Before David Fincher started casting good-looking A-listers like Brad Pitt and Jake Gyllenhaal as underdog justice chasers, it was de rigeur for unassuming schlubs and loners with social tics to save the day.
The creators of The Night Of know that presumably better than anyone. Steven Zaillian is probably best-known for writing the screenplay for Schindler's List, and before he wrote for the screen, Richard Price was a novelist who adapted Raymond Chandler aesthetics and storytelling to apply to the bi-centennial era Bronx / North Jersey. Later, he would write five episodes of The Wire focused heavily on the character of Jimmy McNulty, an alcoholic, abrasive, authority-averse detective who also has a heart of gold and an unstoppable brain. Together they've written a nominations-bait part for John Turturro (who is great and deserves it), as John Stone, the hangdog defense attorney who appears, almost literally, out of thin air to save the day.
Because it's well-acted and deals with contemporary issues of race and class, it's easy to trick yourself into believing that The Night Of is a wholly original original creation. It isn't, but not much is — especially in the crime genre, which uses established tropes and formulas to sometimes great effect. In particular, The Night Of's plot is almost identical to that of the first season of Criminal Justice, the British miniseries it's based on, but it owes much more to neo noir films like Nightcrawler or State of Play, as well as its prestige TV peers Orange is the New Black, and, uh... True Detective's second season.
But strip away its moody camerawork and prestigious cast and at its core you're left with a self-serious, elongated episode of Law & Order: SVU. It's an eight-hour procedural story, starting with a violent crime and then following the processing and trial of one person. Plot twists play off of your assumptions in order to teach you lessons. The main subject is ostensibly the incompleteness of the justice system: the way it fails to account for ambiguity, human flaws, and chance.
The main difference is that The Night Of, when compared to SVU at its best, is incredibly old-fashioned about gender. It has no qualms, for example, with showing a murdered woman's bloodied naked body over and over, examining her corpse in close-up, despite the fact that we know basically nothing of her as a person, nothing of who misses her or loved her, and nothing of how she lived or died apart from where it relates to the exoneration of the male lead. Her primary consequential act in life is to do just enough drugs and weird, violent sex stuff with our protagonist Naz (Nightcrawler's Riz Ahmed) to incriminate him. The other female characters on the show seem to share Andrea's mysterious penchant for ruining Naz's life — Naz's attorney makes out with her defendant in his holding cell and then smuggles him drugs in her vagina, Naz's mother betrays him by doubting him.
The Night Of also has off-putting sensibilities about race, which Vulture's Mayukh Sen has detailed at length, noting most poignantly "it's only as Naz mimics the traits of the black men around him that the viewer is made to question the fundamental nature of his morals." Aside from that, it has gaping holes in logic when it comes to the behavior of every single character except its fungus-footed outsider hero. Halfway through the season, when Naz makes it to Riker's, a completely new reality is introduced — a gauzy, surrealist version of Orange is the New Black that shares a lot with the prison scenes from Chicago. Almost everything about the world The Night Of takes place in feels slightly unrealistic: a creepy hearse driver who puts out cigarettes on people's car windows but has no actual significance. A 22-year-old girl who decorates her home with taxidermy and Christmas lights and has a "thing" for being stabbed before sex. A Saul Goodman-inspired lawyer whose personal life bleeds metaphors at every turn — chronic eczema that ebbs and flows with the outlook of the story, a cat that he's severely allergic to but can't quite give up on, a dirty trench coat, a weakness for prostitutes.
'the night of' feels slightly unrealistic at every turn
In short, The Night Of has trouble holding more than one thing in mind at a time. It can't honor its female characters or its world-building or its internal logic while it wriggles around those details in order to make its big statement.
Of course, when it first aired, Law & Order: SVU had all of these problems and more. Early seasons were criticized for spotlighting needlessly gory and horrific acts of violence against women — the series was originally supposed to be called simply Sex Crimes — but this decade's seasons have spent more time dealing with moral ambiguity and the faulty mechanics of the justice system. It's a show that's matured alongside popular awareness of the issues it deals with. Dozens of episodes deal with the shifting norms around consent and rape culture, as well as how privilege, race, and wealth factor into college campus cases. In one of the greatest TV road trips of all time, Mariska Hargitay's Detective Olivia Benson elects to go across country, collecting untested rape kits and rattling off statistics. A study of college freshmen suggested that watching Law & Order: SVU is associated with a better understanding of rape culture and the rules of consent.
But SVU is also one of the most frequently cited examples in a certain class of of shows blamed for a so-called "mean world syndrome." Sociologists who subscribe to cultivation theory believe that long-term exposure to television and other mass media contorts the way people view their social reality, leading them to believe that the real world is reflected on-screen even when it is not. They argue that the Law & Order stable, CSI variants, and any number of forensics procedural shows make their viewers feel like the world is a more dangerous place than it really is, and that violent crimes happen at catastrophically high rates.
The main criticism of this theory, obviously, is that there's no way to prove which way the arrow goes. Isn't is possible that people who are already afraid of random violence just gravitate toward shows that confirm their fears as valid? Especially shows that demonstrate the uphill battle of justice working against this terror? The other criticism would be that it assumes too much about the power of TV to change anyone's attitudes.
Anyone watching The Night Of is doing it of course partly because it's dark, beautifully shot entertainment featuring some really strong acting work. But it's hard to believe — considering what takes place in the first 20 minutes of The Night Of — that anyone would invest in the show who was not already willing to despise what 9/11-evoking patriotism has wrought on one of the world's most liberal cities. The Night Of's adherents reflexively label it a show about the failures of justice, despite the fact that there is a whopping amount of evidence stacked up against Naz, and if we didn't know better, it would look to us like justice being served with incredible efficacy. Naz is frequently in the position the character in a scary movie who has to convince everyone else of a supernatural event — The Night Of probably has more in common with Stranger Things or the second season of American Horror Story than it does Making a Murderer.
'svu' has a reputation for shlock
HBO's reputation for prestige is pretty well cemented at this point; before I started The Night Of, I took its sophistication and depth for a given. That's the magic of brand recognition, and it's an advantage that Law & Order: SVU doesn't have. SVU, now in its 18th season, is a holdover from the old guard of network TV. It feels retro, and still has a reputation for being shlocky and depressing, a show that wallows in cable news sensationalism. That's true to an extent, but it also means SVU has everything to prove, often taking on the very challenging work of explaining things like victim-blaming and white privilege to a broad and oftentimes unreceptive audience. It may sound cheesy to our cynical ears when Ice-T declares "it's still rape even if she was drunk, you moron," but it has a certain efficacy that winding metaphors about eczema don't.
And to its tremendous credit, its heroine is able to get through case after case without weeping or kissing someone, unlike her female counterparts on The Night Of. There's virtually no resemblance between Olivia Benson and Turturro's Mysterious Unicorn Lawyer With Rotting Feet, because Benson has 18 years of development under her belt. In that time, SVU has become a character study of her, as her biases and flaws and things she still needs to learn continue to come to the surface. She has evolved alongside the culture the series portrays.
It's not television's job to serve as a persuasive, well-researched treatise on the criminal justice system and current attitudes about race and sexual assault. But The Night Of clearly wants to be read through that lens, even from its first scene. It's a noble mission, in a prestigious, well-acted package, but on its way to drawing valuable attention to American Islamophobia, The Night Of draws a portrait of the rest of America that's almost surreal in its dissociation from reality.