August 29, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Finale Review: “The Night Of”


Last year, the cop novel “The Whites” was published as the work of Harry Brandt–except that “Harry Brandt” was actually a pseudonym for Richard Price.  This seemed odd at first, because unlike, say, JK Rowling deciding to write detective stories, crime novels were already Richard Price’s bread and butter, in celebrated works of fiction like “Clockers” and “Lush Life.”  But as Price explained when the story broke (before “The Whites” was even published), he’d chosen a pseudonym because he wanted to try his hand at more lurid and action-packed (and perhaps more lucrative) fiction than his usual contemplative works.  The joke was on Price, though, because as critics noted when the book was published, even when he was trying to tell straightforward stories, Price just couldn’t help himself from building in complexity.

Some of that same tension was evident in THE NIGHT OF, the HBO series that Price wrote with Steven Zaillian (based on a UK format called Criminal Justice), and which Zaillian mostly directed.  The series was, on the one hand, a deeply serious and often brilliant study of what the police, prison and the legal system do to those who are caught within it.  But it was also a story that had its share of melodrama, and the mix between those elements was smoother at some times than others.

In particular, in a series as carefully worked out as The Night Of, its critical failure to fully develop the character of Chandra Kapoor (Amara Kapan), lead attorney for murder defendant Naz Khan (Riz Ahmed), became more puzzling with each episode.  Chandra was forced by the plot to do increasingly stupid things–make out with Naz in a holding cell that was under taped surveillance, agree to the terrible idea of putting Naz on the stand in his own defense, and then smuggle heroin to him so he’d be sufficiently mellow in court–and while it was conceivable to imagine a version of her that would make those turns explicable, none of that work appeared on the air.  There was also Naz’s straight-downhill road to degradation on Riker’s Island, and the need to provide a solution to the murder for which Naz was charged, which couldn’t help but feel like a more standard whodunit, although it was an extremely smart touch to have the evident killer be someone the defense hadn’t even thought about.

Mostly, though, tonight’s finale managed the feat of being satisfyingly unsatisfying.  It made absolute sense in the context of Price and Zaillian’s world for the trial to end with a hung jury, Naz’s guilt or innocence not established either way.  (Although the audience knew what Naz didn’t as he smoked heroin at the series end, that the probable real killer was soon to be arrested and likely convicted.)  And the trial sequences were absolutely superb, especially the awards-worthy performance by Jeannie Berlin as the prosecutor, who quietly demolished Naz on the stand, and who pushed past her own ethics when retired detective Box (Bill Camp) revealed to her that she probably had the wrong man on trial for his life.

The center of The Night Of, though, was occupied by Ahmed and John Turturo as his original attorney John Stone.  The final episode was a particular showcase for Turturo, whose character thought he’d finagle a mistrial by throwing Chandra under the bus for her illicit necking with Naz, but who ended up having to deliver the closing statement himself, in the midst of a monstrous attack of his awful eczema.  Turturo’s mixture of cynicism and principle speak for Price and Zaillian, and his performance is so remarkable that one can’t even miss what James Gandolfini or Robert DeNiro would have done with the role.

All of the actors in The Night Of were first-rate (Glenn Fleshler, as the trial judge, had a particularly shining sequence in the finale when he ruled on the mistrial motion), and it gave Ahmed a breakout role.  Zaillian’s direction was assured and often paradoxically more tense as it slowed down, a neat trick.  There was also notable cinematography and production design, creating a portrait of an absolutely convincing New York.

Most importantly, The Night Of more often than not managed the extremely difficult balance of telling a compelling story while also keeping its eye on larger issues of character and society.  The result has been far more successful in the ratings than last year’s HBO prestige project Show Me A Hero, and there have been murmurings about the limited series returning in some form.  If the quality of a second season could be up the standards of the first, that would be welcome, although no doubt HBO is determined to avoid what happened in the 2d season of True Detective.  For now, The Night Of exists as a complete whole, and even with its flaws, it was one of the high points of the TV summer.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."