Something weird happened about three quarters of the way through The Night Of (2016), I hit pause, looked to my wife, and said: “This isn’t very good.”
This was in the face of the show receiving critical acclaim from many, and I wondered if there was something that everyone else had seen that I was potentially missing. To me, at least, there was something terribly wrong with the structure and delivery of what could otherwise be unmissable content. The performances were stellar, the cinematography was brilliant and the writing fantastic, however, there was something in the pacing of the story that felt off.
The Night Of is a miniseries from HBO, who obviously does not need any introduction as purveyors of television of a certain pedigree and calibre. The show introduces Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani-American college student accused of murdering a girl with whom he has had a one night stand. Subsequently, he is defended by John Stone (John Turturro), an ambulance chasing, Eczema suffering attorney who may have gotten himself in deeper than he imagined by taking on Naz’s case.
The set-up and execution in the first two episodes is amazing, something that elevates this show far above its peers in the crime / drama genre. It takes the show above what, on paper, could be a by the book Law & Order (1990) episode into the territory of intriguing and thought-provoking viewing. You invest in the characters, you feel their frustration, fear, confusion, tiredness and acceptance of things acutely … until you don’t.
Somewhere between the fourth and sixth episodes, something went missing, like when you drive a used car off the lot and by week two the polish has worn away. All the elements were still there, however, they felt like they had been stuffed into a smaller space than what they needed in order to breathe. Things felt rushed, not in an imminent and intense way that can sometimes happen in a drama, but more like the show was running out of time to tell the story it was there to tell. Plot elements that shouldn’t even be there were given free-range to overshadow the more important facets of the unfolding story.
I felt that the breadth of the story was too great to be confined by eight episodes and that if they had split the show instead, across two seasons, the impact would’ve been greater. Naz’s incarceration while waiting to stand trial was a perfect opportunity to show how the prison system, not just in the U.S., but in general, is deeply flawed. The fact of his heritage was almost relegated to a footnote, instead of leveraging it to explore the complex issue of race relations. I saw too many opportunities missed at the expense of time constraints and had to wonder at the logic of that or the reasons for it.
I wanted to like Naz, but wasn’t given a reason to and ended up caring more about whether John Stone would get a cure for his Eczema or not over whether Naz would secure a not guilty verdict. The tension of the trial was lost in a convoluted addition of a more professional law firm with its agenda firmly worn on its sleeve when wanting to represent Naz in place of Stone. This plot line undersold a shining and honest performance by Turturro, who easily out acted everyone else, with the exception of Bill Camp’s worn out Detective Dennis Box.
If anything, the one thing I took from this show was that sometimes, must-watch Television is subjective, and that in an age where there is so much content, some discretion should be used. For me, The Night Of was a classic example that sometimes less is more is not necessarily always the case, especially when trying to convince the viewer why they should presume innocence.