HBO’s has cornered the summer viewing market with its powerful and dark crime drama, The Night Of, an eight-part limited miniseries. Based on the BBC crime series Criminal Justice, the new drama created by Steven Zaillian and Richard Price, continues its harrowing portrayal of the current state of criminal justice in America, specifically, in New York.
In the premiere episode, viewers were given a gripping portrayal of a young man caught up in the impersonal criminal justice system. A Pakistani-American college student, Nasir “Naz” Khan, goes home with a girl he’s just met and wakes later that night to find her brutally murdered body. The Night Of continued its incisive examination of the American justice system in episodes 2 and 3: “Subtle Beast” and “A Dark Crate,” portraying the justice system as an Insiders’ Club, a Good Ol’ Boys Network, and as an impersonal beast where innocence and guilt alike get mangled in its maws.
Naz’s parents, Salim (Peyman Moaadi, above L) and Safar (Poorna Jagannathan, above R), are also the victims of this impersonal justice beast. While their son is in jail, they attempt to see him. His mother brings a covered plate of food for him, revealing her nature and her relationship to her son. In “Subtle Beast,” they had difficulties with language and with police procedure as they were directed from the precinct nearest their home to the one where Naz was being held. Once there, they were not permitted to see him because their son was “five tokes over the line” — he is 23, five years over the legal age limit for adults. Then Detective Sergeant Box (Bill Camp) loudly “instructed” the desk Officer that there was no reason they couldn’t see their son.
“You want me to argue with you,” the desk Officer whispered, “or do you want to let it go at that?”
“Let it go at that,” said Box, giving the parents the impression that he is a champion on their side.
In the interrogation room where Naz spoke to his parents, the videotape was rolling. Naz soon realized it, after glancing at the camera in the wall, and switched to his parents’ native language. Later, after Naz has been transferred to Rikers and his parents come to visit, his father is subjected to a humiliating encounter with a guard in order to get a Visitor’s Pass, only to learn that he cannot have one for his wife: she must get in line and go through the entire procedure herself.
When attorney John Stone (John Turturro, in another powerful performance) comes to their home and tells them his “flat fee” for representing Naz, they are stunned into silence. They have $8,000 in savings, and Stone wants $75,000, which he quickly drops to around $60,000, then drops again to $50,000. Though the parents are not aware that this is a man who advertises on the subway trains, No Fee Till You’re Free, they do know that they simply don’t have the money for the attorney’s retainer.
Despite their not yet signing his retainer because they need to think about it, Stone begins working on Naz’s case. In “A Dark Crate,” when hot-shot attorney Alison Crowe (Glenne Headly) shows up at Naz’s parents house saying she’ll take Naz’s case free of charge, because his case reminds her “of why she became a lawyer,” they sign on. The female attorney’s bringing an intern/neophyte attorney Chandra (Amara Karan) who speaks to them in Hindi may have had some impact on the Khans’ decision, too.
Naz’s parents are bewildered by the justice system. Obviously, neither of them has ever had any direct experience with it. Furthermore, neither of them seems to understand that despite Naz’s ostensible innocence, he’s not going to get out of jail any time soon, no matter what he says to the police.
The cops in The Night Of are anything but “good guys.” They verbally and physically abuse Naz: a policeman berates and pushes Naz around while he’s getting undressed so they can take his clothes as evidence. They assume Naz is guilty because of his race: a police officer in an entirely different precinct says, in response to the question about a crime somewhere in New York City the night before, that “some Arab/Muslim freak carved up a girl.” The cops sometimes pretend to be friendly and unassuming, wanting only to help Naz: the faux-buddy routine presented by lead Detective Box is the epitome of this “we’re only here to help you” routine.
After Naz’s initial statement to Box, Naz is instructed, by Attorney Stone, freqently and with great emphasis, not to talk to anybody, and to shut it, even if the people asking questions are Naz’s parents. At first, Naz and his parents are both taken in by Box’s mild mannered, just-help-me-understand-what-happened demeanor. After enough warnings from his attorney, Stone, Naz stops talking to Box, saying things like, “I know you think I did it” and “I know what it looks like,” until he finally simply says, “I’m not talking to you anymore.”
Despite Box’s giving Naz his asthma inhaler (recovered from the murdered girl’s bed), which seemed to be an act of genuine consideration but which may turn out to have been a way of further manipulating Naz, Detective Box clearly thinks Naz is guilty. Additionally, Box is doing everything possible to give everyone the same negative opinion of Naz. Box takes out a T-shirt that has Harvard printed on it when Naz is to be transferred to Rikers. Someone there makes a comment about his being a privileged rich boy: Naz doesn’t understand the remark; the person who made it doesn’t pay attention when Naz says it isn’t his shirt.
When the two arresting officers ask permission to change their initial report, in order to eliminate the “embarassing” detail of one of the officer’s vomiting at the crime scene, Box insists that they leave it in: he wants the jury to know that the nice guy college kid with no record left a girl so brutally stabbed and murdered that one of the first officers on the scene vomited. Talk about arranging your case. Box is even doing it with the responding officers’ reports.
