Hit or Sh**: HBO’s THE NIGHT OF
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
Tuning into HBO for the pilot episode of their newest, widely advertised TV-drama THE NIGHT OF had me in curious disbelief. Here was an adaptation of Peter Moffat’s British TV series, CRIMINAL JUSTICE from 2008. The late James Gandolfini held an executive producer role until his untimely passing. With his death, HBO’s latest project was surely put in somewhat of a bind as they searched for a lead actor that could take over the role that Gandolfini was supposed to play. Oddly enough, they found the ideal replacement in John Turturro to play a scraggly lawyer who takes the case of “Naz”: a 20-something Arab who finds himself the prime suspect of a violent murder after an amnesia-ridden sexual encounter.
Going into director Steven Zaillian’s first episode, “The Beach,” I knew little to nothing save for the show’s excellent teaser trailers that would often play before my weekly viewings of VICE and LAST WEEK TONIGHT. Here we had still, somber images of a cold New York home, cued together with wispy lines of dialogue that set just the right mood for a Manhattan crime-drama. Turturro carried the weight of these teasers, his stage presence undeniably clear even within a mere 30-second promo. So I excitedly revved up my HBOGO in hopes of more. What I got instead left me scratching my head.
“How did I end up here?” Me and you both, bud
For reference, Steven Zaillian has certainly left his mark as a feature film writer in Hollywood. With his name tied to Oscar nominee MONEYBALL, as well as hits like AMERICAN GANGSTER and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, we should rest assured knowing that the writing is in good hands. What many might have forgotten however, is that Zaillian’s directing record isn’t quite as impressive, notably featuring 2006’s ALL THE KING’S MEN, a vague, uneven piece of Oscar bait.
With these two facts in mind, Zaillian’s pilot episode makes a whole lot more sense to me. Here we have a writer who is trying his hand at directing a limited series. He knows how to write, but that experience hasn’t exactly translated to directing. THE NIGHT OF is visually clunky, aesthetically rooted in the look of a David Fincher film, but lacking any of the graceful blocking and sharp directing that makes his characters so fascinating to watch. Where GONE GIRL was compared to a Lifetime movie by some, THE NIGHT OF veers even further into this unfortunate territory.
“James. You lost so much weight!”
The fact of the matter is that THE NIGHT OF is desperately try-hard in pandering to the millennial crowd. I was completely on board with a story of an Arab boy who finds himself accused of murder, until I noticed the shameless catering to diversity. This became most apparent with the Cut To: Arab Market, an edit that’s bridged through a garish, “dare-I-say-exotic” musical interlude. As such, the entire intention of a series about racial profiling in 21st century America is rendered disingenuous.
It was at this point that I realized just how little this show cared about being an honest examination of race. Zaillian wasn’t constructing a show based around the subtle socio-political commentary of a David Simon property. No, I was being fed 640 minutes of CRASH in weekly increments. THE NIGHT OF does not feel like the product of someone’s personal frustrations, but rather the fallout of studio executives desperately scouring to find the best means of tailoring a product to social justice warriors. And that, to me, is the lowest form of exhibitionism.
“Now you listen here, kid: Racism is real bad, and white America has institutionalized every low-income minority in an attempt…. Hey, WAKE UP, KID!”
The problem is that, even with all of these issues cast aside, THE NIGHT OF just isn’t a particularly polished viewing experience for HBO standards. Yes, it is aesthetically miles ahead of most television, but it suffers from clunky line readings, horrid exposition, and a dead-in-the-eyes lead actor. John Turtorro’s last-minute appearance in this pilot episode is the absolute saving grace here. With every awful line delivery that classmates, policemen and taxi-patrons yell at our hero, Turtorro elegantly salvages through his confident portrayal of a shaggy lawyer.
The problem here is that THE NIGHT OF has the potential to be great television. It has the right intentions and the financial backing to produce a tense legal drama. But what the pilot episode provided was world-building ravaged in racial clichés and hamfisted bouts of racism. Furthermore, it plays every narrative beat by the book, culminating in 80 minutes of completely expected behavior. Zaillian’s lead makes every wrong decision to land him in the slammer, and evidence is blatantly planted by the filmmakers to validate just how difficult it will be for him to escape. Yet, having said all that, I believe that there might be an inkling of hope buried in these eight episodes. If not for Zaillian, I’ll keep my eyes open for a couple more weeks for Tony Soprano.
Verdict: Sh** Probation
THE NIGHT OF airs on Sundays on HBO