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‘The Night Of’: 5 Things We Learned

From why this could never be ‘The Wire 2.0’ to Bill Camp becoming king of the character actors, our takeaways from HBO’s murder mystery.

Welcome to The Night Of‘s day after, when viewers are undoubtedly experiencing the slightly woozy, vaguely hungover sensation that accompanies eight weeks of investment in a TV show and the promise of a potentially earth-shaking pay-off that, in the end, can be filed under mileage-may-vary. To be fair, it was apparent very early on that this HBO miniseries wasn’t likely to dominate the modern equivalent of water-cooler discussions in a way that, say, the true-crime phenomenon Making a Murderer did last winter, or the spot-the-Reagan-era-reference game that was Stranger Things did over the previous month. Steve Zaillian and Richard Price’s adaptation of the BBC series Criminal Justice was always going to be a slow-burner, a slightly more acquired taste, not so much a must-see right out of the gate as a can’t-stop-watching once you’d tuned in to its first few hours. It needed to curate a specific audience before it could work its gritty, judicial-system-nightmare spell — one who could appreciate the whodunnit aspects, the dollops of social commentary and the pulp-poetry dialogue enough to withstand sequence after sequence of eczema-ridden feet.

Now that verdicts have been rendered and fates revealed (spoilers galore ahead, but you knew this), we can sift through the evidence and deduce a few things of our own, Dennis Box-style. Here are five takeaways we’ve come up with after tagging along on the show’s Rockaway-to-Rikers-and-back-again journey — a trip that had its share of highlights, frustrating low points and enough dermatology tips to last us a lifetime.

1. The Wire still looms large over HBO’s programming
Granted, David Simon’s epic look at the drug dealers, dock workers, politicos, put-upon educators, burnt-out cops, bureaucratic fatcats and Fifth-Estate bunglers cast a massive shadow over most of today’s TV — just raise your hand if you’ve referred to a TV series as “novelistic” to your friends over the past five years. (Everyone may now put their hands down.) Here, the comparisons with that much-praised series were inevitable, especially since Price did time in The Wire‘s writers’ room and Night shared some of its predecessor’s cast members, notably J.D. “Bodie” Williams and Michael K. Williams (no relation, and more on him in a minute).

From the very first Night Of episode, viewers found themselves being primed for something along the lines of Simon’s dramatic experiment: a big-picture, multi-perspective look at our nation’s flawed, fucked-up notion of criminal justice that would eventually equal much more than the sum of its parts. That’s The Wire‘s grand legacy: the idea of “Dickensian” storytelling, applied to the serialized, binge-friendly medium. You couldn’t be faulted for expecting something along those lines here, or at the very least a Bonfire of the Vanities-style look at how one crime spilled into New York City’s social hierarchies, class divides, political factions, and the Infotainment Industrial Complex. It was there on the periphery, in the half-glimpsed New York Post headlines and the TV news stories about violence against the Muslim community that resulted from our protagonist, Nasir Khan, being arrested for the homicide of a white twentysomething woman. Or when Jeannie Berlin’s assistant to the District Attorney is told to make a plea when those stories start affecting City Hall. Or the Kafkaesque loopholes involved in getting back your cab when it’s become evidence in a homicide case. Everything is connected. Take a look at how society’s sausage gets made.

Instead, what The Night Of ended up delivering was a tony combo of story strands — a cellblock Candide story, a courtroom drama, a character study revolving around a two-bit lawyer proving his mettle, a murder mystery, a deep-dive into the business of crime-solving one blood sample at a time — that more often than not stayed in their own lanes. Other shows might have also thrown in a Nancy Grace-like character that turned the case into an easily consumable, ratings-generating soap opera; we just had the real Nancy Grace occasionally offering sound bites every few episodes. In the end, the killer was revealed to be a minor character we’re introduced to briefly and whose reveal comes at the 13th hour, after the case is very nearly closed. Sometimes a cigar is a cigar and a procedural is a procedural, and the last 90-minute installment proved although the pedigree and the set-up suggested something much grander and sweeping, what we’d really been watching was the greatest Law and Order storyline ever, covered in a pleasing sheen of high-gloss grit. By those standards, The Night Of was a rousing success. You just had to get over that it wasn’t The Wire, Season 6 first.

