Premiering with rave reviews on July 17, the 8 part HBO series titled “The Night Of” seemed too good to ignore even though I have been disappointed with other overhyped HBO series in the past, including “The Wire” that like “The Night Of” relied on the scripts of Richard Price. Price is a 66-year old novelist and screenwriter whose early work I greatly admired. His “Ladies Man”, for example, depicted the desperate nighttime sexual odysseys of a young male New Yorker in vivid realistic detail. Later on, Price began to write gritty detective novels that some critics compared to Dickens and Dostoyevsky. I tried one of them in 1992, a 661-page tome titled “Clockers” that I put down after 50 pages. None of it seemed credible. It was this kind of writing that apparently made Price a perfect match to David Simon, the director of “The Wire”, a show that I spent 15 minutes watching before turning it off in disbelief. In “Faking the Hood”, an aptly titled interview with Ishmael Reed by Wajahat Ali, there’s this terse but accurate summation of the would-be realistic style of “The Wire”:
Simon, Price and Pelecanos’ Black characters speak like the cartoon crows in those old racist cartoons [“Heckle and Jeckle.”]
Richard Price’s co-writer was another veteran screenwriter named Steven Zaillian who wrote a very fine film “The Falcon and the Snowman” based on a true story of young Californians who became Soviet spies as well as the boneheaded “Exodus: Gods and Kings”. Zaillian co-directed the series with James Marsh, the director of the outstanding documentary “Project Nim” about the troubled experiments with a chimpanzee’s ability to learn sign language.
While the NY Times is not necessarily an arbiter of great or even near-great art (keep in mind all the raves for Woody Allen movies in the 1990s), I thought that if even this was only half-true, it was worth checking out “The Night Of”:
“The Night Of,” the tense and exquisite limited series on HBO, beginning on Sunday, is also a deeply detailed procedural, but with a difference. It has more in common philosophically with the podcast “Serial” (whose first subject, Adnan Syed, was just granted a new trial); Netflix’s “Making a Murderer”; and this year’s two O. J. Simpson series — true-crime stories that suggest that who is locked up, for what, is largely a matter of resources and random fate.
Since I wasn’t familiar with “Serial” or “Making of a Murderer”, I had no idea of how to interpret such comparisons. But if it was “tense and exquisite” and came free with my HBO subscription, why not give it a shot?
Episode one, which you can watch for free introduced us to Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani-American college student living in Queens who borrows his father’s cab to go to a party in lower Manhattan without his permission. On his way there, people keep getting into the cab because the “available” light is on, something that Naz seems unable to turn off. He tells all the would-be passengers to leave except the last one, an attractive young woman who gets his testosterone churning. Just after she gets into the back seat, she starts swigging beer straight from the bottle. Something tells Naz that this is an opportunity that has fallen into his lap.
When she asks him to take him to the “the beach”, he convinces her that the waterfront on the Hudson River was just as good. There they chat for a while until she invites him to drive her over to her place on the Upper West Side for what is obviously know familiarly as a “good time”. Before getting there, they stop at a convenience store where Naz picks up a six-pack. Once up in her apartment, they drink the beer, hard liquor and take lots of drugs. They also play a knife game that consists of sticking the point in rapid succession between the splayed out fingers of your partner just like the android Bishop (Lance Hendriksen) did in “Alien”. When Naz accidentally nicks the back of her hand, the blood seems to get her own hormones flowing. Lickety-split they end up in bed fucking their brains out.
It was at this point that I turned it off. My comment on a rave review on the usually astute Slant Magazine summed up my feelings:
I turned this ridiculous show off after 5 minutes. [It was actually more like 15] It has about as much to do with NYC characters as the man in the moon. Take me to the beach? Give me a break. Richard Price was once capable of writing gritty naturalistic tales. Now he writes a cock-and-bull story that has mesmerized the critics. The emperor has no clothes.
About a week later, I decided to have another look at the show mostly as a function of nothing else to watch on the tube but also morbid curiosity to see what else could go wrong.
