“Hey, what’s with Gunga Din in there? The big-eyed kid?”
And with that line of dialogue, you have your new crime-TV obsession. It’s the inquiry made by New York City lawyer Jack Stone (John Turturro) into the welfare of a terrified young man named Naz (Riz Ahmed), who’s sitting in a dingy jail’s holding cell. And those words, spoken near the end of this 78-minute premiere episode, throttles into motion the plot of HBO’s dazzling, crackling limited series. The dialogue has the fingerprints of Clockers and The Wire writer Richard Price all over it, what with the half-streetwise, half-erudite reference to Rudyard Kipling’s famous Indian water-carrier — and it highlights the story line’s central enigma: What is really going on with that big-eyed kid?
The soil is very fertile for that question. The Night Of debuts on a TV universe that’s never been so gripped by crime mysteries both real and fictional. If you’re here, you’ve probably also watched The Jinx and Making a Murderer, plus listened to Serial (which is responsible for granting imprisoned Adnan Syed a new trial), and perhaps absorbed nearly 20 Dickensian hours of the O.J. Simpson saga, thanks to the equally extraordinary cable series The People v. O.J. Simpson and O.J.: Made in America. Seven episodes from now, in mid-August, you’ll actually hear someone on The Night Of — with a little smile on his or her face — utter the phrase, “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit,” the siren song of O.J.’s lawyer Johnnie Cochran.
But for the two biggest influences on The Night Of, you have to jump back about a decade. First, there is obviously BBC’s Criminal Justice, the 2008 series that serves as the backbone for this show’s plot. (At the beginning of its long production, in fact, The Night Of was also named Criminal Justice.) The 10-episode show starred Ben Whishaw (a white actor) in the role played here by Ahmed (who is of Pakistani heritage), and that’s just the first of the many trenchant departures taken in this American spin. It’s probably not advisable to watch the BBC show if you want a pure experience of the HBO series, though here’s an interesting, spoiler-free taste of Whishaw and Preacher actress Ruth Negga in the original’s pilot:
Secondly, there’s the remarkable eight-episode documentary called The Staircase. Co-creators Price and Steven Zaillian (the screenwriter of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Schindler’s List) have spoken about the powerful effect this series had on them. They also insisted Turturro and Ahmed watch it.
The Staircase chronicled the murder trial of a North Carolina writer named Michael Peterson, whose wife was discovered dead at the bottom of the stairs in their home. There are more twists in the story than a bag of pretzels, but for the question of whether Price and Zaillian’s admiration was worked into the full narrative arc and conclusion of The Night Of, we’ll all just have to wait and see. If you’ve seen The Staircase, then you now can speculate what that might mean for Naz; if you haven’t seen The Staircase, it’s time!
Turturro, Ahmed, Price, and Zaillian form the incredibly talented quartet of men that bring this show to the screen. Were it not for an unexpected tragedy in 2013, that lineup would have looked a bit different. When The Night Of originally went into production, there was this poignant name in the role of lawyer Jack Stone:
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The Night Of was described as a passion project of James Gandolfini. Turturro, his friend and collaborator (Gandolfini appeared in Romance and Cigarettes, Turturro’s directorial effort), joined the project a year after The Sopranos star’s 2013 death — though reluctantly, it should be said. Turturro only accepted the part after realizing Gandolfini had only filmed a few minutes of the premiere episode, as opposed to having created a fully fleshed-out character. You can actually see Gandolfini shooting the scene where Stone almost leaves the police precinct after spotting Naz in jail.
NEXT: A checklist of what to what to look for in this Night
Notwithstanding how different the character might have been with Gandolfini as the broken-down, eczema-plagued, sarcastic Jack Stone, Turturro is phenomenal. As gripping as the first minutes of The Night Of are, they mostly contain setup for the mystery about to come. The first three-quarters of the premiere, in fact, are just like the opening of an episode of the TV classic Columbo, where we witness in detail the murder (and the murderer) so we can watch Peter Falk’s disheveled detective piece the clues together. Turturro’s drab overcoat and crumpled appearance are perhaps an affectionate tribute to that immortal character.
