When it comes to murder and our justice system's shortcomings, we're a nation obsessed. Whether it's The Jinx, The People V. O.J. Simpson, Making a Murderer, or Serial, the only subject that engages us more than the story of a wrongful conviction is the story of a wrongful acquittal. HBO's latest limited series, The Night Of, taps into that mania for armchair sleuthing and turns it back on us.
Premiering Sunday, July 10, The Night Of stars Riz Ahmed as Nasir Khan, a high-achieving young Pakistani-American accused of murder whose only response to the considerable evidence against him is that he doesn't remember what happened. If that sounds startlingly similar to the opening of Sarah Koenig's podcast Serial, the echoes are at least partly accidental (HBO greenlit the project in 2012, and in 2013 it was announced again as Steve Zaillian and Richard Price's remake of BBC's Criminal Justice.) There are significant differences: The Night Of gets going when college student and tutor Nasir Khan illicitly borrows his father's cab to go to a party but ends up spending a drug-fueled night with a mysterious, wealthy Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She ends up — you guessed it — dead.
Still, there's a lot of circumstantial evidence linking this engagingly mumbly, grey procedural to our recent obsession with true crime and Serial in particular (an obsession that appears to be paying off, since the subject of the podcast, Adnan Syed, is going to receive a new trial). Serial really launched the popular craze for retrying cold cases in discussion forums and with friends; for weighing evidence and scrutinizing the ways it was collected, processed, and packaged in court. If The Night Of pushes a lot of those same buttons, it weaponizes those impulses against us.
The show doesn't just hamstring our ability to use our well-developed instincts; it locks us up. There is no amateur detecting for us to do here. Instead, we're positioned, most uncomfortably, with the protagonist as he commits a series of catastrophic mistakes. And we know the detective is coming.
That might be the premiere's most interesting intervention. Cold case sleuthing is morally comfortable work, after all. It foments righteousness and self-satisfaction and gently turns people into logical abstractions: Listening to Serial, it can be easy to forget that a real person died and a real person went to jail (The Night Of permits neither). For all their brilliance, neither Serial nor documentaries like O.J.: Made in America seek to position us on either end of a concrete spectrum of victim and defendant. They aim for impartiality, and so do we: We fancy ourselves judges capable of being dispassionate. Thorough. Firm. ("How much better would the justice system be if I was in charge?")
The trouble with this kind of thinking is that it tempts people to confuse logic with truth. (John Turturro's character in The Night Of, Jack Stone, Khan's psoriatic attorney, is dedicated to redrawing that distinction.)
It's instructive, in any case, to get a perspectival counterpoint to some of these awful cases whose narrative contours we've come to know too well. What better way to remind us of our vulnerability to the system we're arrogantly presiding over than exposing us to a parallel case but changing our position within it? What happens if you're the defendant? What happens if all you get is the truth but not the logic? What happens if you're a young, high-achieving, Pakistani-American man whose only defense is that he doesn't remember what happened? The Night Of … well, what?
What happens, that is to say, when a narrative buries you in evidence — a blood trail, fingerprints, several witnesses — you can't refute? Seen this way, the horror of The Night Of might at first seem like it's reducible to the simple horror of being framed. But instead of revealing the dysfunction of a system rigged to convict the innocent and the poor and acquit the rich and guilty, the show seems to offer something less than a structural critique.
The police department is puttering along and doing a fairly decent job collecting evidence despite its limitations, racism, bureaucracy, and giant catalogue of cheats and errors. The premiere paints the police as tired, sloppy, and indecisive, but they are not, for all that, inept.
"C'mon, he's like a kid," says one of the police officers who pull Nasir over after he's left the girl's apartment. "Kids do stuff," his partner says, suspiciously. She wants to get him for more, but she's tired and their shift is over.
"What are we gonna do with him?" she asks.
"I dunno, cut him loose?" he replies, and for a moment you hope, with Khan, that he'll make it out okay.
He doesn't, but the emphasis on chance here suggests that the show's horror isn't about being framed at all (framing requires both a plan and a planner). The Night Of seems at least as interested in luck and chance. It orbits dizzily around Khan as he sits in the police car, watching the mundane combination of accident, error, and insight around which so much police work proceeds tightening in a circle around him.
The problem with calling all shows about crime and its detection "procedurals" is that it groups things by subject matter that really ought to be split into different genres depending on the angle of entry. The effect depends on where you locate your suspense. The reason Serial became the podcast-equivalent of a page-turner was because we felt that, as listeners, we were drawing ever closer to the truth. The Night Of builds differently.
Its opening credits are every bit as beautiful and gritty and pretentious as, say, True Detective's, but its story is simpler and far, far worse. The agonizing camera-work alerts us to the slow disaster befalling Nasir (the murder victim is, as usual in these sorts of shows, an afterthought). Specifically, what the camera captures is our own posture of objectivity turned against us. It's our amateur sleuthing, our third-party lens, recruited in the service of a huge mistake. We're watching the facts produce untruths.
In the era of the Amateur Detective whose king is logic and whose faith is fact, that is disturbing stuff.