WHAT IT’S ABOUT Pakistani-American college student Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) takes his father’s cab into Manhattan to go to a party on the night of Oct. 24, 2014. When he stops in the Village to figure out directions, a young woman, Andrea (Sofia Black-D’Elia), gets in. They later head to her apartment, where she is murdered — and he stands accused, although he claims he blacked out and never committed the crime.
The lead detective, Dennis Box (Bill Camp), eventually files charges, and “Naz” is locked up at Rikers — but not before he engages the services of a lawyer, John Stone (John Turturro), who ultimately teams up with another lawyer (Amara Karan). Their rival is a somewhat unscrupulous DA (played by veteran stage actress Jeannie Berlin). While in Rikers, Naz realizes he needs friends, and makes an important one: Freddy (Michael Kenneth Williams). This eight-parter was co-created by Steven Zaillian and Richard Price (“The Color of Money”).
MY SAY After “The Sopranos,” John Stone of “The Night Of” would’ve been James Gandolfini’s next major role for HBO. Now the only reminder of his association (he died in 2013) is an on-screen credit that reads “executive producer.” This adaptation of a British series titled “Criminal Justice” was widely believed to be Gandolfini’s passion project, and so viewers are left with a lingering what-might-have-been. (Robert De Niro was also expected to take on the role after Gandolfini’s death, so make that two “what-might-have-beens.”)
But a word to the wise, and to those still wondering: Forget about it. Turturro is excellent as the luck-challenged ambulance chaser who shuffles between court and precinct in a pair of sandals. He’s a night raptor hunting for easy pickings, who flashes a business card with a 1-800 slogan (“no fee until you’re free”) along with a crooked smile, then reflexively bends down to claw at a pair of eczema-ravaged feet. He’s a predator with a heart, conscience, brain and terrible rash. Turturro takes full ownership of the role but it’s easy to see the appeal Jack Stone must have held for Gandolfini. As final absolution for Tony Soprano, Stone is everything Tony was not: an incorruptible kind of anti-hero who needs dermatologists instead of shrinks.
The rest of the cast is filled with actor’s actors, such as Berlin and Camp, who don’t have much name recognition but will remind viewers over and over why they should. Williams channels — welcomely so — some of “Boardwalk Empire’s” Chalky White, too. As the treacherous ex-boxer who forges a relationship with Naz, he works a core theme of the entire series — whether “character” is established at birth, or evolves as circumstances dictate. Ahmed’s Naz is both cipher and tabula rasa; in his blank stares and affectless demeanor, we see what we want to see, or see who we want to see. Either Rikers destroys him or clarifies him (“I’m gonna make a proper convict of you yet,” Freddy promises, or warns). But which is far from clear. Also far from clear: Whether he’s even guilty or not. “The Night Of” works this uncertain terrain, playing with our biases and assumptions. Like Freddy — and in fact like Naz — it plays with our heads, too.
Meanwhile, the cinematography of Oscar winner Robert Elswit is both alluring and chilling. The sun never shines on this Manhattan, which is rendered in various shades of grays, blues and browns. It’s a joyless Gotham, and Batman is AWOL. Price’s teleplay is sharp and crisp but also takes some time getting to where it presumably needs to get. The actual investigation part of the story doesn’t actually begin until the fifth episode, making the first four almost expository. Race is another core component of “The Night Of” and the brutality of Andrea’s murder is meant to evoke Nicole Brown Simpson’s. But the series never quite convincingly establishes what could have been a powerful undercurrent — whether Naz and by association the rest of New York’s Muslim community had been tried and convicted based on their Muslim faith alone.
That’s OK. Everything else — and everyone else — clicks just about perfectly. “The Night Of” is a winner.
BOTTOM LINE The must-watch series of the summer.