Terrible Reviews: The Night Of

Let me make up for the fact that I never wrote about Stranger Things (which was awesome) by jumping in and saying some things about The Night Of while it’s still fresh.

This review will be spoilerific. How could it not? The show just ended, and you can’t talk about what’s awesome and awful about it without talking about the ending. So — spoilers ahead. Seriously. Don’t read this if you haven’t watched the ending (if you care about that sort of thing).

The Night Of is one of those shows my wife and I tried on a fluke — she’s a fan of that unsolved murder stuff, and I’m rather a big fan of John Turturro — but we were hooked before the end of the first episode.

Well, the finale was this weekend, and I’m still thinking about it. We watch a fair bit of TV, but it’s rare that we have a show that we get excited about watching. We were excited about this one every week. It’s dark. It’s depressing. It’s hard to watch at times. But it’s the most compelling thing I’ve seen in recent history.

Here are three things that made it awesome:

  1. You don’t know who to root for. Nas, the protagonist who finds himself accused (and possibly guilty) of murder? Jack, the grizzled, lives-for-the-job ambulance-chaser lawyer who takes Nas’s case on a spark of something like goodwill? Box, the nearly-retired detective trying to close one last case? Every character is flawed. Every character has moments of I LOVE THAT GUY interspersed liberally with moments of ARE YOU KIDDING WHAT A TERRIBLE IDEA. Every character fluctuates between being adorably naive and soul-twistingly stupid. In the end, there’s nobody we were tired of seeing, because every character was a deep well of still water with inky-black creatures of darkness swimming in its depths.
  2. Everybody gets boned. Not in the good way. A down-on-her-luck girl is murdered. Parents lose their son to prison and all their money to his defense. One lawyer loses her license, another loses a case that she had no business losing. Prisoners get coerced into some truly horrific acts. Innocents become complicit in trying to help out their loved ones in prison. Everybody gets their hands dirty. Everybody is diminished. None are spared.
  3. Even in victory, there is no victory. Nas is acquitted of the crime, but he’s spent months in prison. He returns to the real world addicted to drugs and covered with tattoos that will forever mark him, not to mention the emotional scars of his trauma. Lawyer Jack notches a win (kind of), but not exactly a windfall, and the very next day, he’s back to his grind of chasing down plea deals for criminals who don’t stand a chance. Detective Box clears his conscience on Nas but opens the can of worms that is chasing down an entirely new suspect, and that without his badge (he’s retired) and having taken on the truly crap job of campus security to keep himself busy. And Nas’s parents, who mortgaged everything — literally and figuratively — to fight for their son, learn that the man they rescued from prison is no longer their son at all. The ending can’t even be called bittersweet. There is no such thing as a win, here. (Except, possibly, for Jack and his new cat.)

Those actually all sound like bad things, but they’re not. The show is eminently watchable, and it’s due in no small part to the fact that we couldn’t wait to see what awful thing was coming down the pike for these characters next.

On the other hand, nothing is perfect. Here are three things that made it not so awesome:

  1. The ending is a bit too abrupt. The trial — which seems like an absolute slam-dunk for the prosecution, and which is described as such by the defense lawyer (“you just convicted him” — spoken with scorn to his fellow attorney) turns on a dime with an oddball hesitation by the DA and the traditional impassioned speech from the beleaguered defense attorney. Suddenly it’s a mistrial, and in the blink of an eye, Nas goes free (kind of). But there was no hint as to what the jury were feeling, virtually no time spent suffering in deliberation with a deadlocked jury. Just, wham, it’s over. Which is, I’m sure, not an accident — trials are sometimes abrupt like that — but the mistrial and dismissal just seemed a little too clean in the end for me.
  2. Jack’s eczema. The show has run its course, and I am still asking myself the same question I was asking after two episodes, which is: what is the deal with Jack’s eczema? It plagues him, no doubt. It makes even harder his unenviable life and career, not least of which because he has to enter the arena of $300 dress shoes and fancy suits wearing open-toed sandals and bags of vaseline on his feet. And sure, his condition flares up on the night of the big closing, and he has to deliver his speech covered in sores and sleep-deprived from a night in the ER. But he doesn’t overcome it. It’s just a hassle without any resolution or grounding or payoff. Strange. Gross.
  3. Kapoor. This woman takes such a remarkable and idiotic swan dive from her place of grace, it basically defies credulity — except that it doesn’t. First, she takes the job representing Nas against the advice of her employer. Then she ends up falling for him, kissing him during one of their meetings in prison (caught on film, of course), which seems absolutely out of nowhere, unless you just chalk it up to the Florence Nightingale effect. The next thing we know, she’s smuggling drugs into the prison for him (in her “body cavity” as the show so delicately puts it), to level him out so that he can take the stand — even though Jack has, rather convincingly, told her that he should by no means take the stand. Of course she’s caught, fired, and likely disbarred. And why? For love? I wanted really badly to like this character, for her to be the shining beacon of light in the neverending night that was The Night Of, but it was not to be. I can’t tell if her downfall is so disappointing it’s insulting, or so common and simple that it’s perfect.

The show gets too much right (and maybe terrifyingly right), though, for its shortcomings to keep me from watching. It’s excellent, even if it turns your stomach as you gulp it down.

The verdict: Four and a half out of five infected prison tattoos.

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