With Game of Thrones’ stellar sixth season now over, the pressure was on HBO to keep up its standard for quality Sunday-night dramatic programming. With the success of season one – and disappointment of season two – of True Detective, it only made sense the premium network took another stab (pun definitely intended) at a murder-mystery series.
The Night Of had a bumpy ride getting to the small screen: the project has been in the works since fall of 2012, when HBO first ordered a pilot based on the British television series Criminal Justice. The network flip-flopped on the project two more times before deciding it would continue on in honor of the late, great James Gandolfini, who suddenly passed away in 2013 after a long struggle to get this show off the ground as well as star. Robert De Niro signed on to replace him, but backed out due to scheduling conflicts and John Turturro signed on as the next replacement. While we can only imagine how amazing Gandolfini would’ve been as Jack Stone, a quick-talking New York lawyer, Turturro had no problems stepping into to two very big, Italian leather shoes (or Chaco-style sandals as it were) to bring Jack Stone to life.
In a world of television where there’s little that surprises viewers anymore, and we expect a movie-quality experience thanks to bar-raising, game-changing shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, it’s tough for a new show to catapult itself to that level of buzz right out of the gate. But after watching the first episode of The Night Of (available on HBO on-demand now), we can clearly add this eight-part miniseries to the conversation. Much like the two previously mentioned shows, The Night Of is one where people will be talking – no, not just talking but theorizing, examining, debating. My initial thought of the first episode was, “This is just like season one of that podcast Serial!”
Like Serial, The Night Of is a gripping murder mystery which reveals too little information – or too much conflicting information – for viewers to decide whether Nasir (a straight-laced, American-Pakistani college kid living with his parents in Queens, who just wants to party with the basketball team and meet girls) killed Andrea (a manic pixie dream girl living alone on the Upper West Side a block from the park, who mixes cocaine, alcohol and Molly without blinking an eye and appears to get off on being stabbed). As we watch the NYPD begin their investigation, mishandle evidence, and miscommunicate crucial details, we’re scrutinizing every single thing they do: “Can they do that?”, “Wait, they didn’t read him his rights, did they?”, “She touched the knife with her thumb: isn’t that contamination of evidence?” It goes on and on, and we’re left wondering if one mistake will be the reason Nasir goes to prison or is liberated from being deemed a murderer – both life-changing and forever-lasting. From the start, there’s a soft-spot in my heart for Nasir – there’s no way this kid could’ve done it, right? He’s so sweet and innocent. He’s a good guy. But what if he’s not? It’s the question that keeps you coming back, that makes you watch it two, three, four times.
The first time I saw the debut episode, I watched it with a group of colleagues (in HBO’s wonderfully cushy private theater), and it’s literally all we’ve been able to talk about since. We’ve re-watched it separately (I’ve seen it three times) and have come back to each other with new observations, new conclusions, new theories. The overriding agreement between us all is every single camera shot is a clue, it’s just up to you whether or not you catch it and how you interpret it. We also agreed that it could be anyone; there were several red herrings sprinkled throughout the debut episode – the hearse driver, the brother, the neighbor, the other guy on the street – but it probably wasn’t Nasir.
Or was it?