Screen writing worthy of prestige is that which forces us to ask ourselves, ‘‘What am I capable of doing?’’ It’s that which tests our human emotions, takes us out of our normal comfort zones, and pushes us into a hole of self-reflection. It’s the kind of art that takes what we believe to be innocent and then asks us if we even understand innocence. ‘‘The Night Of,” written by masters of suspense and mystery Richard Price and Steven Zaillian, presents us with the classic story of a harmless nobody who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
What ‘‘The Night Of’’ achieves so beautifully is flipping the story so discreetly from under our own view that anyone watching will find themselves saying, ‘‘Who am I even rooting for anymore?’’ It’s a story that becomes so warped that even when it seems like the heroes are winning, you’re not even sure what winning means anymore. ‘‘The Night Of’’ is a story of race, justice, and perseverance, but at its core, it’s a story of what happens when one’s inner values are tested. It leaves you begging for a conclusion, even though you may be unsure if you even want one.
‘‘The Night Of’’ starts out as the title suggests: a geeky Muslim college kid goes out for a night of fun and wakes up with his entire world falling apart. It’s the story of Nasir Khan, played by Riz Ahmed, who will star in ‘‘Star Wars: Rogue One.’’ Naz steals his father’s taxi one night to go to a party, but ends up having an amazing night with a girl he’s never met before. The prosecution, led by Counselor Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin) and aided by aging detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp), interpret Naz’s night of juvenile antics and stupid mistakes as a series of criminal actions, made evident through New York’s post-9/11 surveillance grid. With the help of John Stone, played by John Turturro of ‘‘The Big Lebowski,’’ and Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan), Naz tries to prove his innocence. Meanwhile, on the inside, a big time kingpin named Freddy, played by Michael Kenneth Williams of ‘‘The Wire,’’ takes an interest in Naz due to his college education, offering him protection in exchange for amoral favors, and testing Naz’s moral compass.
This array of characters is supported by nothing less than an outstanding cast. Most notable is John Turturro’s portrayal of John Stone, a deadbeat defense lawyer with a horrible skin condition who settles for obvious criminals, cashes their insubstantial checks, and goes home to no one. Turturro does an incredible job of portraying intense compassion for Naz; his concern for Naz even starts to bleed positively into his personal life. When the events seem to be in Naz’s favor, you find yourself rooting more for Stone than Naz.
‘‘The Night Of’’ is one of Riz Ahmed’s biggest roles since his breakout role in ‘‘Night Crawler,’’ and he has proven himself to be an outstanding actor. His transformation throughout the show is wrenching, frustrating, and can only be attributed to Ahmed’s fantastic acting. The questions of morality and values that the incredibly talented writers pose to their audience could not have been done nearly as well without Ahmed’s performance. Ahmed has a very promising career ahead of him.
One of the most noticeable distinctions in ‘‘The Night Of’’ is its style. The use of colors, music, and shots create a crisp yet fragile mise-en-scène in the show. The pilot exhibits a masterful flow of bright and crisp colors in its first half, then transitions into the second half with the main color scheme of the show: gray. The series is filled with gray suits, gray offices, gray prison. The grayscale is, in itself, a testament to the overall theme of the show: a gray area, the unknown. While one side believes it’s black, the other believes it to be white. This also provides to the overall depressing feeling of the show as it drifts into the gray area of morality and concept. The color scheme is accompanied by a beautiful use of close-up shots that shift from out-of-focus to focused in order to emphasize a point. These prime examples of visual mastery couple with the shows subtle yet damaging craft of suspense through music. Even if ‘‘The Night Of’’ were not so masterfully written, it could also be appreciated for its recognizable and memorable style.
Implementing a Muslim character as its protagonist was an interesting choice made by the writers. Although Naz’s race and religion are frequently commented upon, and actually add to Naz’s air of guilt, they are not overly emphasized. In this time of the alt-right and their fear and hatred of Muslims, it would have been extremely easy to make some sort of political statement with Naz’s religion. It is almost more effectively that they did not. He was written as a normal kid; his religion had nothing to do with the defense’s case and assuredness of his innocence. Although the show is crisp in many ways, it is equally full of wise subtleties.
‘‘The Night Of’’ is one of the many examples that we live in the golden age of television, where a mini-series can hold its own against many long-running shows today. Its incredible writing, direction, and acting prove that it is one of the best shows of the year. Everyone should watch “The Night Of.” The whole series is currently available on HBO.