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'The Night Of': A Gripping And Timely Look At American Criminal Justice

British actor Riz Ahmed plays college student Naz as a wide-eyed innocent whose world unravels after a beautiful stranger climbs into his car.
Barry Wetcher
British actor Riz Ahmed plays college student Naz as a wide-eyed innocent whose world unravels after a beautiful stranger climbs into his car.

HBO's The Night Of, which premiered on Sunday, is a gripping, complex drama about crime and justice — and its arrival could not be better-timed. The eight-part series looks at how a criminal justice bureaucracy — filled with people who are just doing their jobs — trundles along on such dysfunction that truth and fairness are often the first casualties.

The story begins when a Pakistani-American college student named Nasir, or "Naz," Khan borrows his dad's cab to go to a party. British actor Riz Ahmed plays Naz as a wide-eyed innocent whose world unravels after a beautiful stranger climbs into the taxi. Naz initially refuses to drive her, but when she insists, he lets her stay. They go to her place, then drink, take some drugs and have sex. When Naz wakes in the morning, she's dead from multiple stab wounds. Naz leaves the scene, but pockets the murder weapon, which is later found by police.

The Night Of is the perfect TV series for the era of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter — three movements that find support among people who feel American institutions have failed them. The show depicts institutional failures in small moments, like when Naz's defense attorney, John Stone (John Turturro), says he doesn't want to know Naz's version of what happened:

John: They come up with their story. We come up with ours. The jury gets to decide which they like best. Now, the good news is we get to hear what their story is first before we have to tell them ours. So we keep our mouths shut until we know what they're doing.

Naz: You keep saying story like I'm making it up. I want to tell you the truth.

John: You really, really don't. I don't want to be stuck with the truth. Not until I, you know, have to be.

Turturro plays John Stone is a streetwise, ambulance-chasing defense lawyer with a heart. We see his struggles with eczema and cat allergies. It's a showcase role originally intended for Sopranos star James Gandolfini, who championed the series before his death in 2013 and is still listed as an executive producer.

The Night Of was developed from a British series by Schindler's List writer Steven Zaillian and Clockers author Richard Price. The show starts slowly, but gets better with each episode. It's many things all at once: a look at the hysteria against Muslims, a character study of people in all levels of the criminal justice system and a gritty tale of how awaiting trial in New York's notorious Rikers Island Prison can harden anyone, including Naz. Fans of HBO's landmark crime series The Wire will see lots of common threads, including actors like Michael K. Williams, who played Omar on The Wire and has a key role in The Night Of. Richard Price, who also wrote for The Wire, brings detailed realism to a story that builds as Naz finds even his relatives begin to doubt his innocence.

More and more, true crime shows — like the podcast Serial and the Netflix miniseries Making A Murderer — have examined how criminal cases can go awry. Now The Night Of offers the fictional TV version. It's brutal and brilliant — perhaps the best new TV series you'll see this summer. Perfect for a time when TV is reexamining everything from the O.J. Simpson verdict to how police treat people of color.

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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