There is a moment in the penultimate episode of HBO’s The Night Of that feels a little bit like an inside joke: A young employee at a copy center is running off a poster of a crime-scene photo for John Turturro’s wearied protagonist of an attorney, and he turns to him and asks, “This is for Law & Order?” The answer, of course, is that it is not, even though Turturro’s character sarcastically replies that it is; the unspoken subtext is that this show is more representative of real life, or at least more representative of real life than the compressed and standard format of Law & Order could ever be.
The Night Of is empirically better than Law & Order, in part because it’s being co-scripted by one of the premier crime writers of the era, Richard Price; but it’s also one of the strangest shows in recent television history for that same reason.
The Night Of, which concludes its eight-episode run on Sunday night, is far more exacting and more granular than a one-off episode of network television. It’s empirically better than Law & Order, in part because it’s being co-scripted by one of the premier crime writers of the era, Richard Price; but it’s also one of the strangest shows in recent television history for that same reason. Price’s novels, most notably Lush Life and Clockers, are brilliant in large part because they center around a crime but have very little to do with the whodunnit aspect of the crime itself. They’re mysteries that aren’t about the mystery at all.
“You might think this is disingenuous but I never thought of myself as a mystery writer or a thriller writer or any sort of genre writer,” Price told an interviewer several years ago. “I have a very complicated landscape. But I’ve discovered that if I follow the course of an investigation, it’s a very convenient horse to ride because the natural progression of an investigation will take you into all the worlds you want to touch in a very organized way. I don’t even care who did it. It’s an excuse to get into the world. I would rather say who did it in the first sentence and get it out of the way.”
And The Night Of, at least through its first six episodes, was largely that kind of show, too, digressive and bizarre and character-focused. The presumption was that the young Pakistani man, Nasir Khan, accused of killing a disturbed young woman named Andrea Cornish, did not actually do it but will become corrupted by the justice system and the prison system regardless. The view concocted by Price and director Steven Zaillian was purposefully kaleidoscopic, delving deep into the lives of the supporting characters, cops and parents and attorneys alike. There were moments where The Night Of almost seems purposefully designed to disgust casual viewers, as with a protracted and extremely gross subplot about the eczema plaguing Turturro’s feet. And it’s moments like that, I would argue, that make The Night Of an almost-great show: The more it veers away from giving a shit about who actually killed Andrea Cornish, the better it is.
But here is the trick I’m not sure even Price can pull off: This is still a television show, and eventually you have to solve the puzzle. Or at least give us a sense of closure. And I imagine that’s why “Ordinary Death,” the second-to-last episode, felt like the weakest one yet: Because it was an attempt to unravel the mystery. It was set largely in a courtroom, where a young attorney who decided to team up with Turturro takes up the majority of the questioning on behalf of the defense rather than Turturro himself, and then that young attorney does something so spectacularly dumb and preposterous at the end of the episode that it felt almost like it had been written for Law & Order.
It all felt off-kilter and overdramatized; it all felt cheaper and more rote than what this show had offered us to date (with one exception: The cross-examination of a defense expert named Dr. Katz, played with smug self-satisfaction by actor Chip Zien, almost feels like a metaphorical middle finger to all those viewers who insist upon simple answers.)
It is a show built on small and seemingly insignificant moments that create a larger mosaic about the justice system itself.
The Night Of has been repeatedly—and rightfully—likened to Serial, the NPR podcast about a decades-old murder case that became a sensation. But here’s a thought: Maybe the reason Serial became a sensation is because it didn’t have all the answers. Maybe the best crime stories are the ones that leave room for ambiguity, and don’t attempt to force the whodunnit down our throats. I get the feeling Price and Zaillian struggled with that notion throughout the writing and production of The Night Of; I imagine they understood that they had to provide some answers, but they didn’t want to make this show about the answers themselves. That’s why the Law & Order joke feels like a grudging admission that, Hey, we’re trying to thread the needle here. But maybe that’s not possible on television. (And I realize we live in a golden age of TV, but even The Wire—a show for which Price also wrote—faltered in its final season.)
The next sentence of that Price quote in the interview cited above is about his book Lush Life. “There are so many dead ends in this book, so many things that go nowhere,” Price says, and that applies to The Night Of, as well. It is a show built on small and seemingly insignificant moments that create a larger mosaic about the justice system itself. When it tries to get straight to the point, it fails, which is why I don’t really care who actually did it, and which is why I hope it defies the Law & Order pressure bearing down on it and ends its run with the sort of resolution that doesn’t really feel like a resolution at all.