The Night Of (2016)

The Night Of first published by RealCrime Magazine

When scuzzy, ambulance-chasing lawyer John Stone (the excellent John Turturro) – think Breaking Bad‘s Saul Goodman, only with a better moral compass – goes home at night to his apartment, he relaxes in front of the television to watch CSI-like forensic detective shows. In The Night Of, written by Richard Price and Steve Zaillian and directed by Zaillian and James Marsh, there are a lot of televisual influences, not least Peter Moffat’s BBC drama Criminal Justice (2008-9) from which the show has been adapted (and relocated to a post-9/11 New York) – but what is most striking about this eight-part series is the way that it recombines the tropes of many different TV subgenres to anatomise, through the prism of a single murder trial, the entire workings (and not-workings) of America’s justice system.

If the title The Night Of involves an ellipsis, then a crucial part of the night in question is also left blank, as economics student Nasir ‘Naz’ Khan (a necessarily passive Riz Ahmed) spends most of it intoxicated and unconscious, with no memory of how his chance pick-up Andrea (Sofia Black D’Elia) has come to be fatally stabbed upstairs in the bedroom of her townhouse. Caught literally red-handed after fleeing the murder scene, Naz is the only suspect of police detective (and ‘subtle beast’) Dennis Box (Bill Camp), and is remanded to Rikers Island Correctional Facility where he will quickly learn from well-connected con Freddy Knight (Michael Kenneth Williams) that to survive is to compromise. John takes Naz on as his client, and is soon helping a wealthy firm’s young attorney Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan) build a case to beat State Prosecutor Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin).

All at once a whodunnit, a police procedural, a prison thriller and a courtroom drama, The Night Of painstakingly maps out the minutiae of legal process, right down to questions of what eventually happens to a vehicle seized in evidence. A subplot involving John’s endless battle with eczema might at first appear a throwaway attempt to make his character ‘quirky’ – but in fact, in showing a systemic, ugly-looking sickness that must be constantly (and imperfectly) managed, it also serves as a crucial metaphor for justice’s fragile process as an itch that can never be satisfactorily scratched. There is similar allegorical heft to be found in allergy-prone John’s flip-flopping attitude towards Andrea’s now abandoned cat which, like Naz, is caged, isolated and processed, and dependent for its very life on the kindness of strangers.

Here the identity of the killer matters less than the dehumanising treatment of one presumed innocent until proven guilty, as The Night Of shows a young man ruined, perhaps forever, by the judicial structure designed to protect him.

© Anton Bitel