Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Night Of

by Scott Adlerberg

It's been interesting reading the reactions to The Night Of.  Does anything provoke high expectations like a crime series, with a mystery at its core, that begins well?

The Night Of starts beautifully, and it had me hooked from the first episode. By the time I reached the conclusion of the last episode, well...

Can a single person be a hung jury?  A mixed reaction to the series is what I came away with in the end.

For starters, I'm glad I watched it and it played as compelling television. As you would expect of anything Richard Price has a hand in, the writing is sharp, precise, and detailed. The acting is excellent.  I loved the way it had a modulated tone throughout and those early scenes in the police precinct the night the police bring Naz in after the murder were gems. John Turturro's character was totally believable; even after countless courtroom dramas on film and TV, it's still rare to see the portrayal of a lawyer working at John Stone's grubby (but honest) level.  Lawyers almost always are shown as brilliant and very skilled or as fallen but seeking redemption (like Paul Newman in The Verdict).  Here we get an unglamorous working lawyer who hangs around the precinct picking up clients and who has advertisements for his services pasted up in subway cars.  

Stone's constant admonition to his clients to "say nothing" and "keep your mouth shut" is dead on, and so is the way he describes what happens in court.  He's less interested in what actually happened, in finding the truth, than in the presentation of a narrative.  As he puts it, the prosecution gets to tell their story, the defense tells their story, and the jury then decides which story it believes. The defense doesn't need to know what truly happened and may not even want to know. Having knowledge of the truth may not help the defense present its case at all. From the defense's point of view, the only thing that matters is what the jury hears and whether the defense can forge a narrative that sows doubt in the jury members' minds.  This is obviously what happens in every criminal case that goes to court, but again, it's seldom that you hear this point stated so bluntly in drama.   

I didn't mind that the last episode, in its 90 plus minutes running time, crammed in one or two late trial twists that damaged the carefully calibrated sense of realism.  And that the series ended on a somewhat ambivalent note was fine.  You're left strongly suspecting that one particular person was indeed the killer, but you don't know this for sure. Why should you? That's how a show that goes against the notion of certainty being an expected trial outcome should end.  

So what are my reservations?  Mainly, and I know I'm not alone here, it's in how the women characters are portrayed.  As others have pointed out, the show is in fact yet another crime drama where a woman's death kicks off a story about how that woman's death effects the lives of the main male characters.  I didn't get the sense that the victim, Andrea, was a seductress who lures Naz into a night of debauchery. It's clear he makes his choices in deciding to let her stay in his cab and then go with her to her house and then party with her. The choices he makes are on him.  But once Andrea is dead, she is, yes, pretty much a cipher. We learn next to nothing about her.  

And then there's the handling of these characters:

1) Naz's young attorney, who seems level headed and intelligent and does a good job presenting the defense's case until, inexplicably, she falls enough for Naz to kiss him in a prison jail cell and then smuggle drugs in to him.  This old saw of the woman professional who goes soft for a man (in this case going so far as to break the law for him and risk her career) comes out of left field and doesn't help anything in the story. Plus, after presenting a solid case that may give Naz a chance for acquittal, she pointedly ignores Stone's advice and puts Naz on the stand. This decision is a terrible one and winds up hurting her case.

2) The prosecutor, competent at her job but who in the last episode is painted in such a way that it seems she'd send a man she thinks may well be innocent to prison for a long time. The information she gets about the new lead comes before Naz's trial's ends, and when she hears about it, the look on her face, though somewhat ambiguous, indicates that she probably believes the new information. She makes no effort to pursue it until later, though, when much damage could have been done to Naz. So her main priority in life is her conviction rate, truth be damned?  She has to have believed the new information or she wouldn't easily let the jury's verdict stand and decline to re-prosecute. That prosecutors like this exist is no surprise, but in The Night Of it merely seems as if it's only the men, like Detective Box, doggedly pursuing the truth after his retirement, who have rectitude.

3) Of Naz's two parents, it's his mother who's the one who comes to think he may in fact have killed Andrea.  His father never wavers in his belief that his son is innocent.  The story could be written of course that both parents, or neither, or just the father, have their doubts about Naz, but in this case, it's the mother alone, which somehow seems of a piece with the slippery quality given to at least four (including Andrea) of the women characters in this story.

Anyway, despite my reservations, I don't feel I wasted my time watching The Night Of.  I hope HBO renews the series for a second season, preferably with a new case.  The second season of Criminal Justice, the British series The Night Of is based on, centers around a pregnant wife and mother who murders her abusive husband, a successful barrister. Maybe HBO will follow that story line next. It sounds promising, so let's see.  In the meantime, actually, I may go watch that second season, the British version, on Hulu.  


