The Night Of: Season 1, Episode 01, “The Beach”
I watched the pilot of The Night Of solely on the basis of seeing a blurb which called it “Agatha Christie meets The Wire.”
If I hadn’t already been sold, the opening 20 or so minutes are so beautiful, and such well-executed economy of storytelling and worldbuilding, I would have been. They get the credits out of the way, and then we’re in, following this guy we later learn is called Naz. He’s in class, he’s watching basketball practice . . . oh, he’s a tutor for a basketball player. He’s softspoken, honestly dedicated to the whole tutoring / nerd thing, his whole body lights up at the possibility of a party with hot girls. We’re getting a sense of his personality as well as the world he inhabits. He goes home, and in a very brief dinner we see he has a good relationship with his parents but doesn’t tell them everything, and they harbour some reservations about ‘the blacks.’ His friend bails on going to the party with him, and he takes his dad’s taxi, conveying via body language and static camera angles that he’s very much not supposed to be driving it.
In what is supposed to be an ironic twist, it’s not the black guys Naz’s mom is worried about, but a sweet-faced white girl who gives Naz drugs, alcohol, and a knife later that night.
The whole setup is inexorable – we’re introduced to the fact Naz is unfamiliar with the controls of his dad’s taxi, that he doesn’t know his way around very well, that he’d bend over backwards for a pretty woman. But all of it is organic; the show doesn’t tell us these things, it shows us, it takes its time in sequences of him struggling to turn on the OFF DUTY light, it shows him buying a beer for his passenger, and asking for directions. All these shots are beautiful, but interspersed with them are chilling shots: the surveillance video in the convenience store, a POV shot from an overhead camera, an angry man stubbing his cigarette out on the cab’s window.
The sense of foreboding grows as we go home with the girl and watch the two engage in flirting, drinking, knifeplay, and sex. The soft, romantic pop music feels a little out of place as the two snort coke and play ‘five finger fillet.’ There’s a very quick shot of the girl, whose name we still don’t know, pausing to ask Naz a question as she gets the lime, liquor, and knife. She turns towards him, lit by the Christmas light strings which decorate the room, and:
It’s effective and terrifying but also a little bit delightful. Because this is a TV show, a carefully constructed world, and we’ve seen a dozen of these stories, so how it’s presented can still delight even as it chills us.
A few minutes after that shot, the music cuts out and we suddenly ‘cold open’ into a The Wrong Man story, with a picture in complete contrast to the prior charged, vibrant, red-lit scenes:
The shot is blue and cold and silent, jarring in its contrast to the scene we just cut away from.
A lot of movies and TV shows would actually start here, with this shot, and show us the rest in flashbacks. The Night Of is intent on establishing who this guy is up front, and getting us to go along with his night so we feel as though it could be us, too.
Our protagonist wakes up and stumbles upstairs to get dressed, but pauses to say goodbye to Andrea. Though we know what’s about to happen, what he’s about to discover, he’s still innocent, and the tension is waiting to be broke. The shots alternate ins sharp contrasting reds and blues, the edits come quicker and more frenetically. Naz switches on the lamp, pauses a beat, switches it off. He stands in total darkness for a moment, radiating panic. He switches the light on again, we see the blood and the body in short bursts, he turns the light off again, and he runs.
From the ‘cold open’ above, the show becomes “Agatha Christie meets The Wire meets Hitchcock.” Christie in that we’re meeting a laundry list of characters, we’re getting clues, we’re trying to piece things together and figure out whether they’ll be important later. The Wire in how we’re seeing peoples’ prejudices and ideas about class and race on full display. Hitchcock in that we have a character we the audience presume innocent (in lieu of him being played by Cary Grant, we get a guy we’ve met as meek and mild and averse to blood and violence) trapped in a nightmare of the system presuming he’s guilty. Not only are Hitch’s distrust of police and their procedures prevalent, but, well:
The setup takes only the first third of the pilot. The final third is procedure, processing Naz at the station and setting up the pieces of lawyer, chain-of-evidence appeal, witnesses, etc. The middle third is pure tension: Naz seeing a motorcyclist who looks a bit like an Angel of Death, Naz running into the cops, Naz almost being let go, Naz trying to casually walk out of the police station, Naz trying to call home, and us the audience not having an idea whether or not he’ll make it, temporarily, and every time being turned back and the tension ratcheting up one more notch. It’s great tv, and it’s enabled by the HBO format, which doesn’t force the episode into procedural arcs or 42-minute slots.
Things like how the cops interact with Naz and each other are a perfect example of the Christie/Wire/Hitch mashup the show is. People going about their lives and complaining: Christie. Naturalism in portrayal of daily lives of both cops and e citizens: The Wire. The way we immediately distrust authority: Hitch.
To make us and realise the cops may be doing something not out of good or bad motives, but out of anything from a minor power trip to frustration with a colleague to wanting to hasten going home at the end of the night doesn’t make us more confident in the system, but less. The cops caught Naz through accident and a desire to get a notch on their belts, not through procedure or smarts. The detective shows both his willingness to bully (as when he pulls the witness in by blackmailing him over weed possession) and a tactful manipulation (as when he convinces Naz to let them swab his hands, and then casually mentions the penile swab, which had he mentioned at the beginning, may have caused Naz to balk). All this makes us despair of the system actually catching the right guy, and feeling trapped, and that’s the tension which already makes The Night Of a compelling hour of television. If they carry through with an interesting ‘who-dunnit’ in the next seven episodes, it will be a truly superior show.
– The one other thing I’d seen going in was ‘the main character wakes up next to a dead girl’ [which turned out not to be quite accurate, anyways]. I naturally expected it to happen at the party he went to, and was pleasantly surprised when they upended expectations about the party entirely.
– I know Christmas lights are ‘in’ as decor, and I know they are flirting with the thoughts of Andrea as a MPDG-who-gets-dead, and yes the lights are really effective and pretty, all the times. But they’re also quite overdone right now, and I’m wondering when the trend will die down. It’s October, guys. And you’re HBO. You don’t need cinematography-on-the-cheap. Think of something else. Anything.
– I’ll bet money that cat and the asthma caused thereby is going to be a big plot point, but I’m also not sure if they’re also giving us irrelevant ‘clues’ along with relevant. The blood smear on the taxi, the gas station footage, and the cat, are the three things which are obviously supposed to look relevant right now.
– Also surely relevant, the theme of Naz being friends with, yet also threatened by, black men rolls through the episode.
– A lot of sports talk in this episode, from the locker room to the dinner table to the jail cell to the cop making Naz name HOF-bound Yankee players to prove how American he is.