THE NIGHT OF Season Review
Talk about a total 180! Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but last time I checked in with Steven Zaillian’s THE NIGHT OF, I declared it guilty until proven innocent after a pilot episode caked in ham-fisted political commentary, sloppy visual storytelling, and an unnecessarily abrasive visual style. Concluding this butchering of a great narrative concept was the introduction of John Turturro’s John Stone, a tough lawyer with some serious personal problems, and with him came the saving grace of Zaillian’s show and one of the best performances of 2016. Tracking the downfall of Nasir Khan (played confidently over the course of eight episodes by Riz Ahmed), we see a collegiate Pakistani male wrongfully accused of murder, only to be turned into a hard-boiled gangster by the time the series is over.
THE NIGHT OF is good, even great sometimes, and episodes two through six are some of the best that television has had to offer this year. But with each great episode comes a narrative contrivance. Zaillian’s show is pointed, intelligent, and understands exactly what it’s setting out to do. It’s an evisceration of the American justice system. It wears its influences on its sleeve, aping the writing style of David Simon’s THE WIRE and SHOW ME A HERO to indicate the cyclical nature of racial profiling and institutionalization. Add to that a David Fincher edge for composition, carefully framing its shots for full effect, and you have an incredibly calculated show. But you know what? It doesn’t always work.
You got SO close!
The fact of the matter remains that for courtroom dramas, it’s all in the writing. THE NIGHT OF is beautiful and oftentimes profound, delivering some serious gut-punches between episodes two and five. In fact, I’m willing to say that those episodes are close to perfect. The visual downfall of Riz Ahmed is terrifying, and the bureaucratic noise that occurs behind closed doors serves to validate our deepest fears: Even when somebody knows that we are innocent, they might keep their mouth shut for the sake of the system. It became very clear that THE NIGHT OF could only succeed as long as it would pride itself in being a game of doubt. The court case shouldn’t be solved in some Herculean feat of journalistic investigation, with Turturro sprinting into the courtroom, declaring “I object!” And you know what? Zaillian manages to avoid that. What he doesn’t avoid is making everyone act like a godforsaken idiot in his final episode in order to service Turturro’s angelic character.
I don’t know what shark Zaillian decided to jump, but THE NIGHT OF found itself dead in the Atlantic halfway into its final episode. So badly in fact that I was closing my eyes in frustration. Over the course of eight episodes, I realized THE NIGHT OF was unsure of one thing: whether it wanted to be a drama first and a political commentary second, or vice versa. Plot developments that existed for entertainment value had a tendency to feel redundant or contrived for the quiet, brooding characters that Zaillian had painted. The fact that John Turturro decided to chase a suspect into dark alleyways seemed dangerous, ill-advised, and blatantly uncharacteristic for a lawyer whose key trait is covering-your-ass, and although I understood that Riz Ahmed was embracing his new prison buddies, getting a neck tattoo of a crown seemed absolutely preposterous.
“Man, that’s a dumbass tattoo” – Freddy
But it wasn’t until the final episode that Zaillian really broke the camel’s back, namely with Chandra Kapoor’s (played by Amara Karan) decision to smuggle heroin into a prison cell so that Riz Ahmed can testify high… What? What?! To make matters worse, this entire narrative beat is nothing but padding, since Karan’s actions don’t have any real consequences. Her kissing Ahmed felt believable and does have consequences, so why not leave it at that? The fact that it wasn’t removed in post-production is an absolute travesty for a finale that’s nearly 100 minutes long, because it’s both unbelievable and completely pointless.
Now, thankfully, Zaillian’s wreckage is salvaged by an outstanding, career-defining performance from John Turturro, and an equally impressive turn from veteran actress Jeannie Berlin. Michael Kenneth Williams also rounds out the conclusion of the story and helps instill a necessary cynicism to the show’s ending. Thanks to Riz Ahmed’s physical transformation, we see an innocent boy return home as a hardened criminal, despite being completely innocent. It’s an accomplishment how competently this ensemble lays the seeds for the show’s themes, and had Zaillian just been a little more careful about prioritizing the vérité over shock value, then his series could have certainly rivaled the work of David Simon. Until then, I’m willing to pardon the defendant and approve the appeal. THE NIGHT OF is a poignant show worth exploring, despite all its flaws.