2. We need more Richard Price on TV
Credit where it’s due to Peter Moffat, the British TV writer/producer who came up with the original source material, and co-creator Steven Zaillian, who directed seven of the eight episodes — James Marsh helmed the outlier — and gave the  series an extraordinary visual sense. (Go directly to the sequences of Naz being grilled in his jail cell in the second episode, in which he’s consistently framed as being squeezed and penned in by his surroundings and authority figures; he’s being pictorially crushed by the system.) But the real auteur of the series, if you needed to pick one, was Price, the novelist and in-house co-writer gave this show its biting, bitter, streetwise voice. Anyone who’s read his books Clockers, Lush Life or Freedomland — we’d also recommend The Whites, written under the pseudonym Harry Brandt — knows that the Bronx native has mastered a kind of tough, salty, slangy pulp prose, which shows up in exchanges like the one between a suspect and a judge regarding a lenient sentence given to a white-collar criminal of the Judaic persuasion: “You want Jew time, do a Jew crime.” If you cringed at that remark, this show was not for you.

Not everyone is a fan; just ask Ishmael Reed, who had some choice words to say on Facebook about the show and Price’s body of work over the weekend. (Indeed, some critics have complained that the show’s treatment of African-American characters left something to be desired.) But the author has a peeress ear for crime-fiction dialogue, and a way with tough-guy phrasing that helped give The Night Of a singular sensibility. We’re praying that he keeps lending his talents to the small screen for the foreseeable future.

Bill Camp in ‘The Night Of.’

3. Meet the new king of character actors: Bill Camp
There were a lot of actors who came out of these eight episodes with brighter career prospects and a bigger public-recognition status: Riz Ahmed, poised between his supporting turn in Nightcrawler and the supernova trajectory he’ll likely experience after appearing in the new Star Wars film, Rogue One; Amara Karan, the Sri Lankan actress who impressed as Naz’s inexperienced trial lawyer; Jeannie Berlin, who we’ve loved since the original Heartbreak Kid and who steals every single courtroom scene here. But the real MVP here is Bill Camp, a fiftysomething theater veteran with a knack for playing background everymen in movies. We remember him as the guy coerced into doing some unspeakable shit in the 2012 indie Compliance; you probably remember him as any number of roles in Lincoln, 12 Years a Slave, Birdman, Black Mass, the new Jason Bourne movie … the list goes on. But after years of who-was-that-guy royalty, Camp got what felt like a breakout role. After watching him turn retiring homicide cop Dennis Box into a thoughtful, obsessive, seductive snake in the grass, it’s impossible to think of him as just another face in the crowd; you really do believe his detective is both “a talented oppressor … a subtle beast,” to quote John Turturro’s legal bottomfeeder, and a guy with a moral center who’s seen some shit. This could be the beginning of a long, beautiful friendship.

4. Everything is better with Michael K. Williams
Had he never take another role after playing Omar Little, Williams would still be assured of small-screen immortality; his Wire character is iconic, full stop. But the actor has thankfully kept building up his resumé, to the point where we now expect him to show up in every other thing we see. He has given us many lovely moments of exclaiming, “Oh shit, Michael K. Williams is in this! This will not be a total loss.” We would happily watch him play a badass gangster from the 1930s, or play a professor on a sitcom. We’d watch him on a Southern-fried buddy-P.I. show (big up Hap and Leonard!), or tour various locales for a Viceland series, or simply show up and dance in Ghostbusters movie. We’d watch him on a boat, though hopefully not in another part that would cause him serious emotional distress, and we’d watch him with a goat.

So when he showed up in the third episode of The Night Of, playing a former boxer who now runs the show at Rikers Island, we literally yelled out loud with glee. That was followed by a single moment of panic — he’s playing another criminal tough-guy calling the shots, please let this not feel like a diluted version of Omar or Boardwalk Empire‘s Chalky. And then you watch how Williams adds layers to his cellblock kingpin, how he threads menace and tenderness into his exchanges with Ahmed’s newbie convict, how he can even make a scene that involves little more than him watching somebody from across a room seem positively dynamic, and you realize those types of worries are ridiculous. The guy can turn virtually any role into something unique and compelling. He’s unstoppable.

5. Eczema is not character development
Let us never, ever speak of John Turturro’s scaly, cracked feet again. One or two mentions gives us the sense that this guy is externalising a lot of pain, and throws a few obstacles in his way for your third-act underdog redemption. But a dozen scenes of somebody scratching their soles with chopsticks or wrapping Crisco-ed plastic wrap around their peds? A thousand times no. Still, thank you, The Night Of, for the various suggested remedies for this particular ailment. If you happen to know what, exactly, was in that powder the Eastern medicine purveyor handed out, please drop us a line.