In episode one, a few hours after having sex, Naz wakes up in the kitchen having no idea how he got there. Too much drugs and booze apparently. He goes up to say goodbye to the woman but discovers to his dismay that she has been stabbed to death. In a panic, he takes the bloody knife with him, tries to erase all signs of his presence there, and leaves in his father’s cab in a total panic. A few blocks from the building he accidentally crashes the cab and is arrested for drunk driving. In the precinct house they discover the bloody knife and arrest him for murder.
Much of the rest of the series takes place in Rikers Island where Naz is kept awaiting trial. Almost immediately he becomes caught between rival power centers in the jail, trying all the while to avoid taking sides. The prisoners are all African-American and the dialog written for them is a odd and unlikely mixture of street argot and literary pretentiousness. Since neither Price nor Zaillian have the slightest clue about how hardened Black criminals speak, the whole effect is utterly unnatural but calculated to impress the critical establishment.
In episode four, titled “The Art of War”, a Black prisoner feeling protective of Naz tries to clue him in on the Hobbesian world of Rikers Island as the two survey the scene in the exercise yard as men pump iron:
You want to know who’s who in the zoo? Who to watch out for? You got to check out the card games to see who’s got the temper and who’s got the cool. Only you don’t want to get in those card games owin’ someone some money. That shit don’t end, my nigga. That brother over there, charmin’ everybody. Next thing you know he got your ass by the throat. But he don’t need to use his muscle any more than a spider has to sweet talk a fly.
Got your ass by the throat? Sweet talk a fly? Say what?
Look, here’s the deal. Price and Zaillian probably live in 10,000 foot houses that are monitored by CCTVs and far removed from how the Black criminal class lives or speaks. You are always better off writing about what you know even if in their case it means meeting with their agents and HBO suits. Larry David pulled it off with “Curb Your Enthusiasm”. Maybe Price and Zaillian can write a murder mystery about writers who kill a studio executive who has pressured them into inflating a tale like “The Night Of”.
When he was in the precinct house, Naz runs into a lawyer named John Stone who offered his services even though his typical client was a prostitute or petty drug dealer. Stone’s advertisements can be seen inside subway cars, an obvious token of his shabbiness. If you understand how these stories operate, Stone will turn out to be Naz’s salvation through dogged detective work. He is played by John Turturro, a veteran character actor that was directed for some strange reason to sound exactly like the elderly Al Pacino. Also, for some strange reason his character’s foot eczema becomes a major element of the story with Stone searching high and wide for cures, including the use of Chinese herbal medicine.
Another superfluous plot element is Stone’s odd relationship to a cat that he finds wandering about the building where the murder took place. He takes it home with him and keeps it in a spare bedroom with the door closed. With an allergy to cats compounding his eczema not to speak of premature ejaculation he is trying to treat with Viagra, you begin to care more about his ability to make it through the night rather than Naz’s fate. If I had been on the writing team, I would have suggested making Stone into someone suffering Tourette’s as well just to add to the suspense. Will he curse out the judge during the trial in a Tourette’s tic and ruin Naz’s chances of acquittal? The suspense would kill HBO viewers.
Such elements add absolutely nothing to the story and makes you wonder what motivated Price and Zaillian to inflate it far beyond the British TV series that “The Night Of” is based on. I can only say that it might be the result of the same calculations someone on Facebook attributed to the producers of “Mr. Robot”, another overrated cable show that is still much better than “The Night Of”:
The commercial model of television = some innovation and creativity, but too many episodes for the purposes of advertising revenue maximisation. Lost was the same, really, the need to stretch it out messed with the quality.
Since HBO does not run commercials, this might not apply in the narrow sense but if your goal is to get viewers to watch ads for other HBO shows that begin each episode, maybe it does.
Eventually Stone is joined by another attorney, an Indian-American named Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan) who eventually replaces him although he continues to help her out in investigating who might have been the actual killer. When Naz asks her advice on a guilty plea for a lesser manslaughter charge that carried only a five-year sentence, she tells him that if he is guilty, he should take it otherwise he should plead not guilty. So he pleads not guilty.
