In defense of The Night Of: EW review
The finale of The Night Of began with a story that played like a bad joke. There were three cops in a bar. One police detective was telling another police detective about a Hollywood writer who wanted to make a TV show about a police detective with a high-concept point of difference. The central figure was to be an ex-soldier who got his legs blown off in Afghanistan and now used a pair of cutting-edge prosthetics.
The detective and his pal both thought the proposed show sounded terrible. The storyteller had a better, more “original” idea. “How about a series about a cop who doesn’t give a s—?” In his show, the detective would punch in, punch out, go home, eat with his family, have sex with his wife, and sleep like a log, then wake up and do it all over again. He was trying to describe, in his unimaginative way, a crime-time procedural that honored real-life police work with unromantic, pitiless honesty. “You write a show like that, and the job will throw you a parade. Am I right, Dennis?”
Dennis would be Dennis Box (Bill Camp), the third cop in the scene. He was drinking alone, on his last day on the job, trying — and failing — to ignore the feeling in his gut telling him that he had royally screwed up his final case. He answered his colleague by exiting the bar before the question mark even reached his ears. The “Doesn’t Give A S— Dick” sounded like a terrible idea for a detective, fictional or otherwise. He didn’t want to be that guy. He didn’t want to represent that story. And so he chose not to.
It was as if co-creators and writers Richard Price and Steven Zaillian were giving us an ironic, explanatory allegory for their enterprise. The Night Of was a moody character-driven procedural that found surprising richness by focusing on the nitty-gritty of justice, for the purpose for showing us how people who serve that process can be ground down by years and years of dispiriting toil, producing bad, broken work as a result. They can become like, say, paycheck actors in a relentlessly grim and seemingly unending cop show, guided by clichés and recycled narratives that they trust as truth, because received history and personal experience have proven those clichés and narratives true more often than not. Fixing the system comes from seasoned pros like Box, who know the craft and even love the craft, but must always remember to never assume that their experience contains everything they’ll ever need to know, that surprising new truths can be found in even the most familiar of stories, but they require an exhaustive application of skill and energy to find.
In this way, The Night Of wasn’t just a critique of everyday law and order, a love letter to the workday folks who do the job well, and a cautionary tale exhortation to everyone else to do it better. This eight-episode limited series was also a quiet comment on TV cop show franchises, which can often grow absurdly cynical the longer and longer they go, and the legions of journeyman character actors who make them go, and often elevate them, with their unfailing commitment to their craft. It was fitting, then, that this always absorbing, yet increasingly frustrating show owed its resonance and qualified success to an extraordinary cast who made their characters work even when the writing let them down. It couldn’t equal the mark set by two other crime anthologies, ABC’s American Crime and FX’s The People vs. O.J. Simpson, but I’d love to see Price and Zaillian give it another try.
Holding the center from start to finish was Riz Ahmed, brilliant as Naz, a Pakistani-American and Muslim whose wild, weird night of bad choices and circumstances left him accused of murdering a wealthy young white woman and deeply troubled soul named Andrea (Sofia Black D’Elia). He lost his innocence and much more as a result of detectives and prosecutors who failed to look hard, look deep, and consider all possibilities. But Naz’s flaws put him at risk for ruin: his poor self-esteem, due, in part, to being a marginalized person of color and demonized Other in post-9/11 America, and his immaturity and lack of self-awareness. He was a dangerous mystery to himself, guilty of poor critical reflection and inquiry — versions of the police failings that would screw him over. Had he been stronger, had he known himself better, Naz might have resisted the yearnings and temptations that brought him to Andrea’s home that night. Because he didn’t, he found himself unfairly wrecked by a system that only degrades, never sustains or elevates.
