WASHINGTON — Sunday brings the finale of HBO’s captivating new crime series “The Night Of,” blending thriller suspense with high courtroom drama.
If you haven’t seen it yet, you still have time to catch up on the first seven episodes with a weekend of binge watching on HBO GO to get primed for Sunday’s live finale. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
Based on Peter Moffat’s BCC series “Criminal Justice” (2008), the American version was conceived as a vehicle for “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini, now a posthumous executive producer alongside creators Steven Zaillian, Oscar-winning writer of “Schindler’s List” (1993). and Richard Price, Oscar-nominated writer of “The Color of Money” (1986) and writer on HBO’s “The Wire” (2002-2008).
What makes this gritty TV crime drama the best self-contained single season since HBO’s “True Detective” (2014)? Here are our best reasons with as little spoilers as possible. We may discuss images, themes and characters, but we will do our best not to reveal any major plot information. In other words, as the main character describes the show’s detective, we’ll have to be “a subtle beast.”
The Premise: “The Night Of” moves the “Criminal Justice” mystery to modern-day New York, where a Pakistani American, Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed), borrows his father’s taxi to attend a party. But when a troubled young woman, Andrea Cornish (Sofia Black D’Elia), hitches a ride uptown, a night of sex, drugs and booze leaves him waking up to murder charges. This basic premise is revealed in the logline and trailer, so no spoilers here. What follows is as much a “whodunit” as it is a “did he do it?”
The Cast: Lead actor Riz Ahmed was Jake Gyllenhaal’s doomed cameraman in “Nightcrawler” and now grows from shy to nervous to tough as Naz. John Turturro follows his “Do the Right Thing,” “Quiz Show” and “Big Lebowski” brilliance with a lovable loser with character flaws, both physically (itchy feet) and morally (opportunistic lawyer i.e. Paul Newman in “The Verdict”). Paul Sparks goes from the Underwoods’ biographer in “House of Cards” to a suspicious stepfather here. Bill Camp (“Lincoln”) has a heart as the unconvinced Det. Box. Amara Karan (“The Darjeeling Limited”) is a likable pro-bono lawyer. We even get Omar (Michael K. Williams) and Bodie (J.D. Williams) from “The Wire!”
The Themes: Not only is this an examination of America’s justice system, it’s an urgent commentary on the post-9/11 Muslim American experience. The filmmakers had no way of knowing of Donald Trump’s spat with the Khan family when they named their fictional family the Khans. But great shows make their own luck. Watching the show, we feel awful for Naz’s parents, especially his “quiet” mom.
The Script: Great writing is all about setups and payoffs. Right from the pilot, there’s foreshadowing at a gas station where a hearse driver warns a smoking Andrea of cancer: “Do you want to be my next ride?” A risky game of knife-stabbing between spread fingers (i.e. Hitchcock’s “Man From The South”) cleverly sets up a possible murder weapon, while removing an allergy-causing cat forces Andrea’s gate to not fully close behind her. Episode 3 (“A Dark Crate”) weaves parallels between a prison cell, a caged cat at the pound and a slab of veal (i.e. crated animal). All the while, the prison angle shows Naz gradually standing up for himself like a Shawshank inmate: “I had to go to jail to become a criminal.”
The Directing: While we aren’t surprised by the quality of the writing, Zaillian really impresses us in his growth as a director. From scene to scene, wipes between walls provide slick transitions, as do compositions (i.e. a bench-press bar cuts to a horizontal jail bar). Overhead shots of characters on staircases echo the stairs that led to murder. A mounted deer provides watchful eyes. A stray cat crosses the street, while a toy cat makes a stabbing motion in a store window. Knuckle tattoos (i.e. “Night of the Hunter”) read “Sin” and “Bad” during a forbidden kiss. Naz’s mother stands small in the background as she feels small (i.e. “The Graduate”), asking “Did I raise an animal?” Every detail counts such that you’ll want to re-watch to see if Duane Reade stores appear in background mise-en-scene.
The Finale: Thus far, the series has been so damn effective at giving us countless possible outcomes and many possible suspects (i.e. “Mystic River”) that we can’t wait for Sunday’s series finale. What’s the verdict? Who’s the culprit? And what will become of this deep cast of characters as they return to the concrete jungle? Time is running out. If you watched BCC’s “Criminal Justice,” you may already know the answers, but don’t tell the rest of us! We’ll be tuning it with excitement on Sunday night.
Until then, here’s a preview teaser for the final episode: