For the last few years, our country has been obsessing over one whodunnit mystery after the next. Since Serial set the podcast world on fire, followed by The Making of A Murderer on Netflix followed by The Jinx on HBO, I spent the better part of 2016 in a constant state of searching for the next murder mystery that’ll make my head spin and then HBO released The Night Of. Now, a year later, the American adaptation of the BBC’s Criminal Justice is up for 13 well deserved Emmy awards.
Though nominated in several technical categories, the acting categories are where this series really shines. Both Riz Ahmed and John Turturro are in great company in the Limited Series Actor category alongside Geoffrey Rush, Robert De Niro, Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch — those are some heavy names but both Ahmed and Turturro do their part in sharing the load — and Bill Camp and Michael K. Williams are nominated for Supporting Actor in Limited Series alongside Alfred Molina, Alexander Skarsgard, David Thewlis, and Stanley Tucci. If anything, it should be noted these lesser known actors (or at least, they were lesser known before The Night Of) are finding themselves and their performances ranked among some of the biggest names in Hollywood.
Riz Ahmed stars as Naz, a young college kid who still lives with his parents in Queens and tutors athletes on the side. He’s a seemingly wholesome guy who makes a few questionable decisions over the course of one night that leads to his being arrest for the murder of a young woman he just spent the night with. By the end of that fateful night,public defender Jack Stone (Turturro) takes on Naz’s case while Detective Box (Camp) works against Stone to keep Naz locked up. While he awaits his trial, Naz is placed at Rikers Island, a notoriously ruthless prison known for turning the innocent guilty by the time they make it in front of a judge. While incarcerated, Naz meets Freddy, a fellow inmate who is sort of the godfather of Rikers. He takes Naz under his wing and uses him to mule drugs in and out of the prison, sending Naz a very sticky path as he awaits trial.
The draw of The Night Of is similar to the draw of the first season of Serial — you can’t believe this kid who makes good grades, helps his family out, and is involved with his community could possibly murder anyone, especially with obvious sign of being violent or involved in the wrong things. While Serial pretty much only convinced me the accused was innocent, The Night Of made me question whether Naz was truly the good guy we first perceived him to be. Part of that is the writing and part of that is the doe-eyed look Ahmed captured so perfectly. Opposite Ahmed, Turturro captured the greasy used car salesman vibe with a layer of trying to do the right thing — it was hard to tell if Stone’s intentions were aligned with Naz’s best interest or if he was just using him to climb the ladder out of public defender (or both). He nails the tough-talking New Yorker that the originally casted James Gandolfini would’ve undoubtedly contributed to his interpretation of Stone but Turturro also brings a skeezy but redeemable element to Stone that I’m not sure anyone else could’ve bullseyed.
The Night Of may look like an underdog in the acting categories on the surface but I wouldn’t count any four of the actors nominated out of the race just yet.
The Night Of is available on HBO on-demand.