August 10, 2016


The New York of The Night Of—an eight-episode HBO miniseries adapted by the novelist and screenwriter Richard Price from the British TV drama Criminal Justice—is gray, windswept, and blanketed in gloom. Watching the show’s first five episodes, four of which were directed by the show’s co-creator Steven Zaillian, we pass from a sparsely populated Upper West Side block to a dingy police booking station; from a well-furnished yet somehow oppressive house in Queens to a still more oppressive district court; from a support group for men battling skin conditions to a block in Rikers where obscure hierarchies are observed, coded messages exchanged, and violent injuries unexpectedly inflicted. The show’s settings all suggest a mood of dread, as if we should be bracing for trouble or defeat.

Price has often returned in his fiction and screenplays to characters trapped by bad choices and rotten luck, lives fixed in slow declines or vulnerable to sudden catastrophes. The show’s first episode turns on the same situation as Price’s propulsive 2008 novel Lush Life: In both stories, a detective questions an innocent man who, based on an unlucky combination of circumstantial evidence and the scared suspect’s poor judgment, is already being pegged as guilty. But even as The Night Of preserves some aspects of Price’s distinctive sensibility as a novelist, it also dims some of his strengths.

The interrogation in question in Lush Life takes place after a curbside shooting leaves a young bartender dead on the Lower East Side. With the murdered man that night was one of his coworkers, an aging writer named Eric Cash, who tells the police they were mugged by two brown-skinned boys. (“I don’t know. Black. Hispanic. I’m not trying to be racist, but in my mind? I close my eyes and see wolves.”) The two detectives on the case aren’t convinced. For more than thirty pages they barrage the shaken man with questions, coddling him at first and then steadily applying more pressure, lingering on weak points in his story.

The scene, like the rest of the novel, runs on Price’s constantly surprising, argot-filled and quick-changing dialogue. In the course of the questioning, it emerges that Eric once had a one-night-stand with the victim’s last sexual partner, a fact one of the detectives squeezes from him point-by-point:

“She has a tattoo,” Eric added grudgingly. “A cartoon character. One of the seven dwarfs maybe? I’m not sure.”

“Tattoo where?” Yolanda asked.

He hesitated. “On her leg, the inside of her leg.”

“Inside of her leg. You mean like her thigh?”

“In that neighborhood . . . ” Looking away from them.

“Eric,” Yolanda said, “you know she has Sneezy or Grumpy or whoever ‘in that neighborhood’ but you’re not sure of her name?”

“I said, Sarah something.”

“Eric.” Yolanda throwing a sad smirk.

“What.”

“What,” she gently aped him.

“It was one time.” He shrugged. “Over a year ago.”

“You sound like my husband.”

The corresponding interrogation scene in The Night Of is quieter, moodier, with less verbal texture and energy. Like Lush Life, the series deals with a murder we never see committed, the lives the crime puts at stake, and the ethnic tensions it ignites. Here, the target of racially motivated suspicion is in Eric Cash’s position—that of the arrested wrong man. Naz (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani-American student from Jackson Heights, has surreptitiously borrowed his father’s cab to drive to a party. Lost on the way, he picks up a young woman named Andrea (Sofia Black-D’Elia), who comes off as little more than a set of suggestive features: a husky voice; a freeness with drugs; a fondness for knife games. He goes home with her to her Upper West Side apartment, takes the pills she offers him, wakes up in the kitchen before dawn, finds her bloody corpse on the bed upstairs, and, panicking, steals a bloody knife and flees the scene. Within minutes he’s stopped for a minor traffic violation. The police notice that he’s driving under the influence and place him in the squad car just as they are called to investigate the house where the murder was committed. Soon, after the body is discovered, one of the officers finds the presumed murder weapon in Naz’s jacket pocket, and books him for the crime.

Dennis Box, a villainously named sergeant played with grave authority by the undervalued character actor Bill Camp, takes Naz aside for interrogation. He puts his questions gently, with a kind of tired disappointment that Naz doesn’t grasp that he’s a hopeless case. At one point Box gestures toward a security camera: “You see that? That’s recording us, and it will be used in court. How do you think that’s gonna come off? ‘She was nice.’ ‘I liked her.’ ‘But I killed her anyway.’” Naz stammers that he didn’t kill anyone; that he can’t remember what happened. “I have to tell you,” Box points out, “that’s not gonna play any better.”

From here the show moves forward darkly, with little of the buoying liveliness, vernacular wit, and irreverent flavor Price’s dialogue might have been counted on to provide. By the fifth episode—the last aired at the time of this writing—the major characters are exhausted and demoralized. After his cab is impounded as evidence, Naz’s father Salim (Peyman Moaadi) resists pressure from his two partners to press grand-theft charges against his son so that the three of them can recover the car. Naz, meanwhile, imprisoned at Rikers, has fallen under the protection of a feared inmate named Freddy (Michael K. Williams), who spends much of his time onscreen brooding and issuing brief pronouncements or threats. No one is better suited than Williams to catching the tonal drifts of Price’s dialogue; his breakout role was as Omar on The Wire, for which Price was a writer. Why not give him better lines?

The show’s other central figure, a cut-rate attorney named John Stone who does detective work in Naz’s defense, is a model Price hero—washed up, street-smart, half-estranged from his family, and struggling to manage his losses. Played by a winsomely decrepit John Turturro, by the show’s fifth hour he’s defined by his afflictions: his flagging sex drive; his allergies to the cat he stole from Naz’s crime scene; the chronic eczema eating away at his feet. In the show’s world, to be a figure of integrity is to be punished, Job-like, for one’s refusal to compromise. The sellouts—Box, the DA to whom he reports (Jeannie Berlin), and the condescending attorney (Glenne Headly) who drops Naz’s case after he refuses to take a plea—aren’t much happier. (In one scene, Box and the DA chat glumly in a stairwell under a single buzzing fluorescent light.) But they’re at least healthy, successful, and free of allergies or sores.

Price’s work has always been driven by a suspicion of the powerful and a sympathy for the unlucky. Since The Wanderers, his debut novel of youth gangs in the Bronx, he’s been particularly acute in his attention to iniquities of race and class. (A scene in The Night Of shows Berlin’s character and a medical examiner in a morgue, rehearsing his trial testimony over a black man’s prone, naked corpse.) But exchanges like Eric Cash’s abashed confession to Yolanda in Lush Life have always been important lifelines for Price’s writing—its great source of dramatic energy. His characters come alive in the way they turn language to their own, sometimes misguided purposes; it’s their speech that registers their failures and pain.

It’s as if the characters in The Night Of have been stifled into silence by the show’s prevailing atmosphere of doom, forced to mime the disappointments that the characters in Lush Life so vividly describe. The show’s effect is like that of Naz’s curt responses under questioning. It has appealing sympathies and doubts. It attends with hardheaded commitment to the awful complications that follow the crime. It comes off as honest. But considering how wide an expressive range Price’s dialogue can have, and what opportunities that dialogue can give an actor, you wonder why it plays so sullen.

Max  Nelson’s writings on film and literature have appeared in The Threepenny Review, n+1Film Comment, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications.