Most people reading this will have experienced the sensation of losing time – a few hours, an entire night – whilst under the influence of an intoxicating substance. Far fewer people, I hope, will have subsequently become the only suspect in the murder of a beautiful young woman. But the principal success of The Night Of (HBO/Sky Atlantic) is convincing us of just how easy it might be to become implicated in a crime and this terrible process is told through a first episode that is both the series’ best and one of the most gripping of any television that comes to mind.
There’s nothing revolutionary about the plot – boy meets girl, boy gets high with girl, they go to bed, she ends up slashed to ribbons – but the depiction of the US criminal justice system is, as one would expect from a writer of The Wire, like a scalpel opening a corpse for autopsy. From the beginning, its tight, claustrophobic shots and gloomy locales give us barely a glimpse of the New York we are familiar with, and even the later episodes in the courtroom don’t portray opulently paneled, grand chambers of justice but rather dismal places of business.
So we have little hope that Naz (Riz Ahmed), the accused, will come out of this well. We can’t be entirely sure whether he did it or not, but we suspect not and largely, as his plea-bargain lawyer (John Turturro) insists, the truth is irrelevant – how can he get off? becomes the issue.
As well as legal counsel, Naz benefits from the insider wisdom of jailbird Freddy Knight (Michael K Williams – in another fairly intense turn as a dangerous but complex criminal) for the price of a few ‘favours’. This is the weakest element of the series because Naz makes all of the mistakes so familiar to us from the sort of crime drama where the suspect ends up dead in a cell before their innocence can be revealed. Still, the point is well made, and perhaps should be underlined: prisons turn people into better criminals.
If The Night Of gets a second season, and it seems to have been acclaimed enough to warrant one, it will probably be in the manner of the anthology programmes such as True Detective and American Horror Story, which will be a shame to fans of Turturro’s John Stone. Over the course of eight episodes he effortlessly ascends to the pantheon of great TV lawyers: alternately compassionate and mercenary, funny and furious, his eczema is not the one fault of a great man but one of many faults in an ordinary man. It’s not so much that one connects with him, but I found I wanted him to somehow succeed more than Naz to claim his freedom.
I’m sure the next season will present us with another case full of despair, doubt and doleful close-ups, but if we want realism in television then perhaps we have to suffer along with the protagonists.
Except when the protagonist is accused of rape, and National Treasure (Channel 4) brilliantly puts us in the uncomfortable position of rooting for Robbie Coltrane’s extremely likeable character, Paul Finchley. A veteran comedian, Finchley – a simulacrum of a target for Operation Yewtree – is accused of an historic rape, and once one victim comes forward, so do several more. So, again, did he do it and how can he get off? His wife – an Irish-accented Julie Walters – is willing to pay whatever it takes.
And speaking of paying whatever it takes, the quality of this programme is such that you’d be forgiven for expecting the HBO logo to crackle up before the opening scene. Certainly Sheffield, where it was shot, has never looked so good.
Just as rich as the production is Coltrane’s towering performance, riddled with as much ambiguity and entitled charm as his mighty corpus can project onto the screen. Ultimately, I predict, the conclusion itself will have to be ambiguous: if he’s innocent, that would be a blow to the many women whose lives are ruined by these predators; if he’s guilty, that does nothing for those who have been falsely accused and tried in the British press. Only a conundrum will satisfy my curiosity.
Gotham Notes: As US autumn TV gets underway and drifts to our shores, a third season of the delightful hokum that is Gotham has begun, and a most pleasant surprise was the vast improvement of Jada Pinkett Smith’s performance, which I had previously ridiculed, as crime queen Fish Mooney. I shall claim responsibility for this, no matter how unlikely it is that the wife of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air has ever read my blog. We can but dream…