The ads for this eight-episode miniseries make it seem like HBO’s idea of a place holder – perhaps a substitute for the third installment of “True Detective,” which was given a pass (good riddance), or something passably dramatic to tide viewers over between the “Game of Thrones” season finale and whatever the network is cooking up for fall.
But in the first few minutes of “The Night Of,” a crime-and-courtroom (and prison) story created by Steven Zaillian and Richard Price, it becomes clear that we are watching something meticulous and mesmerizing. HBO sent me seven episodes, and I was riveted, unable to stop until I’d watched them all, dying to see how it ends.
“The Night Of” is what “Law & Order” might look like if David Simon and his folks came in and filmed a single eight-hour episode. It starts with a shy Pakistani-American college student from Queens, Nazir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed), who steals his father’s taxicab to go to a party in Manhattan, gets lost and winds up giving a ride to an attractive young woman (Sofia Black-D’Elia), who invites him in. She gives him drugs, they have sex and when Naz wakes up, he finds her bloody body in bed – 22 stab wounds. Fleeing the scene, Naz leaves behind ample evidence and is soon jailed and facing murder charges.
John Turturro, with masterful schlubbiness, co-stars as John Stone, a small-time lawyer who offers to defend Naz. His client tries to tell him what really happened, but Stone shushes him, saying: “I don’t want to be stuck with the truth. Not until I have to be.”
“The Night Of” is an engrossing, all-encompassing whodunit that takes on a fuller dimension when Naz, denied bail, is transferred to Rikers Island and must fend for himself, choosing to ally with the prison alpha male, Freddy (Michael Kenneth Williams).
Turturro is a pleasure to watch (including his character’s ongoing battle with eczema), but it’s Ahmed’s powerful performance as Naz that really sticks with a viewer. Even better is the feeling, with every scene, that your viewership is valued. In this show, detectives and lawyers don’t lapse into indulgently cryptic monologues. The plot doesn’t detour into philosophy or hallucinations or become deliberately opaque. This is good, strong procedural television that respects the art form and commands our attention.
“The Night Of”
Sunday, July 10
(HBO at 9 p.m. ET)