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HBO's 'The Night Of' Is Riveting From The Very First Frame


This is FRESH AIR. Sunday night, HBO presents a new eight-part limited drama series called "The Night Of," based on a British series and originally intended to star James Gandolfini who died suddenly after shooting the pilot episode. It finally emerges this weekend with John Turturro taking over the role that had so intrigued Gandolfini. And the result is a miniseries that is not just a worthy remake. It's surprisingly and excitingly original.

I've seen all but the final hour of this eight-part crime drama, and it's riveting from the very first frame. For the first hour, it tells the tale of a young college student who falls into a rabbit hole of an adventurous night out and ends up at the police station suspected of murder. But from there, the story keeps widening. We get to know the veteran detective who interrogates him, the lawyers who defend him and even some of the prisoners with whom he's incarcerated while awaiting and undergoing trial.

"The Night Of" gives all of these characters and viewpoints equal weight as it shifts focus. It's like a TV show that starts out like "Law & Order" moves to the interrogation room of "Homicide: Life On The Street" then becomes an investigative character study like "Columbo" and a prison drama like "Oz" with some "Goodwife" courtroom humor and theatrics thrown in as a bonus. "The Night Of" is like four or five TV series in one, and they're all great. Another comparison perhaps would be to the recent long-form dramas of courtroom cases presented in miniseries form on ABC's "American Crime" and FX's "The People V. O.J. Simpson."

But the concept for "The Night Of" predates all those efforts. It's based on a British series called "Criminal Justice," which aired in the U.K. beginning in 2008. And, like ABC's "American Crime," presented a new case each season. The first season written by Peter Moffat was about a young British college student named Ben accused of murder. He's played by Ben Whishaw from "London Spy." And he's interrogated, in the original, by Detective Box played on "Criminal Justice" by Bill Patterson who, long ago, played the psychiatrist in "The Singing Detective."


BILL PATTERSON: (As Detective Box) And there's just one more thing we need from you.

OLIVER HEMBROUGH: (As Dr. Gerrard) Do we have consent?

BEN WHISHAW: (As Ben Coulter) What does that mean? Consent for what?

PATTERSON: (As Detective Box) You can say no to this if you want to.

HEMBROUGH: (As Dr. Gerrard) My name is Dr. Gerrard. I need to take a sample from inside your penis.

PATTERSON: (As Detective Box) If you say no, we'll have to get permission from my boss. And he'll say yes, of course. It'll just take a bit longer. So it's going to happen anyway. And if you refuse now it can be used against you in court. And I don't want you disadvantaged, Ben. You really can say no if you want to. Say the words for me, Ben.

WHISHAW: (As Ben Coulter) I consent.

BIANCULLI: For the American "The Night Of" remake, novelist and screenwriter Richard Price and writer-director Steve Zaillian opened the story up, slowed it down, and made some significant changes. One was re-casting the prime suspect as a Pakistani-American played by Riz Ahmed. That injects subtext to everything from his treatment in prison to his initial questioning by Detective Box played in the American version by Bill Camp.


BILL CAMP: (As Detective Box) We didn't formally meet out there. I'm Detective Sergeant Dennis Box. So Nazir, is that what you like to be called or...

RIZ AHMED: (As Naz) Naz.

CAMP: (As Detective Box) Naz. OK. That's easy. So, Naz, what happened tonight?

BIANCULLI: Naz is willing, even eager to tell his story, but only until he meets up with Jack Stone a lawyer who trolls the precincts looking for cases. That's the part Gandolfini played in the original pilot. But Jack barely shows up until episode two when he introduces himself to Naz and gives him some advice. We'll never know what the former star of "The Sopranos" would have done with this scene or with this character, but John Turturro is terrific.


AHMED: (As Naz) OK. You need to understand what happened here. All right. We were at her place. We were drinking. I don't drink, and she started giving me all kind of...

JOHN TURTURRO: (As Jack Stone) I want to tell you something, and it's the most important thing you'll ever hear in your entire life. So don't not hear it. Shut it. They come up with their story. We come up with ours. The jury gets to decide which they like best. Now, the good news is we get to hear what their story is first before we have to tell them ours, so we keep our mouth shut until we know what they're doing.

AHMED: (As Naz) You keep saying story like I'm making it up. I want to tell you the truth.

TURTURRO: (As Jack Stone) You really, really don't. I don't want to be stuck with the truth, not until I have to be.

BIANCULLI: Other actors and character show up later and become pivotal, including Michael Kenneth Williams as a particularly imposing prisoner at Rikers Island. This makes the third indelible character Williams has played in an HBO drama, after Chalky White in "Boardwalk Empire" and Omar Little in "The Wire," quite impressive. But then everything about "The Night Of" is quite impressive. The less you know going in, the better because it's full of surprises and left turns. I haven't even given details about the murder and that's on purpose. Just know that you're in for an exciting ride and some splendid performances.


BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, British actor Christopher Eccleston. On the BBC drama "The A Word" he plays Maurice, the grandfather of a boy on the autism spectrum. Maurice has problems of his own interacting with the people around him. The show begins this month on the Sundance Channel. Ecclestone also played the Reverend Matt Jamison on HBO's "The Leftovers." Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.