Monson said...

Great, thanks. Yes, for me, one of the great pleasures of the show were the minute details of EVERYTHING -- the lawyers rashes and attempts to fix it, the little things the jailors do step-by-step to manage the prisoners, the complete unemotional rudeness of most of the policemen and attorneys involed, it goes on and on. There were details all through that didn't ring true for me -- the high powered attorney who took on the case at first: she is first shown working a civil case, which, in real life, means she is a civil litigation attorney, which means she would NOT do a criminal case -- the prisoner that befriends Naz, why did he do it? Because he respected Naz's mind? Because he was attracted to Naz's vibe of innocence? Give me a break. And why was Naz seemingly a permanent prisoner in the jail? Sure, there is a reputation that people sometimes stay in Rikers waiting for trial for a very long time, but, still, basically Rikers is a jail for people awaiting trial or people who are serving less than a year. At one point in the last episode he tells Naz "It's not so bad in here," or something like that, implying that if Naz was convicted, he'd be in Rikers for a long time, which is not true if he was convicted he's go to a state penn -- his time at Rikers would be over. Why was the younger attorney first chair? As incompetent as Turturro's character was depicted, there is no way a brand new attorney would be first chair at a big murder trial. Plus, she wouldn't have the power to put her client on the state if her partner said no -- they'd really need to agree on such things. Okay, I guess that is enough, but there is way more.

scott adlerberg said...

Mike - Yeah, the show has a ton of great small details, not least, as you say, the sort of civil servant behavior of the cops and the utter non-glamour of the lawyers. Also, I wouldn't say Turturro was depicted as incompetent really. He was certainly a physical mess. But he knew what he was doing as a lawyer. He was just a low-level lawyer with limited resources and average skills, plugging away and doing his job. But he's obviously helped put his son in a ritzy high school and he makes a decent enough living to have an okay apartment in the City. He was neither great nor terrible. That's what I liked. You don't see that much in movie or TV lawyers.

Thomas Pluck said...

I enjoyed the show but had similar reservations, especially that all we see of Andrea is a Jezebel who ruins Naz's life. And we don't know if he killed her or not. Ambiguity is fine, but all we know is that she's a drug addict who likes to play knife games. The cat got more sympathy.

Monson said...

I think the other attorneys and the judge definitely treated Stone as not at their level. Oh, and the apartment was so big all to himself, I wonder how much that would cost. Where was he? Was that The Bronx?

scott adlerberg said...

The other attorneys and the judge did treat him as a low level guy, but remember the arraignment early on for Nas. The arraignment judge asks Stone something like "Right time right place? or "Directed to you." Something like that, asking Stone how he got a case that could be high profile and get him some publicity. Stone says, "Right time right place." He happened to be in the precinct when Nas came in. And the judge says, "Good for you." He's glad to see a little good fortune come Stone's way. That struck me as a great detail. Stone's been around a long time, hangs around the courts all the time, plugs away, and after years of that, finally he may have caught a break and a colleague in the courtroom world acknowledges that nicely.

It wasn't quite clear what borough he was living in. I took it to be Manhattan, but it was definitely hard to tell.

Jay Stringer said...

Loved it. But yes, with reservations.

I didn't take issue with the portrayal of the prosecutor, because she's shown to be pragmatically going about her job in a way I found realistic. She refuses the first call to do the 'right thing' when Box presents the new evidence, but takes the second call when she lets the case go.

But it was an annoying pattern that both his mother and attorney were thrown under the bus for the sake of the story. I think there could have been another way to get to putting Stone in the first chair for the closing speech.

I wonder to what extent that was Price honouring the source material, and whether certain aspects HAD to carry over.

The dead-woman-on-a-bed and ignored-victim tropes are two that I am sick of in crime. And I say that as someone who did both of them in my first book. But again, The Night Of is an adaptation, so I give it a bit more leeway since its the source material that used those tropes. Also, I wonder -and would be interested to hear what people think on this- if the finale was Price trying to make the point about the ignored victim trope. Everyone involved has ignored her for almost all of the story, but ultimately it's when Box focuses more on her in the final episode that he cracks the case. So is Price trying to make a point about the trope there, or am I reading too much into it?

scott adlerberg said...

That's a question - Price making a point? - I hadn't thought of. But if Price is making a point, he's doing it in a very very subtle way. Too subtle. I'd say no, he wasn't making a point. Box's attention to her and stuff he should have looked at before looks to me more just like the means for a dramatic late twist and we get the trope of the overlooked character who was there before but not seen as a suspect till the end. That idea of subverting the dead woman trope that way, though, is an intriguing one.