If you are expecting the typical Scott Turow or John Grisham tale in which an innocent man is rescued through the intelligent and courageous work of a dedicated lawyer, you will be disappointed. It is not so much the problem with Kapoor and Stone but Naz who becomes a typical con in Rikers Island as he is awaiting trial largely through the intervention of Freddy Knight (Michael K. Williams), an alpha male African-American prisoner and skilled boxer. Knight becomes both his protector and his seducer into evil, getting Naz not only to smuggle drugs into jail but becoming his accomplice in the murder of another prisoner. Naz shaves his head in skinhead fashion, tattoos “sin” on his fingers, bulks up by lifting weights, begins smoking crack and bullying prisoners below him on the food chain. Apparently Zaillian and Price don’t believe in doing things half-way. If you are going to turn Naz into a reprobate, just step on the accelerator even if verisimilitude lies wrecked on the side of the road.
The entire purpose of seeing this unlikely transformation of Naz is to communicate the message that jail is a Bad Place. Okay, I get it. If I hadn’t seen “The Night Of”, I would have continued to believe that Rikers Island was much more like Bard College.
Another message “The Night Of” was supposed to convey is that prejudice exists against Muslims. The tabloids make a big deal about him being of Pakistani descent even though he was born and raised in Queens. At one point, someone drives past his parents’ house and throws a rock through the window. None of this is explored in any depth but is thrown into the mix just as effectively as Stone’s eczema and his adopted cat.
The net effect of Naz’s transformation as well as the revelation that he was violent toward his schoolmates who taunted him after 9/11 is to numb you to the drama and shrug your shoulders in advance over the outcome of the trial. Guilty? Not guilty? Who cares.
Meanwhile, as Stone snoops around trying to find out who really killed Naz’s one-night stand, he turns up four other possible suspects while the chief detective on the case has turned up another one on his own. You start to wonder if “The Night Of” will have a conclusion like “Murder on the Orient Express”. They all did it.
The final episode concludes with a hung jury and Naz’s freedom that has a hollow ring. He is alienated from his parents and totally disheartened. In the final moments, we see him smoking crack on the Hudson River waterfront evoking the tryst that began his descent into a living hell. It was all intended to be noirish but I found it third-rate compared to the classic work of Fritz Lang or Jules Dassin.
Determined to find out what went wrong, I ordered the British series on a DVD from Amazon.com that reminded me of a cardinal law of adaptations. When a continental European TV show gets adapted by British TV, it is an inferior product as the Kenneth Branagh version of “Wallander” would indicate. And when the USA adapts a British show, the same thing applies. Adaptations tend to be based on naked commercial ambitions and there is nobody more adept at naked commercialism than American TV and film executives.
In 2008 the BBC aired season one of “Criminal Justice” with a story about Ben Coulter who ends up in the same predicament as Naz. He borrows his father’s cab, picks up a wild woman, goes home with her, and flees from her house after discovering that she has been stabbed to death.
Clocking in at 284 minutes compared to the elephantine 540 minutes of “The Night Of”, it is a reminder that brevity is the soul of wit.
The main difference between the two shows is that Ben Coulter goes through no Jekyll-Hyde transformation like Naz. He comes into jail like a doe-eyed innocent and remains so through the entire series. The Brits had no “messages” to deliver, only a taut crime drama about saving the life of a young man who was being crushed by seemingly irrefutable evidence.
The John Stone in the British show also has eczema but it hardly figures in the plot. We see him walking around in sandals but we care less about that than his ability to uncover evidence that will clear his client. This is par for the course in a million different courtroom dramas from Perry Mason to Boston Legal, but rest assured that the British do these things much better than us. Their auto and steel industry might have gone down the tubes but they still are better when it comes to intelligent entertainment.
And all-importantly, there’s a key difference between “The Night Of” and “Criminal Justice” in the way that the chief detective is portrayed. In the HBO show, after the cop discovers that it was a common criminal rather than Naz who did the crime, he persuades the DA to accept a hung jury and avoid a mistrial. He then goes after the real culprit to demonstrate that the cops are on the job. In the British series, the chief detective keeps a similar discovery to himself since the killer was a snitch working for the cops to supply information on gangsters. When chewed out by the prosecuting attorney for dereliction of duty, he defends himself by saying that he was only doing his job to maintain law and order. In the final analysis, the cop was an accomplice to murder. That’s something neither HBO nor Zaillian/Price could allow to be represented to American audiences apparently.