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.