Courtroom dramas on TV have become a cliché. In the cases of Law and Order, Criminal Minds, and CSI, the investigation drama has run itself dry of original content. Since all of these have spanned seasons and seasons, their episodes contain a simple structure: present the case, observe the evidence, plot twist, case solved and onto the next one. This formula thereby ruins the potential the genre has for prestige with its lack of originality. HBO’s hit summer miniseries The Night Of, however, is not simply a step in the right direction for courtroom dramas—it may well be the most important show you watch this year.
The plot follows Nasir Khan, referred to as Nas. A socially awkward college student and the son of a conservative Muslim cab driver in Queens, Nas decides to grab the keys one night while his parents are sleeping and have a night out. The night, as you may imagine, takes an unexpected turn—Nas ends up sleeping with a mysterious young woman who, as he readies to leave her apartment, is naked and covered in stab wounds. The next seven episodes in the miniseries follows Nas’s trial as the judge, the jury, and the audience decipher whether he really committed the act. The best part is that nobody knows, not even Nas.
In the United States court system, every single detail is invaluable in a trial, and that certainly rings true in The Night Of. Everything that Nas did the night he was arrested is vital evidence to his case, and the genius of this HBO drama is the choice to only exclude the moment of the murder. With that critical choice, the show decides to let Nas’s conviction be held in our hands—the hands that know all perspectives, every fact there is to know, and every fault there is to exploit.
John Stone, played by John Turturro, is not what you would call a top-notch lawyer. He advertises his business on subways, and he usually agrees to help those who have done crimes they clearly committed. That way, he can cash out quickly. Yet when he sees Nas in the jail cell on the night he was arrested, he feels compelled to help. Looking at the terrified kid in the cell, Stone knows deep down there was no way Nas could have done it. He's just a kid, not a murderer—or at least, that's what the audience is led to believe. The evidence is stacked so heavily against Nas at points in the trial that it is incredible how audiences can still believe in his innocence. By the end of the trial, we see that even Nas himself is not sure anymore.
Beyond the night itself, there are many other plot points integral to Nas's story. There is the other lawyer Nas’s family hires, who uses her Indian assistant as leverage to appeal to Khan’s family. She also uses Nas’s ethnicity to make his case seem as politically charged as possible. Furthermore, Nas must make questionable decisions in jail in order to live and see his trial. Being that he's attached to a high profile murder case, Nas finds himself a celebrity around Riker’s Island, the notorious New York City prison where he's being held. The combination of this infamy and his Muslim heritage thus makes him a clear target, and to survive he must befriend a man on the inside who can not only pull strings, but protect Nas from others in the prison.
The Night Of explores life in prison under a microscope, and in doing so deftly shows how time in prison can shape somebody, even in the midst of a trial that can potentially garner freedom. By the end of the show, Nas is not who he once was—both mentally and physically. He has multiple tattoos, a shaved head, and he works out enough to be mistaken for a lightweight boxer. All of this inevitably factors into his trial as he stands before a judge and jury in the courtroom.
In addition to myriad perspectives and careful attention to detail, The Night Of shows the audience just how much appearance matters in the end. John Stone is a well-known, somewhat credible lawyer, but what is seen on his business card is markedly different than what his colleagues see. Another facet of the storyline is Stone’s lingering foot eczema, which requires him to cover his feet in jelly and saran wrap underneath open-toed sandals. Just as people cannot help but focus on Nasir's Muslim heritage, John Stone cannot help but be seen as a low-ranking, physically disgusting attorney.
I will not spoil the end of The Night Of. The ending does not matter. What the court decides in Nasir Khan’s trial is of minimal importance because we as an audience decided whether or not Nas was innocent after the first episode. Upon first appearance, we looked at him and we judged, as everyone does. In terms of courtroom dramas, The Night Of does what only the best can do: it puts the audience itself on trial.