The Night Of, Before the Night Of: HBO Finds a New Way to Tantalize

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With its noirish murder mystery miniseries The Night Of, HBO has introduced yet another innovation bound to alter people’s TV-watching habits. The show officially premiered on Sunday, July 10, but the cable network made the first episode (of eight) available to subscribers through HBO On Demand and its online HBOGO service more than two weeks earlier.

Just like the practice of releasing whole series at once, initiated by Netflix with the first season of Lilyhammer in 2012, this new departure from the increasingly passé practice of presenting a series’ episodes one at a time, on designated days and at designated showtimes, seems sure to have stoked some viewers’ impulse to prematurely talk about the show on social media—and to have loudened the howls of their friends to stop “spoiling” it for them. I myself have all but stopped posting about television on Facebook for fear of being upbraided by those who aren’t up-to-date with whatever program I’d like to discuss. (Which, frankly, has considerably lessened my Facebook pleasure.) Execs who make such programming decisions ought to consider this: Might early or all-at-once releases have the effect of snuffing rather than encouraging social media buzz?

Fortunately for the critic—whose job, after all, often requires divulging plot details—there’s little to spoil about The Night Of, which, to judge from its first episode, is about as formulaic as it could get: A callow youth hooks up with a femme fatale and, consumed with thought-canceling lust, does whatever she demands. The reward is sex; the punishment catastrophe. Those damned pneumatic dames, who from Eve on have been leading nice young guys into deep doo-doo.

The Night Of fairly bursts with racial and other stereotypes. The callow youth, Naz Khan (played by British actor-rapper Riz Ahmed), is a South Asian college student—the nerdy, nervous, mathematically gifted son of a struggling New York City cabdriver—who’s enthralled by the African American basketball players at his school, whom he helps tutor. Or would help tutor, if they demonstrated any interest in learning stuff instead of partying. (Besides the basketball players, the black male characters who figure at all importantly in The Night Of’s first episode are scary, xenophobic hoodlums.) The femme fatale is, of course, a white girl, a druggie and a drunk—and apparently preposterously wealthy, since she seems to have an Upper West Side town house all to herself. (The house is referred to as a brownstone, but it’s actually faced with white limestone—a small error compounded by the show’s very loose take on Manhattan geography.)

The patrol cops are gruff, unsympathetic and a little slow on the uptake. The detective who grills Naz after—OK, spoiler alert!—the femme fatale is found bloodily murdered in her bed seems much more interested in extracting a confession than finding out the truth. And The Night Of’s apparent hero is a quirky, shabby, sharp, overworked, lovable criminal defense lawyer who immediately jumps to Naz’s aid when he intuits how much trouble the young man is in. Why, there’s even a slovenly, nosy, night-owl neighbor who, dressed in pajamas and a bathrobe, sees something suspicious as he peers through his curtained apartment window.

Gag me with the worn-out spoon. Beyond all the character stereotypes (some of them offensive), however, The Night Of is not entirely awful. It is, for example, decently acted. John Turturro nicely plays the do-gooder lawyer, a role originally envisioned for the late James Gandolfini, who had an early hand in the series’ production. And Ahmed is consistently, even spellbindingly, watchable as a sad-sack naïf overwhelmed by shame and incomprehension. The photography—as gloomy and grimy as a New York night—is super. The narrative is methodically paced, and the whodunit intriguing enough to kinda sorta make me want to know what happens. We’ll have to see whether I can bear all those damned clichés for more than, say, one more episode.

Feature photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

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