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HBO's The Night Of: A Powerful Nightmare Of A Crime Story

The miniseries calls to mind some of the best fictional and nonfictional crime tales, from ‘The Wire’ to ‘Serial’

The Night Of is about anything but, and therein lies its unrelenting force. Stretching months after a young woman (Sofia Black-D'Elia) is found stabbed 22 times in her bed, this excellent eight-part HBO miniseries debuts on July 10 as a mostly familiar crime mystery, then quickly packs on some serious sociological heft. The closest thing to The Wire not written by David Simon himself, it’s the kind of small-scale but truly terrifying legal tragedy that nauseates you by how often similar stories must occur in real life.

Though based on the BAFTA-winning British drama Criminal Justice, The Night Of most recalls a pair of decades-old but back-in-the-news cases. Its Muslim-American murder suspect (Riz Ahmed), the subtle stereotyping ascribed to him by prosecutors, and the fleet, nuanced, and novel focus of an Islamic family and immigrant community grappling with the unimaginable bring to mind the podcast "Serial." The miniseries' themes of the way race, class, and tabloid celebrity thwart justice also evoke the O.J. Simpson trial, though in this instance all of those factors work against the accused. Ahmed’s college student Naz wakes up after what he’d hoped would be a one-night stand and discovers blood — that of the lonely rich girl he'd been driving around and taking drugs with all night — soaking her mattress and splattering her walls. Then the real nightmare begins.

Naz's Pakistani background — a detail introduced by writers Richard Price and Steven Zaillian (the latter of whom also directs) — is key to The Night Of's freshness and ambition. An everykid from a working-class family in Queens, Naz is initially notable only for the rarity of someone like him on-screen. He exhibits that yearning restlessness universal to youth: to break loose, have a good time, maybe get laid. Over the course of the miniseries, we learn through believable increments that he's not quite the Bambi-eyed golden boy we'd thought, but that's hardly the point: No victim is that perfect. Much more compelling is how, as an upwardly mobile Muslim Asian-American, Naz is lost in a criminal justice system occupied largely by whites and blacks, and he survives in Rikers while awaiting his trial only by doing things he never could have imagined himself doing a few months ago. His burgeoning relationship with a drug-running inmate (Michael Kenneth Williams) is simultaneously dread-filled and fascinating for its ever-shifting incarnations: friendship, trade, education, exploitation, and mutual surprise at the darkness that lies within both men.

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Zaillian immerses us in Naz’s bewilderment and skin-crawling discomfort as he’s processed from police station to jail to court to prison. Every building that belongs to the city or the state looks like it needed a power wash at least 20 years ago. But far more upsetting is the jaded indifference of the bureaucrats who hold the fate of Naz and his frantic parents (Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan) in their paperwork. Naz’s father finds his livelihood and thus his mortgage immediately imperiled — if legal bills don’t crush the family first. In case you’re wondering: Even if you’re innocent, you can’t mount a decent murder defense in court with anything less than a quarter of a million dollars.

Enter the Saul Goodman–esque Jack Stone (John Turturro in a role that James Gandolfini, an executive producer here, had intended to play before his death). A criminal defense lawyer who specializes in shortcuts, Stone is soon outmaneuvered by Alison (a quietly vicious Glenne Headly), a far more successful attorney who offers her services pro bono to Naz’s family for the press attention. When Naz proves uncooperative, Alison hands over the case to her junior associate Chandra (Amara Karan), who eventually enlists the wily, street-smart Stone to help defend their client.

The significant chunks devoted to Stone command far less interest. The genteel detective (Bill Camp), whom Stone describes as "a talented oppressor," turns out to be not so worthy an adversary. Stone’s real nemesis is the eczema on his feet, which takes him all over New York City in search of a cure. Gandolfini might have brought a heaving gravitas to that humanizing attribute, but Turturro simply makes us itchy for his scenes to be over. And bad skin shouldn’t distract us from the fact that he’s essentially Naz’s white savior. Stone is far more absorbing when he wants to better the world but can’t: No matter the purity of one’s heart, many good deeds require a pile of money to get done. With limited resources, there’s only so much Stone can do.

The Night Of takes its time winding its way toward the real killer, who seems as much a part of NYC life as Naz’s Pakistani neighborhood, the interracial couplings Stone is fond of, the impeccably suited apex predators of the legal world, and the spate of attacks on Muslim (and Sikh) innocents as retaliation for Naz’s alleged crime. It’s not until late in the seven episodes screened for press that the miniseries takes its first major misstep. Once you figure out its central argument, The Night Of can also feel a bit overdetermined — it’s as much a sociological thesis as it is a mystery, and Naz’s shortsighted descent into criminality feels a tad forced. But it's still an eye-opening, heart-aching drama, as solemn and devastating as an unanswered prayer.