But here, we don’t see the murder or the murderer. Naz, a 23-year-old half-Pakistani college student with limited sexual experience, nicks his father’s taxicab and inadvertently picks up a beautiful, mysterious young woman named Andrea (Sofia Black-D’Elia) in Manhattan. He drives her back to her brownstone apartment, where they drink, take drugs, play a version of mumblety-peg with a knife, and have sex. But as they are taking their clothes off in her bed, the scene fades to black and we don’t know how much time has passed before we rejoin with this:
Naz wakes in the downstairs kitchen, stumbles back upstairs to the bedroom, gets dressed, and turns on the lamp to say goodbye. And sees something we know he didn’t expect:
Fleeing from the apartment, he eventually ends up in jail after getting pulled over for making an illegal left turn and arrested for drunk driving. In an expertly tense sequence, he witnesses (from the back of a locked squad car) the cops as they arrive to Andrea’s brownstone and discover her mutilated body. At the police station, the stars align in an all-too-horrible way for Naz when the description of the murder weapon (a knife) and the description of the suspect (a non-white guy driving a cab) snap into place and find him in extremely hot water.
A few notes on what to pay attention to in the episode:
- The blood-stained knife is in Naz’s jacket until it’s eventually discovered at the police station. We know that. But take another look at the scene when he runs out of Andrea’s apartment. Where is the knife when he grabs it? Hmmm…
- Naz breaks a small window to get back into the apartment. That’s not the last small window that will be broken in the series.
- One of the truest rules of storytelling: You don’t make a character suffer from asthma (and carry an inhaler in his pocket) unless it matters later. Also, of course, the cat. Always pay attention to the cat.
- While Ahmed is captivating (with easily the most screentime in the premiere) and Turturro is note-perfect as ever, the acting MVP in this episode might be Bill Camp, the excellent American character actor, as Det. Dennis Box. We first see him waking up in bed — alone — and being summoned to Andrea’s murder scene. He then becomes a complex patriarchal figure and smoothly sinister interrogator of Naz in the police station. Box will evolve into one of the show’s most fascinating characters, so pay close attention to everything he says and does. For starters: File away in your memory his first reaction when Naz says he can’t breath. It’ll come back.
- I must also give credit to actress Afton Williamson, who delivers a tricky performance as the weary cop who arrests Naz and is terrific in the frisking scene (seen below). Though male-oriented, The Night Of will feature a rich collection of women in different roles, including Jeannie Berlin, Glenne Headly, Poorna Jagannathan (as Naz’s mom), and especially the great young British actress Amara Karan, whose American accent is as flawless as Ahmed’s.
- Compliments to Jeff Russo for his funereal opening-theme music, which employs an extremely heavy bow on the cello (or is that a violin?) to effectively convey a sense of dark gravitas.
- Anyone familiar with the urban poetry of Richard Price can immediately recognize his voice in Turturro’s dialogue. “Not to sound like a tea bagger,” Stone says to Naz, “but how do you feel about America?” There is also this wonderful exchange between the two men later, talking about Naz’s heritage:
Stone: “Guess no. 1: Pakistani by blood?”
Naz: “Yeah, my mom.”
Stone: “What is she: Punjabi, Pashtun, Baloch?”
Naz: “Punjabi. You been to Pakistan?”
Stone: “No. Have you?”
- How many references are made to Naz’s eyes? I counted three, including the quote with which I began this recap. At one point, Box says “Who’s my friend, staring at me like Bambi?” And Trevor (J.D. Williams from The Wire and the man who encountered Naz and Andrea on the sidewalk), while being interrogated later in the police station, refers to Naz as “that short, skinny, Puerto Rican motherf—er with the beany eyes.”
Ahmed, whose Keane-painting face was also a huge asset to the thriller Nightcrawler (in which he registered his horror, and ours, at the behavior of Jake Gyllenhaal’s sociopathic cameraman), perfectly expresses the trauma of Naz’s experience in moments like this one, where his terror can be read in his irises:
Watch his eyes carefully. Like a lot of things about Naz, they’ll be changing.