A few months after the final episode of HBO’s limited series The Night Of aired I finally had the time to sit down and watch the series all the way through. Initially, I planned to just watch the first hour and a half episode as I figured the show would just be reminiscent of every other criminal trial show that pops up on television, however less than 24 hours later I found myself finishing the last part of the eight episode miniseries. Written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Steven Zailian, The Night of will test every organ in your body from your brain due to its mysterious and socially relevant plot, your heart due to the emotional performances by the cast, and your stomach due to the intense sequences that keep you unhealthily at the end of your seat for hours on end.
With so many favorable elements within the show worth talking about, the only difficulty I find in discussing the show is deciding which one deserves to be discussed first. Since I usually am not overtly observant of acting in films or television, the fact that the performances of The Night Of registered on my radar really means something. From the start, the show takes on a very staunch devotion to realism and as a result if the actor’s do not play their characters to the tee it can become dreadfully apparent and discredit the show. While the adhesion to authenticity is a difficult task, fortunately this mishap is understood clearly by the cast and does not occur. One could make the argument that if the show did not go for this commitment to realism it would not be able to remain as engaging as it is. Largely the last half of the show is centered in a courtroom that in most cases would bore the audience, yet due to the performances, the audience genuinely sees each of the characters in the courtroom as real with weight riding on each moment and therefore is invested in their emotional well being. With that being said, much credit can be given to the show’s cast, but the character’s realness starts in another place first, and that is on the page.
Known for his writing credentials such as Schindler’s List, Money Ball, and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Steven Zaillian in his first television series tackles the challenge of keeping the audience entertained with a murder case while also, tastefully, bombarding them with social commentary on the criminal justice system, racism, and sensationalist media all topics that most viewers already feel are stale. On its own, this task is one that would make even the most experienced writer crawl under his desk, yet Zaillian’s answers to the problems that arise in a show of this scope only further cement his qualifications. By taking situations that audience’s have seen dozens of time on television and turning them on their head such as making one of the most trustworthy characters in the show Freddy, a prison-veteran that reeks of corruption, the audience not only becomes shocked at the route the show takes but also is slapped in the face when they realize their own ideology is what caused them to be so blindsided by his true behavior. Yet, the real indictment of Zaillian’s writing for the show comes from the realization that even though the audience experiences the series of events that lead to the murder the show hinges on, Zaillian can still manipulate the audience into questioning whether or not the show’s protagonist, Nasir, committed the crime by throwing red hearings at them that they continually gobble up.
In addition to how his writing controls the audience, Zaillian’s direction also plays a pivotal part in the feelings the audience experiences throughout the course of the miniseries. Like how Zaillian played with character conventions to trick the audience into assuming certain information, he does the same with preconceived ideas audiences have about storytelling. Several times throughout the series, Zaillian will linger on a shot, character, or sequence just long enough for the audience to wander into questioning if this will be the big reveal or if what they thought all along was invalid. In some cases Zaillian will deliver and this point does in fact end up impacting the show greatly and in others it turns into a throw away scene, yet until the sequence is over the audience is not completely sure. As a result of this confusion, every action that unfolds in screen captivates the audience fully and due to the constant stringing of these events throughout the entire series the audience remains glued to the screen for the duration of the nine-hour series.
The Night of encapsulates the very idea that the miniseries were created for. Like an extended film, told over eight parts, The Night Of drops you into it’s world and through the course of its story uses said world to to discuss and build on themes that by end make the viewer see their own world in a different context. In most reviews like these, my praise usually rests on the writers of the series but in the case of The Night Of, the performances, writing, and direction all feed off of one another simultaneously to truly highlight the treasures of The Night Of. Thankfully, I did not catch this show when it was on it was airing week to week as I am not sure my innards could not have handled the stress, fortunately those interested in the show now will have that same luxury. Due to every aspect of the show working so well, Celluloid Cinema awards The Night Of 5 out of 5 Reels.
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