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Review: 'The Night Of' is the dark, gripping crime drama HBO needs

College kid Nasir Khan just wanted a break from his exciting life of helping other students with homework to attend a party, imbibe some booze and meet girls.

His chance to let loose turns into a nightmare when he's found with a bloody knife, arrested for murder and racially profiled every step of the way.

HBO's new crime drama The Night Of follows a complex New York City murder investigation through the eyes of Khan, lawyers, his parents and the many moving parts of the criminal justice system.

Created and executive produced by Steven Zaillian (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Schindler's List) and Richard Price (The Wire), The Night Of lives on even after the late James Gandolfini, who joined the series more than three years ago before his death. His name is still in the opening credits, reminding us he was set to play the passionate, hardboiled lawyer Jack Stone, a role now assumed by John Turturro.

Gandolfini's credit is also reminiscent of a time where grand, drama-seeped television reigned supreme  especially on HBO.

Luckily, The Night Of gives HBO a leg up in a world now ruled by streaming, spoilers and Netflix.

Played by Riz Ahmed, Nasir "Naz" is a young, smart college guy from Queens whose casual Friday night out takes all the wrong turns.

First, his ride bails. The smart idea is to take an Uber, but his night is the antithesis of smart decision-making.

After he takes his father's taxi (come on, not all brown men in NYC are taxi drivers), a young woman hops in the back because he doesn't know how to work the off duty light. He ends up at her place starstruck and snorting cocaine off her hand.

Yeah, he never made it to that party.

So, not the best decisions. But we've all had some bad choices kind of nights, right?

But Naz's can only get worse from there. Somewhere in the drug and alcohol-induced haze, a murder happens and Naz has no recollection of what he may or may not have done. He didn't even know the girl's name. (It's Andrea Cornish, played by Sofia Black-D'Elia).

What happens next is a deep dive into New York's system, from the cold, dank halls of police precincts and the flash of cameras and shouts from reporters on the steps of a courthouse to the frenzied and terrifying cells at Rikers Island, where the accused wait to be judged.

Seemingly innocent Naz is juggled between lawyers, and his parents are helpless in making a positive impact. One of the more heartbreaking scenes is his mother frantically cooking food to bring to Naz in jail. An officer coldly tells her that's not allowed as she picks at the plastic wrapping covering the plate.

His parents don't know how the criminal justice system works because they've never had to understand it. They may not see him as an adult capable of murdering someone, but the law sure does.

Critics and viewers will inevitably want to compare The Night Of to HBO's True Detective, which had a stellar first season but fell miserably flat in the second.

But The Night Of goes beyond the personal lives and shortcomings of detectives and the accused. It delves into the flaws of the criminal justice system and presents a murder case drenched in political and cultural overtones. Details about the characters add more to the overarching story than they do to the characters themselves.

It's not surprising that those accusing Naz try to find some type of radical religious connection in him because he's Muslim. It's not surprising to hear comments that if he was a white man, this case and trial would go a lot differently.

The Night Of doesn't sugarcoat the biases and racism in a show bluntly depicting a murder investigation and trial.

The glitz and glamor of the city that never sleeps is stripped away to tell the story of the "good Muslim boy" and determine if he's capable of murder, and if he is, why.

The Night Of premieres July 10 at 9 p.m. on HBO.

The first episode, "The Beach," is available now through HBO Go and HBO Now.

Contact Chelsea Tatham at ctatham@tampabay.com. Follow @chelseatatham.

 

[Last modified: Thursday, July 7, 2016 4:40pm]

    

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