What good is a procedural drama when it gets the procedures wrong? HBO’s The Night Of is based on the British show Criminal Justice, reset in present-day New York City by show cocreators Richard Price and Steven Zaillian. The story concerns Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed), a naive young man who borrows his father’s taxi to go to a party and winds up being accused of murdering a girl he takes home. Price made his name with violent urban narratives, like his novel Clockers, for which he has done first-person research (such as police ride-alongs) to get the details right. Based on my 12 years as a cabdriver it looks like Price didn’t spend a minute riding in cabs or talking to cabdrivers, and it demonstrates the ways in which The Night Of strikes out.
The cab is literally and figuratively the vehicle that escorts Naz on his harrowing misadventure, so the way it works is crucial to transport the audience along with him. Naz is a 23-year-old college student whose father has been a cabdriver his entire life, yet after he creeps out of his house, he gets behind the wheel as if he’s never been in the taxi before. Naz has no idea how to turn off the “on duty” light, which makes people try to flag him down as he drives aimlessly around Manhattan looking for the address of a party. This plot point exists in order to put the eventually murdered girl inside the cab, but makes no logical sense. Why would Naz not know how cabs work if he’s spent his whole life around them? Naz’s naivete is the key attribute that lands him in the mess he’s in, but his ignorance is implausible and makes it nearly impossible to follow much of what happens afterward. Were this the only thing the show got wrong, it might be forgivable, but it proves to be the first in a series of misguided turns.
As the setting shifts to Rikers Island, new characters are introduced, but they’re props that are meant to teach Naz life lessons rather than full-fledged human beings. A jailhouse sage (played by Michael K. Williams) takes Naz under his wing for no discernible reason other than the fact that he’s relatively well educated. His bottom-feeding lawyer (John Turturro) is an ugly caricature more obsessed with his eczema-ridden feet than criminal justice. Naz’s parents are barely sketched, hardworking immigrant types who dutifully believe in his innocence but aren’t given much else to do. Everyone else, whether in jail, court, or the police station, is a variation on a character portrayed more distinctively in other TV shows.
Ahmed, with his terrified deer-in-the-headlights stare, is convincing as a kid caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, but nothing that he does nor anyone he meets makes what happens to him believable in the slightest. Whether Naz turns out to be guilty or innocent, few of the stages in his journey ring true as anything but plot points in an overwritten screenplay. As soon as he gets into his father’s cab as if he’s never even seen it before, Naz’s story becomes a car driving against traffic, not bothering to correct its course.
The Night Of Sundays at 8 PM on HBO