‘The Night Of’ premiere review: Riz Ahmed shines in HBO’s next great mystery

The Night Of -

HBO’s “The Night Of” had a long road to make it to television. Originally titled “Criminal Justice,” the series was meant to star James Gandolfini prior to his death. To date, he is still listed as executive producer. The show underwent a name change, a meticulous search to find the right people, and then also a wait for it to have the right spot.

Sometimes with so much turmoil leading into a show’s premiere, expectations are not high. That’s not the case with HBO. No matter what happened to get the end product to air, you expect it to be great. This was; as a matter of fact, it may have surpassed expectations.

What “The Night Of” executes best in its first episode (which is already available for HBO NOW subscribers) is that it delivers a remarkable sense of tension. You can anticipate beat by beat what most of the story will be: A young man named Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed) is eventually accused of murder after a wild night with a woman he meets while driving his father’s taxi to a party. He insists he is not guilty of the crime, and the narrative points to the notion that he may not be. Yet, the entirety of the evidence is a glowing sign over his forehead. The show explores police procedure, social issues, and perception to race and culture. With that being said, through the entire first episode the latter is probably not in as overt way as a show like “American Crime.” Everything here is subdued, and that works due to the storytellers allowing the tension to build. You see the police start to piece it together, and the show deftly cultivates these characters as people. The arresting officers who bring in Nasir, for example, are so preoccupied with getting off work that they almost miss his role in the death of this woman.

This episode serves as a foundation to things to come, and one of biggest players in John Stone (John Turturro) does not even turn up until near the end of the first episode. He’s a beaten-down, low-rent attorney who helps people receive the smallest penalties for often petty crimes. His reaction to learning of Nasir’s allegations, coupled with the detective on the case, fill his mind with some semblance of terror. He knows the magnitude of the case now, and yet maybe this brings his own persona to another level. Stone is the character who could emerge from this for future seasons, provided this is what either Turturro or HBO wants.

Nothing “The Night Of” presents is altogether original, given that there have been many mystery series on cable, with several of them having an outstanding cast. What makes the difference here is that everything, whether it be Ahmed’s performance or the nuanced directing, is top-notch. It does a better job telling this story through one episode than almost any other show before it. As a result, this recommendation is universal for anyone who is a fan of the genre. Grade: A.

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