In Which We Never Went To Jail For So Long

Savior Chic

by ALEX CARNEVALE

The Night Of
creators Richard Price & Steven Zaillian
HBO

John Stone (John Turturro) finds it very difficult to drape his physique in the right way. He has long legs, perhaps a bit ungainly for the abrogated shape of his torso. His feet are coated with unsightly blisters, the residue of dyshidrotic eczema, and he claims he wears sandals in order to expose them to the healing air.

These winsome character traits are mostly a distraction for Stone’s work as a criminal attorney in the New York City court system, depicted here with an absurdly pleasing amount of over-faithfulness. Richard Price was tired of his books turning into garden variety procedurals since he put so much work into detailing exactly the way things are. The result of his frustration is The Night Of.

Dennis Box (Bill Camp) is just as fun to watch as Turturro’s overwrought lawyer. The sparring between he and his legal opponent becomes the main centerpiece of A Night Of, while the accused Nazir Khan (Riz Ahmed) is instructed to never speak. When he does talk, he sounds like a fourteen-year boy instead of the college student he supposedly is.

Every Pakistani-American male I have ever met is acutely aware of how American society defines him, but somehow growing up in an insulated Queens neighborhood Nazir remains blissfully innocent of the world around him. On some level we have to buy this conceit in order to believe in A Night Of, since it allows us to enjoy the story of a proud family of American immigrants turned into a showpiece for white guys to debate the true meaning of the justice system.

In the show’s first episode, Khan finds himself ensconsed in the blood of a woman he has met the evening previous. In his pocket is the knife which carved her up. Despite the fact that the lifelong abstainer was under the influence of copious amounts of drugs and alcohol, he never once entertains the idea that he might have done this horrible deed. And so what if he did? He’s still entitled to a defense.

Stone gives him this, hectoring him at length whenever Khan speaks up to proclaim his innocence or talk to cops. Price’s depiction of the entire process of Khan’s arrest and incarceration is the most realistic depiction ever done in this medium, and Steven Zaillian, who directed all but one of the series’ eight episodes, revels in each tiny parcel of procedure. Every single notation or moment within the process is adjudicated its own little sense of justice, until it begins to make up a larger moral whole.

Price has been critical of the police and larger justice system in his novels, but A Night Of is mostly about how great everyone is. As Dennis Box, Bill Camp delivers a star-making performance and gets most of the good lines here, going on and on to his Pakistani suspect about how he is the only one who really believes in the truth. The veteran theater actor commands the scene with his unmistakable presence; there is not even any describing his poise — it just emerges like a force of nature.

Price has always been interested in how and why people lie. Deception is simply the greater part of both Box’s job and Stone’s job. The dance between the two of them is the only sunlight in the bleak views of Queens and Manhattan. A Night Of offers this contrasting diegesis without much in the way of a musical score to tell us what to feel. The spareness adds rather than subtracts from the mood.

Scenes with Khan’s parents Salim (Peyman Moaadi) and Safer (Poorna Jagannathan) also take on intense emotional weight because of their novelty. Poorna Jagannathan’s understated mothering plays well in comparison to Turturro’s intensely louder role. We see John Stone at home, so sure of himself in everything he does, so convinced he is the hero of something. In The Night Of, no other people are afforded that same silly confidence, the braggadocio that only comes with being white.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.


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