A gripping collision of race, religion, justice, incarceration and violence wrapped into a modern-day murder mystery, “The Night Of” may be the best limited series HBO has pulled off since the first season of “True Detective.”
The story revolves around Naz (Riz Ahmed, so strong as Jake Gyllenhaal’s assistant in “Nightcrawler”) a Pakistani-American college student who “borrows” his father’s cab to drive himself to a party in New York City. When he gets lost, a beautiful girl (Sofia Black-D’Elia) jumps in the cab, thinking he’s an actual cabbie on duty.
He ends up driving her around, she ends up taking him home and feeding him drugs and liquor, neither of which he’s used to. They make love, he falls asleep at her kitchen table, and when he wakes up he finds her dead of multiple stab wounds. He panics and runs, but doesn’t get very far before the cops nail him for what seems an open-and-shut case.
While waiting in a holding cell, Naz is noticed by low-level lawyer Jack Stone (John Turturro), who has a serious problem with eczema on his feet. Stone signs on as his attorney, even as a dogged detective (Bill Camp) is gathering ever more evidence against Naz. Eventually, Naz ends up awaiting trial on Riker’s Island, where he aligns himself with an enigmatic, but terrifying con (Michael K. Williams, Omar from “The Wire”).
The series is mostly written by Richard Price (“Ransom,” “Sea of Love”) and mostly directed by Steve Zaillian (“All the King’s Men,” “Searching for Bobby Fischer”), who are its co-creators. The late James Gandolfini was originally set to play Jack Stone, but Turturro bites into the role with bitter humor and wounded idealism.
Still, it’s Ahmed, at times resembling a young Andy Garcia, who is at the heart of this series, with his innocence being stripped away as the slow wheels of justice threaten to grind his soul. It’s powerful, and timely, stuff.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic
‘The Night Of’
9 p.m. Sunday