HBO’s The Night Of: This Ain’t No ‘Law & Order’

An extraordinary limited-run series recently concluded on HBO. The Night Of is a show about a murder and a trial, but it’s unlike any other crime drama on television in America for a multitude of reasons. This ain’t no Law & Order. It’s a show that exposes the utter darkness at the heart of America’s criminal justice system.

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The Night Of begins by introducing us to Nasir Khan, or Naz for short (Riz Ahmed), who is a college student in New York City, and a Muslim. We’re briefly introduced to his family, get a glimpse of his daily routine at school, and see that he’s a pretty typical young adult. He wants to fit in, he’s excited about being invited to a party, and he’s at the age where childhood has begun to transition into adulthood leading to an inevitable friction with his parents and their restrictions.

Naz’s friend, who was supposed to be his ride to the party, bails on him at the last minute. In a fateful decision, Naz takes his father’s taxicab without permission and heads off to the party anyway. He gets lost, and he doesn’t know how to turn off the cab’s “on duty” sign. When he pulls over to get his bearings a couple guys hop into the back seat thinking he’s a real cab driver. He kicks them out of the cab, but when a beautiful, mysterious young woman opens the door and sits down in the back seat he can’t bring himself to get rid of her as well.

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Naz is intrigued by Andrea, the mysterious passenger, and he soon forgets about the party he was trying to find. Instead, the two drive around for a while, stopping a few times before ending up back at her house. Andrea invites Naz inside. They do drugs, have sex, and a few hours later Naz wakes up and finds her stabbed to death in her bed. In a state of shock and panic he flees the scene, but is detained by police almost immediately afterward on suspicion of DUI, and is linked to the murder a few hours later.

What really makes The Night Of something special, what sets it apart from most other crime dramas and investigation shows, is the very deliberate pace it establishes from the outset, which allows for an in-depth look at the fine details of the American justice system that most other shows would casually gloss over or skip entirely. It takes its time, allowing the narrative to slowly unfold. If this were an episode of Law & Order, the first 45 minutes of Nasir Khan’s story presented in The Night Of would be condensed into a formulaic 90 second cold open, followed by practically omniscient, slick-talking detectives arriving on scene and immediately rushing into their routine as they go about solving the crime.

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The Night Of isn’t that sort of crime procedural, which are almost always told exclusively from the point of view of the police. It does explore a murder mystery, but it’s not really “about” solving the crime so much as it’s about the experience of being pushed through the legal system, told mostly from the perspective of the accused and his defense team as they face a seemingly hopeless battle. The Night Of is an in-depth analysis of the justice system in the United States, and the murder mystery is merely the device through which the show skewers the system.

As Naz passes through various stages of the legal system, Richard Price and Steve Zaillian, the creative force behind the series, linger on many seemingly unimportant things. We see how a police precinct is run in the middle of the night, and the boredom of suspects and witnesses waiting around to be questioned or booked. We see police officers who are already tired after pulling a double-shift being forced to work even later when all they want is to go home. We are shown in detail the process of an arrest. Not just the taking of fingerprints, but having your body inspected as an extension of the crime scene, being photographed head to toe, being questioned before legal representation has been arranged, waiting in holding cells, the process of being funneled straight to jail before you’re convicted of anything, the music being played in the cab of the prisoner transport vehicle which sounds muffled to the prisoners in the back, and the boredom of the prison bureaucracy as they ask their routine questions and stamp the same forms over and over without a second thought for the people being warehoused.

The dehumanizing process of being stripped of your dignity and tossed into a dark, cruel cage is shown in haunting detail. The fact that it’s depicted as just a matter of bureaucratic routine makes it all the more striking.

Most crime dramas, especially on television, focus almost exclusively on the investigators and prosecutors (in other words, the representatives of the state) who of course work earnestly to discover the truth and seek justice. The Night Of completely blows up this format in a variety of ways.

The vast majority of the show’s focus is on Naz’s experience as a suspect, prisoner, and defendant, as well on his lawyer’s efforts to uncover the truth about what happened on the night in question and to come up with a robust defense in a case that seems like a slam dunk for the prosecution. John Stone, the defense attorney who initially takes an interest in Naz and his case and fights for him until the end, is played by John Turturro, who turns in an instant classic performance. Amara Karan plays Chandra Kapoor, another young lawyer motivated by compassion for Naz.

Not only does The Night Of shift the focus away from the representatives of the state in a literal sense, in that the cops aren’t the protagonists, it also dares to break away from the ideological default in TV crime dramas, where the police and prosecution are shown to be well-meaning and genuinely interested in real justice. Rather, to the extent that the police and prosecution are featured, they are depicted as reflexively seeking a conviction, and doing whatever needs to be done to achieve that single-minded goal, rather than being primarily concerned with what is actually true and what is not. Naz is the only suspect considered by lead detective Sgt. Box and prosecutor Helen Weiss prior to the trial, simply because it seems like an easy win for the state, even though Naz’s lawyers are able to identify three other possible suspects through their own investigation (and a fourth is revealed later on).

