Ashamedly I completely forgot to mention in my weekly 10 Best Crime Dramas This Week alert that The Night Of was starting on Sky Atlantic this week. It was an unforgivable oversight because after watching this first, feature-length episode on Sky Atlantic, it would have assuredly been placed at the top of the recommendations. An aberration, then. But let’s gloss over that and concentrate on The Night Of, because it’s absolutely worth concentrating on.
NB: There are spoilers living here
To start with, this eight-part series was based on the BBC’s 2008 series Criminal Justice. But instead of Ben Wishaw and London here we get Riz Ahmed and New York. And instead of Peter Moffat, we get crime novelist and Wire writer Richard Price (whose hard-nosed The Whites is on my reading pile at the moment) and acclaimed screenwriter Steven Zallian. That’s some pedigree behind the camera.
In front of the camera, the two stories are similar, except in this New York version we get Naz, a shy, geeky Pakistani-American student who wants to go to a party. He ‘borrows’ his dad’s cab, and while he’s trying to figure out how to turn off the ‘on duty’ light a young woman ghosts into the back, asking him to drive her to the beach. Except this is New York and there is no beach, so he drives her to the riverside. During the journey, this vacant, gauzy and alluringly beautiful young woman instantly takes on the role of the classic – and now out-dated it has to be said – femme fatale. She speaks cryptically and asks strange, random questions and seems dreamy, almost unreal. She’s the classic devil-may-care female, tempting clean-cut Naz to step out of his comfort zone, to play with fire. She presents him with an unnamed pill, asking him what he has to lose when he initially refuses.
They end up back at her place, which is full of fairy lights, stuffed animal heads and so on (ooh, she’s different… she’s dangerous) drinking what looks like tequila and playing a game that involves stabbing a knife through their fingers. Naz accidentally stabs her through the hand and it’s the sight of blood that ignites her passion – they end up clawing at each other in a frenzy and going to bed.
Naz wakes up to find the young woman dead, smeared in blood and cut to ribbons. So that’s the initial set-up. If the initial meeting and the character of Andrea was a little worn and cliched, the next three-quarters of an hour were definitely not. After Naz finds the body, he panics and proceeds to incriminate himself to the point of no return. He runs. He forgets the keys to his dad’s cab. He breaks back into the house. He gets his jacket and takes the knife they played the stabbing game with. He’s seen by a neighbour. He drives away in his cab and gets picked up by the police for reckless driving. They get a call about a break-in and take Naz back with them to the house he’s just escaped from, intending to process him later. He sits in the car, locked in the back, watching the police enter the young woman’s house and find her body. A separate pair of cops take him back to the precinct. All the police men and women are unaware that the random guy in the back of the squad car could well be the murderer of the person they’ve just found. The neighbour witness appears at the precinct and sits with him in the waiting room. The chief investigating officer – the gravel-voiced Box – comes back to the station and talks about the case to his colleagues as Naz watches on, terrified. An African-American man who saw him enter the house with the young woman (and gave him some racist shit) comes in to get his statement taken and instantly recognises him. Naz is finally processed and frisked for reckless driving. The knife is found. The penny drops. He’s bang to rights.
He has quickly descended into a nightmare of noirish proportions from which there is no escape, and the way the layers of suspense and tension built up in this first episode were just tremendous. We and he knew what had happened to him but the police didn’t, and the way they finally found out was very clever – layers and layers were built up until things were as tight as a drum. What also helped this tightness was the fact that there was no music. At all. Instead, the humdrum details of night shift police life took equal billing – there was no sensationalism, there was mundane chitchat between the police officers, and there were the worn, heavy faces of those who worked in a city that wore them down bit by bit every single day and night.
I expected nothing less from someone like Price, but it was stark to see it on screen – it reminded me of classic NYC police procedurals from the past, and quiet, slow, intense storytelling from the 1970s. There was a soft hardness to it (if that makes sense) that the British version didn’t have. There was the patented New Yorkian dry humour especially from the brilliant female office who initially picked up Naz for reckless driving, and Box – hard as nails, but with a strangely avuncular side to him. Less was more with him, and I like police characters who practise this personality trait. It’s old-school.
We were jolted back into the real world as Box interrogated Naz and his team took DNA, penile and blood swabs. Again, this was done all without fuss and fanfare and felt just about as authentically mundane as it could be. Things only reverted back to the norm when John Turturro’s quirky, opportunistic lawyer (who wore sandals because his eczema neede aerating) showed up and took Naz’s case on.
The story itself reminded me a bit of the first series of podcast Serial (a young American Muslim man, arrested and convicted for murder, not quite an open-and-shut case, ambiguity), and it should ebb and flow along those lines, taking in big issues like race, the legal system and, of course, what actually happened to the victim, a young woman brutally murdered.