Every bubble will eventually burst, so it stands to reason that the meticulously detailed crime saga, which was single-handed revitalized by the Serial podcast, should be on the wane by now. After all, Sarah Koenig’s hit series had an impact so seismic that last week a Maryland judge granted convicted killer Adnan Syed a new trial. Meanwhile, the O.J. Simpson murder trial, which has been relitigated endlessly for two decades, is still compelling enough to fuel a scripted series and a nearly 10-hour documentary, both of them engrossing. Yet the public appetite for beat-by-beat murder mysteries hasn’t waned, and the latest such tale, HBO’s stellar The Night Of, serves as an explanation for the genre’s durability.
The Night Of isn’t a true-crime story, it’s an eight-part scripted drama adapted by Steven Zaillian and Richard Price from the British series Criminal Justice. (James Gandolfini, who was slated to star prior to his death, was instrumental to the show’s creation and is credited as an executive producer.) But it certainly feels true, with screenwriter Price bringing the same journalistic knack for rendering characters he brought to his work on The Wire. Like The Wire, The Night Of gradually pulls back its focus to reveal the many moving parts of a ramshackle municipal system, but wisely, it starts as small as possible before expanding its tableau. Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed) is a quiet, polite college student in New York City, otherwise inconspicuous except for his Pakistani roots, which make him a target for Islamophobic taunts. He sneaks out in his father’s taxicab to head to a party, only to find himself beguiled by the sort of femme fatale who, were this a different kind of whodunnit, would stroll into a private investigator’s office holding a foot-long cigarette, with a cash retainer tucked in her décolletage.
Instead of heading to the party as planned, Nasir spends an intimate, drug-fueled night with the beautiful stranger, then wakes up disoriented and finds her brutally stabbed to death with no recollection of how it happened. His panicked reaction leads to a series of forensic missteps as he rushes back out to the cab to flee. Before long, he’s in police custody with no alibi and too few answers to give. Detective Dennis Box (a terrifically understated Bill Camp) is assigned to the case and begins trying to piece together the details of a night that can’t be reconstructed by Nasir, who is possibly the only living person who can shed light on what took place. Naz’s best hope is Jack Stone (John Turturro), a slippery lawyer who resembles the Saul Goodman of the Eastern Seaboard.
The Night Of would be fascinating enough if it were limited to the thrusts and parries of Box and Stone, a pair of steely veterans whose years of accumulated cynicism are their strongest assets. Instead, the episodes—written almost exclusively by Price—follow Naz into Rikers Island as he awaits trial and delve into each step of the chain reaction his incarceration creates. His father, Salim (Peyman Moaadi), for example, must navigate a complex and hostile system to try to reclaim the taxicab that turned from a vital source of income into a piece of evidence in a high-profile murder case.
Everything that HBO has wanted out of a drama since True Detective sparked then fizzled is available in spades in The Night Of. Zaillian’s direction is never less than confident and doesn’t feel obtrusive even at its showiest. And not enough can be said about the ensemble cast, which is stacked to the rafters with ringers; elite character actors fill even the most thankless roles. (A drinking game could be made of spotting the familiar faces that pop up for glorified walk-on roles.) But no actor is wasted, because no character is wasted. Each moment and every exchange are pieces of a misshapen puzzle that may or may not come together by the end of the eight-episode run. Thanks to the grounded performances, The Night Of, like the similarly themed Serial, will have audiences ready to render their own verdicts, convinced they know the characters well enough to telegraph their actions.
The only glaring flaw with The Night Of comes from Price’s efforts to humanize each character with novelistic quirks. Price’s scripts are reminiscent of the best Capote-style crime-and-punishment tomes, packed with details that ensure each character is a complete person rather than a cog in a plot machine. At a certain point, the foibles become distracting and hit distinctly false notes, a flaw it shares with some of the most celebrated literary journalism. Stone is plagued by an aggressive form of eczema, for example, and a startling amount of time is devoted to his home-remedy rituals and quippy exchanges with his dermatologist. Such scenes allow The Night Of to be appreciated on a scene-by-scene basis rather than judged on how satisfying the mystery’s resolution is. Some scenes are pleasant scenic detours while others are questionable uses of real estate in an eight-part series; one viewer’s deleted-scene trash could easily be another’s treasure.
At this point in HBO’s life cycle, nearing the end of Game Of Thrones, past True Detective’s glory days, and without any clear contenders to fill the vacuum, a slightly flawed masterpiece is better than no masterpiece at all. The Night Of could be easily anthologized, and if future seasons have the same amount of care and passion poured into them, it could be the bedrock HBO wanted out of True Detective. At the very least, it’ll stand as the testament to the durability of the murder mystery, which will never reach its saturation point. What looks like a whodunnit bubble about to burst is more like a lung, constantly expanding and contracting but always vital to our understanding of what it is to be human and capable of horrific acts.