The original Criminal Justice (2008-2009), a British TV series created by Peter Moffat, began with a story about a man who can’t remember committing a murder after a night of drinks and drugs. We followed his journey through the British legal system, and the story clearly benefited from Moffat’s experience as an attorney. When the time came to transfer the story to the United States, two superb talents were hired: crime writer Richard Price and Oscar-winning screenwriter and director Steven Zaillian.
There was no doubt that an American version of Criminal Justice had to look different. It’s an example of a remake that makes great sense.
Stealing his dad’s cab
On a late October night, the Pakistani-American student Nasir ”Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) steals his dad’s cab in Queens and heads into Manhattan, hoping to attend a party. Since the sign is broken, people keep thinking that he’s a cab driver looking for customers… but one of the people who get into his car hoping for a ride is a young woman who will change his life. She’s Andrea Cornish (Sofia Black-D’Elia) and they end up spending the night together, first partying and then sleeping together. A while later, Naz finds her dead in her apartment, stabbed to death. He’s confused and has no idea what has happened. He leaves the scene, but is subsequently arrested for a traffic violation.
It takes the police a while, but eventually they find reasons to suspect Naz of the murder; there are witnesses and there’s a knife in his pockets matching the murder weapon. Defense attorney John Stone (John Turturro), who’s always scanning the police station for new low-life clients, takes an interest…
Many different perspectives
Americanizing the story meant adding extra layers of social criticism that felt relevant to the American experience. The Night Of is far from all about Naz and his journey; Price and Zaillian offer many different perspectives, all of them realistic, compelling and tragic. There’s Naz’s parents who have been law-abiding immigrants, doing the best they can to create good lives in New York. All of a sudden the system turns on them and the cost of defending him will destroy them financially.
That’s where John Stone comes in, a shabby-looking ambulance-chaser with an extreme eczema problem torturing his feet that he spends the entire series trying desperately to fix by going to all sorts of healers who have their creative answers to his problems. We can tell that he’s humanistic and dedicated, but it’s impossible to work the system without a certain degree of cynicism; all this is brilliantly captured by Turturro in one of the best roles of his career. Stone’s efforts are contrasted with those of a rival, heartless attorney (Glenne Headly) and a world-weary prosecutor (Jeannie Berlin, who gives an amazing performance) who firmly believes that Naz is guilty and must be put behind bars. There’s also the detective who worked on Naz’s case, Dennis Box (Bill Camp), who’s never quite sure of whether he did it or not, and as we follow Naz to Riker’s Island where he’s incarcerated while waiting for the trial we also meet Freddy Knight (Michael K. Williams), a fellow inmate who’s created a power structure of his own in prison and takes a liking to Naz, simply because he sees something different and challenging in him.
It’s a rich gallery of characters who represent various aspects of a flawed system. The series is worthwhile because of how Price and Zaillian write their characters, the acting, and the irresistibly dirty New York look; the pilot episode also has almost unbearable tension.
The Night Of 2016-U.S. Made for TV. 502 min. Color. Created by Richard Price, Steven Zaillian. Directed by Steven Zaillian, James Marsh. Cast: John Turturro (John Stone), Riz Ahmed (Nasir ”Naz” Khan), Michael K. Williams (Freddy Knight), Bill Camp, Jeannie Berlin, Payman Maadi… Glenne Headly, Fisher Stevens, Kevin Dunn.
Trivia: Originally shown in eight episodes. Co-executive produced by James Gandolfini, Price and Zaillian. Gandolfini was first hired as Stone, but passed away; Robert De Niro considered replacing him before Turturro was hired.
Emmy: Outstanding Actor (Ahmed).
Last word: “I always approached it as if it was a film. It was not, ‘Oh, this is TV.’ It felt like a long film, and that’s how it was paced. It’s a strange thing. When we were working on it in the editing room, if we were going to look through it to see it as a whole, we would watch the whole thing. It was like a long movie. I didn’t really think, ‘Oh, but that’s not how people are going to be watching it. There’s going to be a week between each one that they watch.’ Not that we would have done anything any differently. It wasn’t about cutting out anything between the episodes. It just continued on.” (Zaillian, Collider)