The show also spends a great deal of time fleshing out Naz’s experience in prison, which is something that is almost always ignored on the average crime drama. Typically, the suspects are only shown in prison through the glass of the visitation room when the detectives need to ask them more questions. On The Night Of, however, the difficulties of adapting to life in prison are brought to the forefront.

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Because of the nature of the crime Naz is accused of, he quickly makes enemies behind bars and is subjected to a series of threats and attacks. It is likely he will be severely injured, and possible he will actually be killed unless he makes a deal with the devil, so to speak. The most powerful inmate in Naz’s cell block, Freddy (Michael Kenneth Williams), takes Naz under his wing and provides him with protection in exchange for helping to smuggle drugs into prison. In the process, Naz becomes addicted to drugs, gets several prison tattoos, and sinks deeper into the hopelessness of prison life in a variety of ways.

The show forces the audience to confront the harsh realities not only of prison, but of the criminal justice system as a whole. From the very beginning, even though defendants are supposed to have the presumption of innocence, it’s clear that the deck is heavily stacked against Naz in all sorts of ways. Virtually everyone involved assumes he is guilty, and simply having their son be accused of murder causes all sorts of harm to the Khan family. Naz’s father can’t get his cab back because the car is being held as evidence, and therefore can’t earn a living. His mother is fired from her job because her son is accused of murder. Naz’s parents have to sell their valuables and are forced to take low paying jobs in order to make ends meet. Because of this financial hardship inflicted upon them through no fault of their own, simply because their son is accused of a crime, they are unable to afford a lawyer.

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Even when a high-powered defense attorney agrees to take the case pro bono, she too assumes Naz is guilty and only tries to strike a plea bargain rather than actually defending her client to the best of her ability. When Naz insists on fighting the charges and maintains his innocence, she quits, and the Khan’s are forced to face financial ruin in order to pay for a defense for their son. It isn’t a coincidence that the most affordable option for the family would be for Naz to confess to the crime and beg for a lighter sentence. The system is fundamentally unfair to the poor, because having limited finances encourages defendants to strike plea deals strictly because it’s so expensive to go to trial with a competent defense team.

The idea that people are innocent until proven guilty is a nice concept in theory, but The Night Of reveals it to be an empty platitude. What good is the technical presumption of innocence if the practical reality for defendants and their families is the destruction of their lives regardless of the outcome of the legal process? It calls into question the very idea of freedom itself. Can a people truly be free if they live in a society where merely being accused of a crime is nearly as horrific and destructive as actually being convicted?

Most television crime dramas don’t invite this sort of contemplation. Most shows accept the system at face value, identify primarily with the perspective of the police, and the suspects are rarely well developed characters. Shows like Law & Order are primarily about the experience of the police and prosecutors rather than the experience of those who go through the system. The Night Of flips this dynamic on its head. It focuses on the details of the system in a way that allows for analysis and reflection on the kind of society we live in, it identifies primarily with the perspectives of the suspect and the defense, and it illuminates the experience of going through the legal system in a visceral, terrifying way.

Ultimately, the show articulates how the judicial system itself can actually create criminals. Even those who are acquitted don’t escape unscathed, as their lives can end up shattered almost as if they were convicted. The Night Of is a show about how the system grinds people up, and how everyone involved is just a cog in a massive machine, in a way that diffuses blame and accountability. Everyone just does their job, and no one in particular is at fault for the way the system chews people up and spits them out. In the end, we’re left with a profile of a truly horrific system, regardless of the outcome of Naz’s case.

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What makes Naz’s lawyer John Stone a hero, what distinguishes him from the other cogs in the machine, is that he makes a conscious decision to go to extraordinary lengths in pursuit of the truth on behalf of his client, to go beyond his established “place” in the system as a low rent lawyer. He refuses to settle and he doesn’t give up, even when others give up on him. Unlike everyone else, he doesn’t simply assume Naz is guilty from the start. In fact, he doesn’t even want to know if Naz is guilty or not. But he dedicates himself to the truth, investigates leads that the police ignored, puts himself into dangerous situations in pursuit of other suspects, even though it would have been easier to just let Nasir Khan get thrown to the wolves. No one would have blamed him.

In the age of mass incarceration in America, The Night Of is a profound achievement. Artistically it’s as good as anything on television. It perfects a visual aesthetic defined by slow, steady camera movement and an attention to detail through visual storytelling. But what makes the show so vitally important right now is its unflinching profile of a horrific and cruel criminal justice system, designed primarily to benefit those in power at the expense of those it oppresses, as well as at the expense of genuine justice existing in society.