John Turturro has the sort of eyes that look better when there are dark, deep circles beneath them. He employs these to great hangdog effect throughout The Night Of, the new HBO miniseries that aired its third episode of eight last night. An ambulance chaser with ambitions of being taken more seriously as a defense attorney, Turturro’s character is a sort of loser, though his failures are not very important to the show. In fact, Turturro’s John Stone—that the character name is so unimaginative is the first sign of trouble—hardly does anything wrong throughout the first seven episodes. (That’s all HBO has released to the critics.) As though to double down on the tender portrait, the show grants him an extended, reluctant love affair with a cat.
To underline its status as a Serious Undertaking, The Night Of is beautifully shot, all greens and blacks and blues in the shadow. The actors, who besides Turturro include Michael K. Williams, Riz Ahmed, and Amara Karan, are all splendidly chosen and evidently eager to chew on the script. The show boasts the imprimatur of Richard Price, whose association with The Wire now marks him out as a brand name now, and that brand is Seriousness. In short, The Night Of begs for acknowledgement by awards and critics. It wants to be the Prestige Hit of the Summer. Unfortunately the whole thing seems to have turned out like Versailles: beautifully decorated, but housing some kind of corrupted regime.
As for the crime, its facts are simple: Naz Khan (Ahmed) takes his father’s taxi out to a party. Because he’s unused to the car, he can’t turn the off-duty light on, and a young, beautiful twenty-something New Yorker (Sofia Black-D’Elia) lets herself into the backseat. He considers a moment, then finds her too alluring to chuck her out on the curb. Andrea takes him back to her beautifully appointed townhouse on the Upper East Side. Because she, like everyone else, is a type, she pouts and pulls out drugs, plays a game with a knife. In the haze, Naz sleeps with her. Then he blacks out, waking only to find her stabbed to death in the bed upstairs. He panics and flees with the knife.
Has this ever happened to any person in the history of crime? I am seriously asking. I can’t think of a single example of someone being innocently drawn into something like this, nor even of a guilty criminal who claimed innocence under a similarly incriminating set of circumstances. (Except perhaps Jeffrey MacDonald, the Army officer who claimed a band of hippies came into his house and murdered his entire family, but left him with only a single, inconsequential stabbing injury. It bears mentioning that other than perhaps Errol Morris, in A Wilderness of Error, almost no one ever bought MacDonald’s story.)
The Night Of does not seem to find this monumental implausibility worrying. I suppose they’re right, insofar as any number of bad detective novels have jumped off from a similar premise. They make, I suppose, good use of the primal fear operating here, one which insists that sexually attractive young women are out to “get” men. And while I understand that it will take a lot more time for popular culture to get beyond a fascination with young, dead white women, there is something bizarre and fetishistic about pandering to that fear at the outset of a story with wider social ambitions.
After all, even though it presents itself as a murder mystery, the show is really about Naz’s life in prison. No one, least of all his attorneys, Stone and a young Indian woman named Chandra (Khan), seems all that interested in finding out what happened to Andrea. They are, however, interested in arguing about fees and watching Naz become a true criminal in prison, learning that he has started to smuggle drugs in exchange for the protection of a powerful inmate (Williams). There is some kind of takeaway about the inefficiencies of the legal system here. But at a certain point all this time spent on Naz in prison—always at the expense of any attempt to solve the murder—is odd and frustrating. Your average one-hour episode of Law and Order has more to say about “the system” than this particular show.
It is difficult to know who is responsible for this. The Night Of has a British predecessor. Criminal Justice, which aired on the BBC in 2008. In that version, Ben Whishaw played the wrongly accused but the all the major plot points were the same. This version was initially conceived as a comeback vehicle for James Gandolfini, who died after the pilot was filmed in 2013. (Turturro re-shot his scenes).
Perhaps it would have been different that way. It is difficult to imagine Gandolfini giving as straightforwardly lovable a performance as Turturro does here. And I do feel robbed of seeing Gandolfini cavorting with a cat. But the balance of the show seems to have always been scripted the way it is presented here, in its faithfulness to the British version. This is, in other words, a very old-fashioned sort of story: one with clear heroes and villains. The closest the show gets to a nuanced character is in the refreshingly cynical prosecutor (Jeannie Berlin), whose scenes are few.
Back when the first season of True Detective was all the rage, Emily Nussbaum scolded it in the pages of the New Yorker for being a show about “heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses.” I confess I would actually prefer True Detective’s open, unabashed embrace of pulp aesthetic to something like The Night Of, with its self-aggrandizing view of being “actually about the system.” A show like this one is so busy saying something about the justice system and the prison-industrial complex that it rarely has a moment to consider that one of the injustices here is that a person was killed. Even if Naz isn’t Andrea’s killer, that’s one of the systems at work here, the fact of violence against women. And just because it’s not the only one, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be in the frame.