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The Night Of offers a quiet, confident beginning

Illustration for article titled The Night Of offers a quiet, confident beginning

For almost all of its running time, “The Beach” never raises its voice. The grisly murder of Andrea Cornish happens during a time jump, and even the police’s subsequent discovery of her dead body occurs off-screen, with one officer’s need to puke the only visceral reminder of the horror they have just witnessed. The most explosive moment we actually see is Nasir Khan’s arrest, as he makes a futile dash from the horrible reality that has just locked into place. Leaving aside the character-establishing scenes at Naz’s college and his last family dinner for the foreseeable future, all the scenes before the discovery of Andrea’s body are choked with foreboding, a general sense that something is about to go terribly wrong. To some extent, that’s what comes with watching a show like this—even if a viewer went into The Night Of unaware of its genre or premise, the opening credits do more than enough to signal that Naz and Andrea’s story isn’t going to be a romance. A similar sense of inevitability hangs over what comes after, as Naz makes a string of critical mistakes that hasten his arrest and make him look even worse than he might have otherwise.

The opening section of the episode gets good mileage out of the general strangeness and low-level hostility of a Manhattan night to an unwary outsider, particularly one who’s not exactly doing what he’s supposed to. There are the two would-be taxi passengers who are belligerently unwilling to understand Naz isn’t on duty. There’s the immaculately attired hearse driver who takes understandable umbrage with tossing a lit cigarette in a gas station. There are the two passersby as Naz and Andrea get back to what may or may not be her place, with one who hurls Islamophobic insults while the other stares straight into Naz’s soul. There’s that helmeted motorcyclist at the traffic light. Most of these characters are only going to figure in the most outlandish of conspiracy theories regarding Andrea’s murder, but they all add to the surreal, increasingly nightmarish situation Naz finds himself in, as the one thing that seemed to be going right for him that night goes wrong in the worst possible way. We have no context for any of the characters we meet in the first half of this episode, so we can only guess at what connections might be waiting to be teased out.

And that’s just the thing: We know nothing about what Andrea was doing before she got in that cab. Hell, I keep using her name as though we—or Naz—had any idea what it was before the police read it off her driver’s license. She mentions she can’t be alone tonight, which is easy to interpret in the context of her drug use and self-destructive behavior, but the reality of her murder suggests some unspoken external threat is also a possibility. Her taste for knife play—to the point that Naz accidentally stabbing her through the hand leads to instant sex—might prove to be a character trait in its own right, but in “The Beach” it primarily serves to make Naz look even more ridiculously guilty than he already is. The Andrea that we meet in this episode is pure archetype, somewhere between troubled girl and femme fatale. To speculate too deeply on her motivations, at least at this juncture, is to ignore just how much she’s a plot device here, part of an intricately designed narrative mechanism to maneuver Naz into the worst conceivable situation.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing on its own terms, particularly when The Night Of shows such a sure hand in detailing each of the dumb mistakes and brutal coincidences that lead to Naz in that holding cell. The only issue lies in the slight discordance between that and the naturalism of the investigation. “The Beach” pays close attention to the ins and outs of police bureaucracy and routine, with cops complaining about overtime and persons of interest being left sitting around for hours on end. As soon as Naz is taken into custody for reckless driving, The Night Of subtly switches gears. Where before Naz had wandered through a slightly off-kilter world, one filled with the kinds of heightened narrative flourishes meant to build up a sense of dread, what comes after makes all too much awful sense. Everything that happens once the investigation gets underway is grimly logical, and the walls close in on Naz mighty fast. The arrival of John Turturro’s eczema-afflicted lawyer signals another shift back into slightly quirkier territory. Jack Stone isn’t yet so larger than life that he could only exist on a television show, but he feels like a conscious departure from the consistent understatement of Bill Camp’s Detective Box.

The early signs are that Box is a damn good detective, but not in the way many of his television counterparts are, where cops above all seek to figure out the truth and see justice served, no matter where that quest takes them. Box is intelligent and humane, but it’s all in service of closing the case as efficiently as possible. Not that I’m blaming Box, as it’s hard to imagine a scenario where a theoretically innocent suspect could look this damn guilty. Box examines all the available evidence, sees the obvious story that emerges, and makes it his overriding priority to extract a confession from Naz as efficiently as possible. Nothing he says to Naz is necessarily untrue, and quite a bit of it could well be genuinely helpful in positioning a guilty man for a more favorable sentence. But there’s just no percentage in Box even entertaining Naz’s innocence, and his prime suspect does little to convince him otherwise. If we do assume Naz didn’t murder Andrea, then Box necessarily fills an adversarial role in “The Beach,” though his actions more generally suggest an officer trying to do the right thing, even if that means leaning on people along the way.

I’m generally being tentative here, because tonight’s premiere is content to play most of its cards close to the vest. The series already suggests a couple distinct tones, as moments of attempted naturalism mingle with more consciously dramatic flourishes. The Night Of figures to generate plenty of theories and speculations as the investigation proceeds, but “The Beach” mostly confines itself to detailing in at times excruciating detail just how bad things look for Naz, with the lingering close-up on the one stab wound he indisputably did give to Andrea a reminder of how hard it’s going to be to convince anyone of his innocence. And all that assumes Naz actually is innocent. Unless he faked his horror at Andrea’s body solely for the audience’s benefit, it’s probably more or less safe to say that he didn’t consciously murder her. But he has already admitted to gaps in his memory of the last few hours, so it can hardly be ruled out—especially when he’s apparently the only person who ever actually broke into the apartment, albeit after the fact—that he really is the guilty party. The Night Of’s premiere suggests a mystery story unafraid of contrivance and coincidence, but the willingness of tonight’s episode to let the results of those more implausible narrative choices play out to their logical conclusion is a good sign that this is a story worth following along.


Stray observations

  • Welcome to coverage of The Night Of! I should have the rest of the episodes (give or take the finale) up as soon as the episodes finish airing. Tonight was delayed by some rather annoying technical difficulties.
  • The miniseries is based on the BBC series Criminal Justice, the first series of which starred Ben Whishaw in the equivalent of the Naz role. I haven’t seen the original show, but I’m hoping to get caught up and offer some thoughts on the similarities and differences as The Night Of progresses. For now, there’s little that betrays the show’s British roots, though I’m curious to see if anything gets noticeably altered in translation.
  • There was a lot of very solid basketball talk in tonight’s episode. I would love to get those characters’ reactions to Kobe’s farewell 60-point showing that came nearly two years after this episode’s 2014 setting.