The Night Of (HBO)

Naz Khan, a Pakistani-American college student in NY, “borrows” his father’s cab to go to a party in Manhattan.  On the way, he sees a pretty lady looking for a ride, and he decides to pick up a “fare.”  One thing leads to another, and he winds up going to her apartment, doing way too much booze and drugs.  He wakes up, in the middle of the night, and finds out that pretty lady has been viciously stabbed in her bed.   Panicking, he runs, gets back in the cab, makes an illegal left turn, and gets stopped by the police.  Pretty soon, he’s the prime suspect in the girl’s murder.

Although the mini-series appears to be a routine murder mystery, it is more of an examination of the American judicial system, particularly as it plays out with respect to poor or unsophisticated defendants.  The police don’t bother to do a competent investigation, since the case appears open and shut.  Lacking good representation, Naz is denied bail and sent to Rikers Island, where is is mixed in with career criminals.  The big-firm lawyer who takes his case on a pro bono basis loses interest when Naz refuses a plea deal.

Steve Zaillian, the screenwriter, also wrote Schindler’s List, and the series benefits from a number of complex, very well drawn characters.  The prison scenes are particularly good and, I’m afraid, all too realistic.  The trial scenes are marred by what appear to be a lot of very basic errors — has no one heard of the hearsay rule?  For all I know, though, the low quality of the proceedings on both sides may be the norm for these kinds of cases, which may be part of the point.

This was originally a passion project for James Gandolfini, TV’s Tony Soprano.   After he died, the role of the jailhouse lawyer who eventually defends Naz was taken by John Turturro, a pretty good actor who lacks the emotional intensity Gandolfini might have brought to the role (a silly subplot involving panic-induced eczema doesn’t really substitute).  Riz Ahmed, a British actor, is very good as Naz.  And the supporting characters are generally excellent as well, particularly Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar in The Wire) who plays the Big Dog prisoner at Riker’s Island.

Worth seeing, but I’m not sure where (or when) it will be available if you don’t have HBO.

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