Yesterday came big news: Adnan Syed, the Pakistani-American man who’s been serving a life sentence for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, has been granted a new trial. This comes after the success of the Serial podcast which re-examined the case and got people talking about it all over the world: the intense media and public scrutiny resulted in a closer look at the evidence, not all of which stands up to such close examination.
Which is why it was so interesting to watch the pilot of HBO’s new series “The Night Of” – the story of Naz Khan, a Pakistani-American college student who is arrested for the brutal murder of a woman who he’s just spent the night with, and who ends up stabbed to death in her bed with Naz having no recollection or knowledge of what happened. The ethnicity and religion of the character is as much treated as evidence as the murder weapon or the DNA. And the wheels of the justice system never stop to consider the personalities and prejudices of the officers, detectives, lawyers and judges that make them turn.
This series is based on the UK series Criminal Justice, but it’s been re-worked, set in America, with the protagonist Naz being played by Riz Ahmed, and his eccentric lawyer John Stone played by John Turturro. New York City is the setting for this case, in all its grit and glamour. The working class neighborhood of Jackson Heights, with its large population of Pakistani immigrants, the seductive wealth of the Upper West Side, the prison factory that is Rikers Island are all portrayed without romanticism or sensationalism. By the end of the first hour you know this story can’t be told anywhere else.
The events of the evening – the night of that gives the show its name – unfold slowly, agonizingly up until the point where Naz discovers his date for the night is dead. When Naz runs away from the apartment, it’s as if the entire show’s become a heat-seeking missile, and everything happens with a dreadful inevitability that’s still mesmerizing to watch. This is in no part due to Riz Ahmed’s portrayal of Naz, who is in turns sweet, stupid, innocent, guilty, and oh so vulnerable at every moment. The way he’s treated by the officers and the scheming Detective Box is infuriating to behold.
Things look as if it all might end in the first hour for Naz. And then redemption arrives in the form of John Stone (Turturro), whose cynicism and weary seen-it-all demeanour still can’t hide the spark of connection between him and Naz through the bars of Naz’s prison cell. For the first time in an hour, Naz’s large wet eyes show hope that this still might be a nightmare that he can wake up from: you realize that a defense lawyer’s job is to deliver hope as much as it is to deliver a not-guilty verdict.
A fine turn by Paymaan Maadi, one of Iran’s finest working actors, as Naz’s taxi-driving Afghan refugee dad even provides a wry laugh at the end of the hour: the show’s like that, capricious in humor, unforgiving in reality. The crime is horrible, terrible; but so is what’s happening to Naz, whether he is guilty or not – and that’s almost not the point. Because the point of the show, so far, is to show that truth and justice aren’t the same thing. And the possibility of using one to arrive at the other diminishes the darker your skin gets, in America.
“The Night Of” will premiere in America on HBO in July and on Sky Atlantic in the UK in September.