There is a notion floating around the business that HBO is in trouble.
The notion is based on two verifiable facts. First, that the HBO production pipeline has become clogged. Series or one-off movies take too long to develop and it's years between the deal-making and the airing. The second is that HBO execs are leaving and that usually indicates turmoil.
Its true that Game of Thrones has maybe two good seasons left. It's true that Veep keeps winning awards but has a built-in lifespan. It's true that the much-anticipated and expensively made Westworld was postponed several times and is now, seemingly grudgingly, going to air soon. It's certainly true that Vinyl didn't work out.
The Night Of (starts Sunday, HBO Canada, 9 p.m.) does two things. It's a reminder that, yes, things take a long time to get made at HBO, but that isn't always the fault of the channel's internal procedure. And two, it's a reminder that HBO makes stunningly good television. The Night Of is a dazzling crime drama, sometimes breathtaking in its skill.
The eight-part drama, adapted from a British series but resolutely set in New York City, came on everyone's radar some years ago when James Gandolfini signed on to play the key role of a down-at-heel New York City lawyer who stumbles upon an extraordinary murder case. It was, according to numerous sources, something Gandolfini was passionate about.
And for HBO and viewers it was a very big deal – the star of The Sopranos back at HBO in a prestige series. He shot the pilot episode in late 2012 and died the following year. (His name appears on the credits as an executive producer.) Immediately, Robert De Niro expressed interest in taking the role. That didn't work out, which is probably a good thing. Instead, John Turturro took it and he is exceptionally good.
The Night Of is a slick murder mystery made with enormous care. You could say it's similar to a brisk page-turner of a mystery. That would undersell it. Or you could say more accurately that you can't take your eyes off it. And given the complexity of the mystery, you shouldn't.
We meet a good college kid, Pakistani-American Nasir "Naz" Khan (Riz Ahmed) who is tempted to go to a party he's been invited to attend by the really cool guys from the basketball team. A friend that says he will accompany him drops out, so Naz decides to go alone. Getting there, finding the venue and keeping his family in the dark about his night out leads to a series of apparently innocuous but, it turns out, very poor choices. Long story short: He meets a beautiful but mysterious young woman, parties with her and wakes up to find she's brutally murdered. Did he do it? If not him, then who?
The muddle of Naz's night, his encounters with others and eventual presence in police custody, is exquisitely made. You can almost smell the New York night. Certainly you can feel the suspicion that a young Pakistani-American can arouse. Scenes in the police precinct are heartbreakingly tense and fabulously staged. And then, as Naz is in agony about the incredible mess he's mired in, along comes shambling defence lawyer Jack Stone (Turturro).
Stone is almost repulsive in his demeanour and casual acknowledgement that he is truly at the bottom of the ladder of lawyers. He's got feet covered in eczema and he keeps talking about it. Really, he just wants a couple of hundred bucks for his work on routine cases. But here, he's presented with a case that's going to be front-page news and involve a sizzling trial.
Also, it's a bizarre mystery – could this nice kid have actually committed a brutal murder while under the influence of drugs and alcohol? There are hints in Naz's story as the viewer sees it unfold that something else was going on.
This is not typical HBO fare – it's a sort of gloriously good, deep Law & Order police-and-trial drama. But executed with rare skill and nuance. The adaptation was done by novelist and writer on The Wire, Richard Price, along with Steve Zaillian, who wrote the screenplays for Moneyball and American Gangster.
You will notice, as the story unfolds, great character actors from The Wire, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire and The Leftovers. There is a wonderful performance from Bill Camp (who was on Damages and in 12 Years a Slave) as Detective Dennis Box, an assured but world-weary cop who sees in Naz someone he can easily manipulate and nail for this horrendous crime.
But it is Riz Ahmed as Naz who anchors everything. He must carry most of the drama while Turturro shambles about, all jaded resentment, dropped into this baroque murder case by accident.
The first episode, which stretches to almost 90 minutes, contains lengthy scenes of unbearable tension. It's edge-of-your-seat drama delivered with a languorous pace that allows for memorable vignettes from a night in a big-city police precinct.
From there, the drama reaches out and touches on the racial and judicial prejudices that someone such as Naz faces. It's a very meaty deal, this entertaining and invigorating crime drama. And there's nothing wrong with HBO's tastes and methods in making and delivering this series. It's a must see.