Before and during his trial, Ahmed survived incarceration at Rikers Island the same way he fell into it: by allowing himself to be seduced by a stronger, more damaged, and sadly toxic personality needy for connection: Freddy (Michael Kenneth Williams), a Rikers lifer and power player. This was Naz’s pattern throughout the entire series, his humanity and fate shaped by a reliance on the kindness of strangers — most of them as dim or desperate as himself, including his lawyers, low-rent plea-dealer Jack Stone (John Turturro) or ambitious defense attorney Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan). He succumbed to the worst assumptions of himself, branding himself with ostentatious proofs — or protests — of his feelings of worthlessness (tattooing his neck with gang signs, tattooing his knuckles with the words “SIN” and “BAD”), even as his gut and his faith told him he was worth so much more.
Under the influence of Freddy, Naz transformed into someone who could endure prison — and quite likely to find his way back after he got out. In a heartbreaker of a scene in the finale, Stone tried to put a positive spin on his ordeal and challenged Naz to embrace a DGAF, carpe-diem posture. “Everyone has a cross to bear, Naz, pardon the expression,” he said. “F— ‘em all. Live your life.” Stone’s pep talk was well-meaning, but I wonder if he was missing the huge freakin’ point sitting right in front of him, staring at him with soul-deadened eyes, which is to say, the person Naz once was, and deep down, still might want to be. For all his mystery, damage, and dark shades, I don’t think Naz thinks of himself a f— ‘em all, live-for-me kind of guy, nor does he wish to be that guy. Moreover, there something offensive, even privilege-ish about Stone’s pull-yourself-by-your-bootstraps rhetoric, as if a society rigged against you — and now, subculture wired to resent you — is an easy thing to ignore and transcend.
We left Naz buying drugs to feed the habit he developed in jail, then smoking up and blissing out at the spot on the river where he agreed to go home with Andrea. The implication, to me, was that Naz was stuck in a cycle that he’ll be hard-pressed to escape, like his addiction. (This mournful beat was followed by the episode’s final scene, in which Stone received a call from someone who’d just been arrested and needed representation. Turturro’s performance convinced me that this was a new client, but I did consider the possibility that it was Naz, and I dare say Price and Zaillian wanted us to consider this idea, if only to nurture the likelihood that Naz faced a bleak future.)
The first four episodes spanned just a few days, and they were the best in the run. They were a focused, immersive, gripping tick-tock of Naz’s fall and the police process. The premiere doted on Naz’s night out with Andrea and his arrest. The next three episodes followed Naz from arraignment to Rikers Island and tracked the work of Box and Stone as they dug into their work and did their best to play the part of Don’t Give A S— functionaries lest they lose perspective by caring too much. But their gut kept telling them that they were caring too little about a guy that didn’t quite make sense for the crime they were investigating. Would they listen to it?
Camp had maybe the hardest job of the major players — making his colorless, proficient yet nearly checked-out detective compelling and sympathetic; he met the challenge and then some. I could easily watch more Box mysteries and hope Zaillian and Price would consider writing more. Ditto Turturro’s Stone, the anti-Box, all quirks and moral queasiness, emotional and physical mess, from his diseased, flaky feet to his patronage of prostitutes to his weakness for distress strays of all sorts, human and feline. The metaphors for Stone’s itchy soul and bleeding heart were so ridiculously cliché, their obviousness seemed to be part of the point in a story about how we as a society have made it so ridiculously hard on to be simple creatures of conscience, to be Good Samaritans and loving neighbors to each other. Regardless, Turturro was great in the role, finding just the tone for all of Stone’s peculiarities and rationalizing them into a delightfully dysfunctional and completely credible human being.
The second half of the season coasted on the momentum generated by first. It also broke form: Instead of continuing the day-to-day, tick-tock narrative, the final four episodes covered a period of months. They presented a telescoped version of Naz’s trial and his transformation into hardened soul. The former lacked the impressive verisimilitude of the earlier episodes, while the latter strained credulity because of the accelerated pace and the abundance of prison narrative clichés. It played to and relied upon our cynicism and assumptions of incarceration as a degrading experience instead of earning them. But again, Ahmed’s performance was a saving grace, selling us on Naz’s turn.
