Screen Test

TV reviews: HBO series The Night Of a powerful commentary on the American criminal justice system

Moving human drama The Night Of is a powerful commentary on the American criminal justice system

An eight-part HBO crime drama that debuted this week, The Night Offeatures enough procedural elements that it sometimes feels ripped from an episode of the television show Law & Order.

But to describe it as a procedural would be almost an insult because, unlike most titles of that genre, this succeeds in combining the nuts and bolts of a criminal case with a powerful commentary on the American criminal justice system.

Created by Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List, 1993) and Richard Price (TV's The Wire) and based on the British drama Criminal Justice (2008 to 2009), the series anchors this critique in a moving human drama that also illustrates the price paid by families of the accused, who are mostly poor and non-white.

The protagonist, Naz Khan, is a 23-year-old Pakistani American and an exemplary student and son.


John Turturro and Riz Ahmed in The Night Of (both above). PHOTO: HBO ASIA

Played by British actor Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, 2014), he borrows his father's taxicab to drive himself to a party in New York City. One thing leads to another and, by dawn, Naz finds himself under arrest for murder, with a string of damning clues pointing straight at him.

Unable to remember what happened, he protests his innocence, but that does not stop wily detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp) from tricking him into further incriminating himself.

When word gets out, there is an anti-Muslim backlash that triggers hate crimes against other South Indians in the city.


Winona Ryder in Netflix drama Stranger Things. PHOTO: NETFLIX

This feels uncomfortably true to life, given the ugly Islamophobic reactions to incidents such as the Orlando nightclub attack this year. And it is hard not to think of the Philando Castile shooting in Minnesota last week as two cops stop Naz for a minor traffic offence.

The Night Of looks at different players in the system, from the cops and detectives to the prisoners and lawyers, but the story is mainly told from the perspective of Naz and his attorney John Stone, played by John Turturro in a role originally meant for the late James Gandolfini.

Stone is a scruffy, ambulance- chasing hustler whom the police and prosecutors do not have much regard for and, like them, he knows he is out of his depth with this case.

  • VIEW IT/ THE NIGHT OF

  • HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601), Mondays at 9am (same time telecast as the United States) and 9pm

    4/5 stars

    STRANGER THINGS

    Netflix, premieres on Friday

    3.5/5 stars

With his comically eczema- plagued feet, he is a conduit for much of the show's gentle humour, which further humanises the story.

Yet, despite being consistently underestimated, this goofy small- time lawyer does not miss a trick and keeps fighting for Naz.

Is the doe-eyed young man innocent, though? The Night Of studiously avoids addressing this head-on at first, waiting till later episodes to sow seeds of doubt.

Nevertheless, the series manages to sustain interest in the procedural aspects of the case, mostly by intertwining it with a human drama which, in turn, is sold by the performances of Ahmed and Turturro. Supporting them is a collection of marvellous character actors: The Wire's Michael K. Williams as a prisoner who takes Naz under his wing, Glenne Headley (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, 1988) as a high-powered lawyer and Fisher Stevens (The Grand Budapest Hotel, 2014) as a knowing pharmacist.

Even though the series can be heavy-handed with its signposting of socio-cultural issues, it makes up for it with the compassion it shows, especially for the Khans, who frequently endure comments such as "Did you leave your bombs at home, Mustafa?"

As you see prejudice, ignorance and system repeatedly crush and humiliate them, you start to think less about Naz's guilt or innocence and more about issues of human rights and basic kindness.

A sympathetic family is also at the heart of Stranger Things, a Netflix drama about a boy who vanishes in mysterious circumstances.

Set in a small Indiana town in the 1980s, it has been billed as a love letter to the classic supernatural and science-fiction adventure stories of that era told by film-makers Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter and novelist Stephen King. So expect plenty of cribbing from iconic movies such as E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977), Poltergeist (1982) and The Thing (1982).

In her first lead role in a major mainstream project in decades, 1990s film actress Winona Ryder (Reality Bites, 1994) plays Joyce Byers, a struggling single mother whose son disappears overnight.

Sporting a feathered 1980s fringe that channels Dee Wallace - the actress who played Elliott's mum in E.T. - Ryder frantically searches for him with the help of his friends and the local police chief. They soon stumble across terrifying supernatural forces, sinister goings-on at a government laboratory and a strange little girl who shows up out of the blue.

Creators Matt and Ross Duffer are shamelessly going for a retro- nostalgia play here and not just with the period hair, outfits and original synthesizer music.

Stranger Things also re-creates the endearing kiddy adventures of beloved films, such as The Goonies (1985) and Stand By Me (1986), which were themselves nostalgic for the lost innocence of childhood, and largely pulls that off.

What does not work as well are the top-secret government shenanigans, which appear to be manned by rejects from the TV show The X-Files (1993 to 2002, 2015).

In the 1980s movies the Duffers so admire, the supernatural or sci-fi elements were never this convoluted, either. Stranger Things should have taken that leaf out of their book too.

Keeping Gandolfini in his pocket

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2016, with the headline 'Night feels close to life'. Print Edition | Subscribe