THE NIGHT OF: “The Beach”

With an impeccable cast and riveting story, The Night Of premieres as one of the best shows of the summer.

I’ve been an “I don’t know” guy all my life, and it’s never let me down.

–Jack Stone

What if the best night of your life suddenly became the worst night you could ever imagine? Worse, what if you couldn’t remember any of it?

That’s the question at the center of HBO’s new miniseries The Night Of, which aired its first episode, “The Beach,” this week after a month of streaming it online. Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed, Nightcrawler) is an average Pakistani-American college student living in New York City who gets the opportunity of his young life when the school’s basketball team invites him to party with them. Naz’s parents aren’t keen on the party, but Naz sneaks out anyway, stealing away into the night with his dad’s cab and a wide-eyed sense of eager anticipation. After all, the basketball team assured him that there will be “mad females” at the party. It’s October 24th, 2014, and this is the night of the incident.

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Unable to figure out the Off Duty light in his father’s cab, Naz is soon beset with presumptive passengers including a mysterious, raven-haired young woman (Sofia Black D’Elia, Skins) who seems slightly dazed and repeatedly asks for Naz to drive her to the beach. Before long, Naz and his alluring passenger end up back at her place, taking pills of her offering, doing bumps of cocaine, and taking shots, all of which is out of the astonished Naz’s comfort zone. She just asks him not to leave her alone for the night, and Naz, like any other tantalized young man, is happy to comply. Soon, they’re playing a bloody rendition of five finger fillet and pulling off clothes. Naz doesn’t even know her name.

The Night Of is masterful in the way it build tension. If you’ve seen any previews, then you know that the focus of the show is a police investigation with Naz as the main suspect, and “The Beach” is no hurry to get to the crime. It’s over half an hour into the episode’s 90-minute runtime before we even find out what Naz is accused of, but The Night Of spends that time laying the groundwork for his circumstantial guilt. Naz and his mystery woman encounter an endless array of witnesses who will be able to place them together as the evening unfolds. There’s a pair of cops who help Naz run some stoners out of his cab. There’s a hearse driver who confronts the girl about her cigarette flicking at a gas station. Two men harass Naz about being a terrorist on the girl’s front steps. Naz gets a ticket that places his car at her brownstone. There’s a looming sense of dread that something is coming, but The Night Of holds its cards close to the vest.

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When Naz finally wakes up in the early morning hours he finds his one-night stand, Andrea Cornish on the police reports, naked and stabbed to death in her bed. He has no memory of anything after they slipped upstairs together, but he knows that any sane person would finger him as the obvious suspect. Naz runs to his taxi but realizes he’s left his keys in the apartment, waking another witness when he’s forced to break back in.

The Night Of evokes confusion around the exact events of Andrea’s murder, and that mystery is seemingly the narrative thrust of the miniseries. Did Naz commit this murder? We’ll have to wait and see. It’s easy to compare The Night Of to true crime series like Making a Murderer and the first season of Serial, which involved their audiences in their real-life murder investigations, but The Night Of is a work of fiction. Perhaps the first season on True Detective, when Nic Pizzolatto sent fans scouring the internet and libraries for clues about Carcosa, is more apt. The Night Of combines that sense of investigation with the gritty depth of The Wire or The Sopranos. Indeed, former The Wire writer Richard Price wrote or co-wrote each of the series’s eight episodes. Director Steve Zaillian’s NYC feels utterly lived-in, and it’s equally sumptuous to look at with dark, moody long takes mirroring the show’s pacing and foggy narrative.

“The Beach” functions as a three-act story: the crime, the investigation, and the interrogation. Thankfully, the episode manages to escape the femme fatale clichés of its first third and truly soars once the crime’s fallout becomes the focus. Naz is arrested for reckless (and possibly drunken) driving on his way home, but it’s still another half hour before the police realize that the wide-eyed Pakistani kid in their police station and their murder suspect are the same person. Again, Zaillian and Price stretch the tension to its breaking point as Naz nearly walks out of the police station multiple times before the detectives discover the presumptive murder weapon in his jacket pocket.

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Detective Box (Bill Camp, Boardwalk Empire) takes charge of Naz’s interrogation, urging him, but ever so careful to not command him, to comply with their instructions. Thus, Naz is fingerprinted, swabbed, and hands over his clothes without so much as a second thought. Camp is extraordinary as the weary but effective lead detective. He acts as a comforting presence to Naz, all the while manipulating his suspect to do exactly what he wants. Box is seemingly a decent man, but he’s also been in enough crime scenes to know the most effective way to deal with his suspects and witnesses. It’s only at the episode’s end that the terrified, and largely already investigated, Naz thinks to ask for a lawyer.

The Night Of was supposed to be James Gandolfini’s triumphant return to HBO after The Sopranos, but the actor tragically died in 2013. He acted in the original pilot (which was later re-shot) and is still listed as one of the series’s executive producers. In his absence, John Turturro has taken over the role of Jack Stone, a lawyer matching detective Box for weariness, providing his services to the downtrodden of the world (complete with real-life lawyer advertisements on the NYC subway). Turturro’s involvement is representative of the casting throughout the show. The Night Of is populated by a slew of magnificent character actors, giving the kind of gritty but thankless performances that have made HBO the home for TV’s greatest prestige dramas for over a decade. Turturro has never been a marquee-filling name, but he is gripping in the few minutes of screen time he gets in the premiere. He’s exactly what you would expect: fantastic, but not flashy. There’s something about the way he can’t simply walk past Naz, agreeing to represent him without knowing the full extent of his alleged crime (“he cut a girl downtown,” a cop tells him), that affirms Stone’s character. He’s a well-worn lawyer with equally well-worn clothes and feet that ache from eczema, but he’s the best chance Naz has. “Don’t say anything” is the best advice Naz has gotten all night.

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But Naz is an accused murderer, not just a slasher, and the scope of his alleged crimes rains down on Stone in “The Beach’s” closing minute. Is he intrigued? Or, perhaps he’s bitten off more than he can chew? Either way, I can’t wait to see him go head-to-head with detective Box and whoever represents the New York City legal team. Again, in the final moments the show is already planting the seeds of doubt about the NYPD’s ability to properly process evidence.

The Night Of is flush with great atmosphere, an intriguing mystery, and some of the best (and most diverse) character actors on television. Did Naz really commit this murder like all the evidence suggests? Or is there something more afoot? Strap in. The Night Of may just be your next, obsessive television series. It’s definitely one of the best shows of the summer.

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