The Night Of, the HBO mini-series that gripped and then drove away and then half gripped viewers again, has come to a close. With a finale run-time that is equivalent to a lot of movie run-times, you have to deliver hard. Unfortunately, the problems with The Night Of as a whole were present in its final chapter and will reasonably cause detractors to come as the series is reviewed. That said, I am here to present the opposing view, the positive view, and a way to understand it all.
Let’s start with the good. The direction and acting were incredible. There is no arguing that. Riz Ahmed, John Turturro, and Bill Camp all stepped up to the plate and crushed a dinger so far out of the park that even Naz would not be able to hit after whatever roids he took to get yolked in prison. The tone of the series held from the beginning, fit the drama, and never relented. It was bleak and depressing. I mean, just look at that grey color palette used in every single scene and tell me you feel good about life. The direction stayed steady and knew what it was doing. You can tell Steven Zaillian, the co-creator and director of all 8 episodes, learned a thing or two from David Fincher and Bennett Miller, the directors of two of his screenplays (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Moneyball). There is tons to appreciate, enjoy, and even love in this show.
But, for all that we can love about it, there was a problem. And that was the focus. While the overarching story is wholly entertaining and the way it was presented gave viewers a lot to take interest in, the things highlighted seemed to sway from one to another throughout. The main focus was uneven. Was it about finding a killer? Was it about our prison system? Or was it about how if you have nasty feet your life fucking sucks? The answer is yes. It was about all of them. But the audience didn’t want it to be. They wanted what they expected after episode one, a crime show that follows the typical whodunit style. Is that fair to expect? Maybe. Is it fair to the creative team behind the show? They are the ones that started the show with the most gripping and thrilling 90 minutes of anything in a long time (barring the final Game of Thrones episodes). I say it isn’t fair to them. Writers and creators aren’t there to make something that fits the expectations of its audience. If you only create what is expected, nothing is new. Nothing is original. And nothing will be felt when it is viewed.
Expectations plagued another critically lauded HBO series, True Detective. No, I’m not talking about the trainwreck that was TD season two, I mean the brilliant season one. The chase and ultimate unveiling of the true villain of the story was underwhelming after such an exhaustive search that led us to believe terrible, bigger things. It was just the dude mowing the lawns? Seriously? That sucked at first, but ultimately the show was about more than just the hunt for a suspect. Finding that killer felt like it was the writer throwing the audience a bone for what they have been led to expect. The writer cared more about the characters than solving the story, but viewers gotta get what they want, so here take this little villain super quick and we can focus on what really matters. Which isn’t necessarily a crime in writing. But combined with what TV viewers have been brought to think they deserve in a story like this, it can feel like one.
That issue plagued The Night Of, but worse. This show was concerned with the way that prison changes someone, specifically how Rikers does. But not just that, as it is an indictment of the prejudices our society has upon drugs, race, and apparently eczema, among other things. It even helps to point out some flaws in the legal system, even though the courtroom scenes were some of the worst. And those story beats and themes are great! Watching the way that Naz changed, the way that lawyers manipulate the jury with a self-shaped story, or how a person can be more than just their stereotypes while still maintaining some of those stereotypes was all interesting to watch and to reflect on. But it didn’t care so much about the hunt for a true killer and villain. That is the problem its viewers have and shouted from the rooftops.
This is a series that if disliked upon first viewing would probably yield a much more positive reaction upon rewatching. Some of the random character actions and motivations may still seem dumb or bad or just flat out wrong (seriously, the show really does make people dumb when it helps the cause later; shouts to the Chandra-Naz kiss coming out of nowhere and being almost super duper handy in the end), but ultimately it is our expectation that can drag the merit of a show down further than it really should.
Ten or so years ago, The Night Of would be considered one of, if not the, best show on television. But, it’s 2016, we live in the Golden Age of TV, and have become familiar and comfortable with a certain type of story. We have come to believe we will get an evil villain, a face to match the severity of the conflict. The Night Of didn’t have that. The villain we were given were beliefs, rules, and authority. Funny enough, The Night Of proves that some of prestige TV’s biggest villains are the same.