before leaving him in his cell, with all the sly flirtiness of a noir floozy. As Stone, Turturro refracts shades of gruffness, disenchantment, tenderness, exhaustion, and idealism not just scene by scene, but moment by moment. If he is the focal point that holds the series together, it will be because he is capable of embodying the apparent contradictions that the show itself seeks to explore.