More problematic was Chandra. Her choices were boggling. She committed gross ethical and criminal failures by smooching with Naz and supplying him with drugs. She risked sabotaging the case by putting Naz on the stand and leaving him vulnerable to withering cross-examination. Yes, you can argue that Chandra’s boneheaded moves made sense. She was young and inexperienced, she identified and over-identified with Naz, and she was ambitious and wanted success ASAP. In a show in which every single character was something of a trainwreck, whose foibles threatened to subvert the work, Chandra was no different. But look: She never should have been allowed anywhere close to this case. Stone, too. Maybe I’m being terribly naïve, but surely some highly experienced, high-quality attorney or firm would have stepped up and taken on Naz as a client, even at the risk of never getting paid their full quote, if only for the media attention. (Perhaps this was why the show was weirdly inconsistent in its depiction of the trial’s cultural impact. The early episodes suggested the crime was front-page news. But the trial itself lacked media circus and spectators. It was if it had become a forgotten bit of business of some small consequence.) Regardless, I took Chandra to be smart, so her blunders were, at the very least, too infuriating to be entertaining, and at the very worst, terrible writing. They were setups for more melodramatic beats that flattered other characters, most notably, Stone’s stirring, heroic closing argument. Not only did the show sell out Chandra, they damned her to facilitate a male lead’s catharsis and triumph. (To be fair, though, I’d argue that people participating in other people’s redemption, either by accident or with purpose, was part of the show’s social vision.)
And yet, here at the end, I find myself recalling the positives more than the negatives and reflecting on the show’s ideas on justice and conscience. The Night Of was very good as presenting society as a complex web of interconnection and intersubjectivity, interdependence and codependence. Stone’s closing argument — an earnest and earned appeal to “reasonable doubt” — struck me as a timely attempt to redeem this oft-abused concept and rescue it from the cultural narrative most responsible for its bad reputation, the O.J. Simpson murder trial. (Stone wearing white gloves to hide his inflamed hands seemed to echo/speak back to Johnnie Cochran’s “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” black glove defense.)
In Naz’s spiritual destruction and dehumanization, we saw the cost to those accused of crimes and not given a full presumption of innocence, whether in the courts or in public discourse. Once Box resolved to dig deeper into Andrea’s timeline and consider other scenarios and narratives — to think outside the box, if you will — he made rather quick and easy work of unraveling the mystery, or at least, a very plausible alternative theory that effectively blew up the prosecution’s case. The moment when Box presented this new evidence to district attorney Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin) was one of the show’s best for the wonderfully complicated effects Berlin was able to generate with such a sigh, a line (“We got more on this kid”), a withering stare, and shaming silence. She was so pissed at Box — for failing to do his job properly from the start, and for complicating her own at her moment of triumph. (Berlin was fantastic throughout the series, playing to and subverting the hard-ass, all-about-the-win prosecutor. While it was a contrived scene that never should have happened, the Weiss/Naz cross-examination was a fantastic showdown. But what I liked best was how it presented a prosecutor more interested in helping Naz see the truth — assuming it was the truth — than trapping him in her theory of it.)
The finale couldn’t resist ripe beats, like Box tampering with closing arguments by making a noisy show of walking out of the courtroom (I loved that and hated at the same time), and there were moments when I found myself screaming “How come no one found this out earlier?!” Still, I was moved by the spectacle of people wrestling with their consciences and overcoming their weaknesses and their stories to serve true justice and do the right thing. Box deferring retirement and atoning for past mistakes. Stone pushing through his self-consciousness and lack of self-confidence to deliver that fine final argument. Weiss declining to re-try Naz, then rallying Box to join her in going after Andrea’s true killer. Perhaps their example of making mistakes, learning from them, and atoning for them could inspire Price and Zaillian if they choose to make a second season, either following some of the same characters or new ones. The Night Of was flawed entertainment, but admirable — a real “true detective” story for those disappointed by the aesthetic and flameout of True Detective. I hope we haven’t seen the last of it. B