Despite Stone’s saying that Box is probably a good detective, Box has clearly thrown guilty until proven innocent out the metaphorical window where Naz is concerned. Is it because Naz was, in fact, at the scene of the crime? Is it because he left the scene? Is it because of his race? So far, Box’s presumption of guilt on Naz’s part doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Naz’s or the girl’s race, but the other cops aren’t so forgiving when they identify Naz by race, religious beliefs, or racial insults.
After the premiere episode, the Girl, whose name is Andrea, has been relegated to Victim status. She remains lying there while the investigators are dealing with the crime scene. Her body is transferred to the Medical Examiner’s, where her jewelry is removed from her bloodied body. She is presented in photographs to her step-father, Don Taylor (Paul Sparks), who at first denies that it is his step-daughter, then admits that it is Andrea, after the detective suggests they go look at the body.
Later, Step-father Taylor talks to Det. Box and looks at a “line-up” of head-shots:
“He’s an Arab?” says Taylor.
“No,” says Box.
“These aren’t Arabs?” says Taylor, looking at the sheet of paper.
“No,” says Box.
Race should have been irrelevant since the step-father doesn’t recognize anyone on the sheet of paper. Still, the fact that all the “suspects” presented were “Arabs” is telling of Box and his presumption of Naz’s guilt. Now the dead girl’s step-father has been pre-disposed to think that “an Arab” killed the girl, whether or not that is actually the case.
The cops may call Attorney John Stone (John Turturr0) an “ambulance chaser,” but he’s obviously a good man at heart. He is plagued by eczema on his feet, and wears Birks without socks to keep his feet “aired out,” causing people on the subway to get up and move away from him. Even if this high-profile case just fell into his lap because Stone was at the “right place,” at the “right time,” and even though he’s not an experienced trial lawyer, Stone honestly attempts to help Naz. Stone tries to get Naz out of jail (when he thinks Naz just stabbed some girl, not knowing that the girl was dead). He tries to get Naz out on bail. He constantly instructs Naz to stop talking to anyone. Stone also goes to the DA’s office and attempts to work a plea deal, without Naz’s parents having signed any paperwork. Stone also goes to the victim’s house to investigate the crime scene.
His actions show him to be a good person, no matter what the cops or other lawyers may think of Stone. He works on Naz’s case from the moment he becomes Naz’s lawyer, whether or not he’s getting paid. I’m not sure what the “eczema” detail is about, unless it’s symbolism for Stone’s seeming to be an unsavory, repulsive character on the surface. That’s only his exterior, which he cannot control, since he’s already proven that, inside, he’s a very good person. Even if he wants the case because he thinks he’ll get rich from it (what the cops, Det. Box, the DA, and the other attorney accuse Stone of), he continues working for Naz even after Naz tells him that his parents hired someone else. Since Stone was the only one who found the Girl’s cat, and took it to a shelter despite his being allergic to it, and asked how long the cat would be held before it was put down, I’m guessing Stone will end up with the cat as well as with Naz. Stone seems like the kind of guy who would gather damaged or abandoned things to him.
In the premiere, I thought Naz (Riz Ahmed) was a little dim for being such a bright college kid. I mean, in this era of AIDS and HIV, he sleeps with a girl he just met, wihout even knowing her name. He took drugs the girl gave him without knowing what they were. Then she played this Knife game, missing her own hand, and afterward encouraging Naz to play Knife-Roulette with her hand, which he promptly, accidentally stabbed. I guess because I saw all the warning signs and the red lights flashing, and because I was shouting, Danger, Naz Robinson, Danger at the TV screen, I thought Naz should have at least had some clue that he was in for some trouble. But maybe he was, after all, just a young guy intoxicated by a pretty girl and the promise of sex.
In “Subtle Beast” and “A Dark Crate,” however, Naz has continued to prove himself completely trusting and somewhat naïve, though he has finally learned to “shut it,” as Stone has constantly ordered him, and to stop talking to anyone except Stone, though even Stone wants Naz to “shut it” about the details of that night. Some of Naz’s naïveté was shown in his not knowing the name of his attorney (Stone) when his parents asked him about it, and his (again) not knowing the attorney’s name (Crowe) when he told Stone that his parents had hired someone else to represent him. When Det Box continues trying to question Naz, knowing that Stone is now representing the young man, Naz pleads, “Please stop.” The kid is just too, too nice.
Once in Rikers, we know that a pretty boy like Naz is going to get into trouble. Once the other inmates discover the nature of his alleged crimes, he is “judged and juried,” according to inmate Freddy (Michael Kenneth Williams), who offers to protect Naz. At first, Naz accepts a gift from Freddy, as if he doesn’t know that any gift from another inmate will have to be “paid for” in some way. After Freddy explicitly offers his protection, Naz has to think about it. Some of Freddy’s crew are astonished by Naz’s attitude.
