The effusive praise suggested that the show was near flawless. And while it wasn’t quite generic factory-line crime fare with the mere sheen of HBO prestige as some have argued, The Night Of was still in actuality one of the most frustrating shows of the year so far—frustrating because it was so outstanding in certain moments, and so clumsily handled in others. It had logical lapses (couldn’t Naz wait the short time before his trial was over to shave his head and color himself in sinister tattoos?), a casual disregard for its female characters, and an insistence on making John Stone’s eczema into a labored metaphor for the judicial system.
Perhaps nothing about The Night Of was more problematic, though, than its approach to race. This was a show that touted some supremely on-the-nose dialogue (“You want Jew time? Do a Jew crime”) and dealt with people of color—particularly African Americans —in frequently uncomfortable ways. It’s somewhat shocking that a writer for The Wire, a landmark show that dealt with the subject of race relations in a major American city with such sensitivity, handled similar themes in The Night Of so clunkily. Though Richard Price, the aforementioned Wire alum, and co-creator Steven Zaillian did at least get one thing in that area spot-on.
Price and Zaillian added detail and updated the setting, but The Night Of’s plot very closely resembles that of Season One of Criminal Justice, the 2008 British crime procedural that inspired HBO’s latest big-budget mini. Their storylines are almost identical, down to the detective on the asthmatic main character’s case removing his inhaler from the crime scene because “it doesn’t fit.” In expanding the number of episodes from five to eight, the writers of the US remake go deeper into a frustratingly bureaucratic and imbalanced system, but there’s only really one major difference between the two shows: whereas in Criminal Justice the accused was white British, in The Night Of he is a Pakistani-American Muslim.
It’s a very deliberate change, affecting our lead character’s case in ways that are immediately obvious. The young, educated white man of Criminal Justice isn’t so easily dismissed as a murderer, but The Night Of’s Asian male, a Muslim? Well, straight away we recognize how suspicious that looks to a society that hasn’t looked the same way at a brown-skinned person with an accent, since September 11, 2001.
The Night Of spends eight episodes and nine hours challenging this prejudice in a way that’s often in sharp opposition to its bluntness elsewhere. Some of the show’s characters border on cartoonish, including those within the Queens Muslim community Naz hails from (those Middle-Eastern music cues!), but not Naz himself. He’s quiet, ordinary and awkward in extreme situations. He’s an everyman, a stand-in for you and me. The Night Of replaces the white male that often inhabits this character type with a Muslim, forcing us to feel the sting of Islamophobia from the other side, and—crucially—identify with a minority that has lately been regularly vilified.
It’s pure luck that The Night Of arrived in 2016, a year of resurgent bigot populism, a year in which unscrupulous politicians have seized upon the migrant crisis and the flowering of ISIS to push an anti-minority agenda. The show actually went into development years ago: Barack Obama had only just finished his first term and the Islamic State didn’t yet exist when the show’s pilot shot, with James Gandolfini in the John Stone role, back in 2012. The project stalled following Gandolfini’s death, then Robert De Niro became attached in 2013 and was replaced by John Turturro a year later, before the full series finally shot for a 2016 airing.
All throughout that process, the lead character was a Muslim. It’s simply a coincidence that this story of a young Muslim dealing with prejudice in the USA came to us this year, at a time when attacks on Muslims—and anyone who might be mistaken for one—have risen dramatically, in a country where over half of the population has developed an unfavorable view of Islam.
Spencer Kornhaber at the Atlantic recently wrote that the “intractability of the issues” that The Night Of deals with is the reason why what Price and Zaillian wrote four years ago is still so relevant now. And while it’s true that Islamophobia has been a problem for a while, there’s also arguably been no time this century where the Muslim has been so misunderstood and feared. Immediately after 9/11 was, as The Night Of acknowledges, a “rough time” for Muslims in the West, but that was still a time before a serious contender for the American presidency loudly vowed to ban the Muslim from America, and before widely-reported atrocities were being carried out regularly around the world by fringe groups like Daesh and Boko Haram, acting in the name of Islam.
This side of the twin towers falling, anti-Muslim rhetoric may never have been harsher and—with the rise of politicians like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage—more socially acceptable. Though the liberal response to this is to insist that the vast majority of Muslims do in fact practice the faith peacefully, when all anyone sees on the news or in entertainment is the Muslim as extremist, terrorist or crook, it’s difficult for the notion of ‘the good Muslim’ to be anything other than abstract to a lot of people. Television helps us to relate, and though diversity on the small screen is improving, for a long time no one bothered to make a series where a Muslim appeared all that relatable.
Master of None creator-star Aziz Ansari has often (accurately) talked about how rare it is to see Asian-Americans on-screen, and even then portrayed non-stereotypically.
He’s right, and it’s even rarer to see a Muslim character play a significant part in Western entertainment that isn’t antagonistic. There are over three million Muslims living in the US, the vast majority of whom reject Islamic extremism, vote Democrat and identify as American. They are a people less likely to say religion is important in their lives than Christian Americans. Despite all that, American Islamophobia is at a record high, and part of the reason is undoubtedly how the Muslim is portrayed in the media. Much of the time, it’s negatively or not at all.
It’s important that The Night Of is sympathetic towards the Muslim community, and Lorraine Ali at the LA Times is right that the show is written in such a way that it humanizes the average person of Muslim faith. The show’s most radical move, though, is simply that it has us spend a concentrated period of time with a typical Muslim and his family in the first place. The Night Of’s crowning achievement is that it had millions of Americans, most of whom statistically have never even met a Muslim to know what they’re supposed to be afraid of, see everyday Muslims as they really are: just as flawed, brilliant and mundane as everyone else. What a revelation.
Brogan Morris is a UK-based freelance writer, as seen on the Guardian, Little White Lies, Flavorwire, the BFI, the New Humanist and more. Opinions range from ridiculous to passable. You can follow him on Twitter.