HBO's new show 'The Night Of' is a gripping but heavy-handed crime mystery

Riz ahmed the night of hboBarry Wetcher/HBORiz Ahmed, the star of HBO’s ‘The Night Of.’

It’s clear why HBO released the premiere episode of its new eight-episode limited series “The Night Of” two weeks early. It doesn’t give away a thing and will pique your need to know more.

What saves the premiere, which officially airs on Sunday, from its paint-by-numbers style of storytelling are the performances, characters, the beautiful cinematography, and the viewers’ curiosity.

Riz Ahmed, who was captivating in “Nightcrawler,” plays a naive, young Muslim named Naz. Powered by a need to find some adventure, he steals his father’s cab to go to a party. On the way, emotionally unstable beauty Andrea (Sofia Black-D’Elia, the “that girl” of a few short-lived TV series) mistakenly gets in the cab and, suffice it to say, Naz never gets to that party. The morning after, he wakes up to find the temptress dead, no memory of how it happened, and then makes a scared run for it — complete with her DNA, the possible murder weapon on him, and a host of witnesses who saw him with Andrea and then later running from her home.

Bill Camp plays the hard-to-read detective on Andrea’s murder case and John Turturro is the quirky, ambulance-chasing attorney with an extreme fascination with his own eczema. Both of them play their roles with expert precision. And both their characters look at Naz and feel it in their gut that there’s something else going on there.

It might sound harsh to say that the series premiere created by Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) and Richard Price (“The Wire”) is heavy-handed. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you watch the first episode. Every possible eyewitness and bad decision that will connect Naz to the crime is punctuated somehow. But it isn’t tough to call out each occurrence before it happens. And true to mystery storytelling form, I predict we’ve met Andrea’s killer already on the debut episode.

Riz ahmed john tuturro the night of hboCraig Blankenhorn/HBORiz Ahmed, left, and John Turturro on HBO’s ‘The Night Of.’

But if you can get through that, you’ll be hooked. The series becomes less predictable starting with the second episode. Sadly, the series remains heavy-handed. It wants you to notice everything as Naz’s life hangs in the balance and the police round up the clues.

It’s clear that the creators want to make a statement about how easily someone of colour, or from a low-income background, could be trapped by a criminal justice system rife with bias and potentially unwilling to look past the obvious signs of guilt.

At one point, we see Naz’s Queens neighbourhood, which seems predominately Muslim. And just in case you didn’t get that, upbeat Middle Eastern music plays loudly over the scene. Hm, that’s more than a little on the nose.

And when Naz’s parents are denied a visit with their son by the police, for instance, they turn their heads and meet eyes with a black man whose look says he understands. 

How could a man be punished for a crime he didn’t do? Mix a low-income background and/or social minority or outcast, a few damning clues, and an over-tasked, prejudiced criminal justice system that needs to get its cases solved and over with fast. It’s “Making a Murderer.” It’s “Serial.” It’s “The Thin Blue Line.” My feeling is that the HBO series is preaching to the choir here.

All that said, who really murdered Andrea? Was it Naz after all? That’s the reason to keep watching.

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