I should have been astonished, too, but I’m getting used to the boy being innocent beyond belief, and naïve beyond reality. After all, he’s a Pakistani-American Muslim in post-9-11, New York City when the world is still being plagued by terrorist attacks caused by radical Muslim activists. How on earth did this boy remain so incredibly innocent?
I realize that he’s never dealt with the justice system — few of us actually have — but are we to believe he’s never had to deal with racism? That’s very difficult to believe. He lives in a segregated neighborhood, he speaks two languages and he didn’t learn his parents’ language in school, he’s not Christian… Need I say more?
It’s the only weak point in the entire show: that Naz, given his racial and cultural background, would be so incredibly trusting and naïve, so racially unaware, and continue to be so, no matter the blatant and obvious “threats” gathering around him.
The dialogue in The Night Of may seem a bit of a throw-away at times, but, in actuality, it is always revealing the characters’ natures, their relationships, and any conflicts they might be having. From Stone’s “banter” with police officers, to his badinage with Det. Box, to his remarks with the judge who denies Naz’s bail, every line uttered develops the characters and the conflicts of the show. It’s some of the best dialogue ever written. There are many fledgling and veteran show writers who could learn much from this show’s dialogue.
When Box calls the girl’s step-father Taylor, we hear Taylor say, over the phone, “What’s she done now?” telling viewers everything they need to know about the dead girl and her father’s opinion of her behavior.
When Stone is before the judge at Naz’s bail hearing, the judge denies bail, then asks Stone the following:
“John, just curious. Friend of the family, or right place, right time?”
“Right place, right time,” says Stone.
“Good for you,” says the Judge, eliciting a huge grin from Stone.
When Stone has another client up for sentencing, the judge gives the young man 3 years. The young man is outraged: the white man before him got only 18 months.
“How come I can’t get 18 months like the Jew got?” says the angry young man.
Before Stone can tell the judge what his “client meant to say,” the judge looks the man in the face and says, “You want Jew-time? Do a Jew-crime.”
When Stone verbally spars with the police, viewers learn that the cops think he’s nothing more than an “ambulance chaser” when, upon hearing a siren, the cops tell John to hurry so he can catch it. When he responds, he makes it clear that he knows everything about their career conflicts, including charges of assault.
“Why don’t you teach me that choke-hold on [name of Hispanic victim]?” says Stone.
“Why don’t I show it to you? Come on outside,” says the policeman.
The show is filled with intense dialogue that reveals the characters’ histories as well as their natures, their personal conflicts as well as their conflicts with others, and their relationships with all the other characters in their lives. It’s extremely well done dialogue, and one of the highlights of The Night Of.
The actor playing Det Box, Bill Camp, is attempting to defend his character’s actions in the show, claiming that even he [Camp] doesn’t know whether or not Box is a good or bad guy. But The Night Of is pretty clearly differentiating the characters into in and out categories, at the very least. Anyone who is intimately involved in the justice system is already a member of the Club: they are “in.” They know everything about everyone else, personal and professional. From the judges to the attorneys, from the DA to the policemen, everyone makes remarks about personal things that reveal they are long-standing members of this Good Ol’Boys Club. They are “in” members. Whether or not they are “good” remains to be seen.
The Insiders not only know everything about everyone else in the club with them, they speak the secret language of the club. Cops, attorneys, judges, DAs, they all are able to communicate in their special, legal language, sometimes even using shorthand that viewers cannot understand, to move this daily business of good guys vs bad guys along.
What’s important to the victims of this system — the innocents like Naz and his family members, who are “out” of the club — is totally irrelevant to the Club’s members. Witness Box and the police confiscating the Khan family computer, despite the fact that they already have everything from Naz’s room, and despite the family’s protests that the second computer isn’t Naz’s and that the family needs it. When the father protests to attorney Stone, who is, by the nature of his profession, a member of the Club, Stone matter-of-factly tells the Khans, “You’ll just have to get another computer,” as if such a thing is feasible in any but the wealthiest families.
The justice system is incomprehensible to everyone except the Insiders. The more street-wise the Insiders are, like Box and Stone, the more successfully they manage the system. For anyone else, however, for anyone who is not a member of the Club, the system grinds on, whether or not an accused is present, whether or not his attorney is there to speak up for him, whether or not the accused understands everything that is going on.
It’s a dark and grim portrayal of the justice system in the United States. Cold and impersonal to any “outsider” who gets trapped under its wheels, the system rolls on, inevitably and inexorably, to the horror and fascination of HBO viewers.
If you haven’t seen The Night Of yet, you simply do not know what a fantastic drama you’re missing, now matter how harrowing its presentation of the American justice system. You can catch up any time on HBOgo or HBOnow. The mini-series airs Sundays at 10p.m. ET on HBO, and the rest of the week on other HBO channels. Viewers who are HBO subscribers can watch the premiere “The Beach” free. Other viewers can see the tease or the official HBO trailer for the miniseries.