The eight-part HBO miniseries The Night Of is a slow-burning whodunit that’s more interested in the cultural, racial and socio-political aspects of crime in America than solving the mystery itself—setting itself apart from other law and order dramas. Loosely based on the BBC series Criminal Justice, the American version was created by Richard Price and Steve Zaillian, who also served as executive producers. The two shared the writing responsibilities, with Zaillian and James Marsh (The Theory of Everything) divvying up the directing.
The Night Of starts with a bang, as college student Naz Khan (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani American, borrows his father’s cab to get to a party. Outside of his Queens comfort zone, he’s hailed by Andrea (Sofia Black D’Elia), a troubled party girl who doesn’t want to be alone. After a night of sex and drugs, Naz wakes up in a haze to find Andrea stabbed to death in the bedroom. With no recollection of what happened, he runs. Eventually, Naz is arrested and is represented by a seedy lawyer, Jack Stone (John Turturro).
Over the course of the series, viewers watch Stone look for ways to free his client, while Naz’s family—particularly his father Salim Khan (Peyman Moaadi) and mother (Poorna Jagannathan)—stand by, helpless. Naz is a Muslim, which garners him no favors in the press or during his incarceration at Rikers Island, awaiting trial. In jail, Naz is taught how to survive by Freddy (Michael K. Williams), a beloved and feared boxer, and the king of Rikers. Regardless of his trial’s outcome, Naz’s life has forever changed.
At a recent screening event for The Night Of in West Hollywood, Zaillian was joined by cast members Ahmed, Williams and Jagannathan for a panel discussion about the show, where they discussed, among other things, their thoughts on racism and incarceration America.
Here’s what we learned during the event, and in a greenroom interview session with the panelists.
The Night Of feels especially current and relevant during this time of Trump, with its strong undercurrent of anti-Muslim, anti-”other” sentiment in America, but the series was actually written and developed more than seven years ago with the Jack Stone role written for James Gandolfini (who posthumously receives executive producer credit on the show).
“It’s dropping at a time that it’s needed. It feels cosmic more than anything. There is so much at stake right now,” Jagannathan said. “Some of the things that the show deals with, they’ve always [been] there,” Zaillian added. “But they’re just in the press more now—certainly in terms of certain parts of the justice system, and Rikers Island, in particular. We were writing about things that the press didn’t even know about. We were going [to Rikers] and were talking to people who had been there. When the stories started coming out, then we were like, ‘Finally, maybe something’s going to be done here.’”
Rikers Island is both an island and the name of New York City’s main jail facility, serving as a living tomb for those imprisoned inside. “I don’t think either one of us had any idea of what Rikers was like until we went there,” Zaillian said, speaking of himself and Price. “It’s a harrowing place. It has a lot of problems, and I don’t know what the solution is. It became, naturally, a bigger part of the story than when we were first starting.” The executive producers insisted that their team—including DPs, production designers, actors and others—visit the jail. “We had to get it right every step of the way.”
Impressed upon Zaillian was learning how a stint in Rikers can change a prisoner forever—a metamorphosis that we witness in Raz in The Night Of. “One thing that troubles me is that you have to stay there so long before anything happens, and terrible things can happen to you while you’re waiting,” he said. “You can be innocent of any crime, and [if] you don’t have money for bail, you are in big, big trouble. And you’ll probably be changed for life whether you did the crime or not. There’s something wrong with that. There’s something wrong with keeping someone in there for three years on suspicion for having done something.”
The Night Of has been compared to Dick Wolf’s long-running TV series (and its spinoffs). “I don’t watch a lot of TV, so when people say, ‘How did you make it different from Law & Order?’ I wouldn’t know because I’ve never seen it,” Zaillian said. ”[Richard Price] isn’t influenced by stuff like that. It was a learning process.”
Ahmed, who was born and raised in the U.K., was surprised by the lack of diversity in the U.S. prison system: “Something that really stayed with me, that always kind of jumped out was actually the racial element of the prison system here,” he said. “When I went to Rikers, it was like 90 percent black and the other 10 percent was just other people of color. And that was a really visually stark representation of what’s wrong with our criminal justice system, in a way. And it wasn’t just the inmates, it was the correction officers as well. It was an institution devoid of any white people, and I just found that to be absurd, surreal.”
Turturro’s character suffers from eczema, a chronic skin condition. While the actor doesn’t suffer from itchy, painful rashes in real life, the original creator of the BBC show, Peter Moffat, was afflicted for years and wrote it into his show. The American version takes the eczema storyline even further. “Like a lot of things in the show, it started out as an organic thing. It started out as something strange about this character,” Zaillian said. “When you look at it, some of these scenes are kind of funny, but it’s serious business. It kind of puts him [Stone] in an outsider role, just to walk down the street.” [Stone often wears Birkenstocks and wraps his feet in Saran Wrap to let the open wounds breathe.]
Williams’ character Freddy is the inmate who practically runs Rikers, and Freddy uses both brains and brawn to do so. “I wanted to break the stereotype that everyone in prison is ignorant or some type of barbaric neanderthal with no emotion, no intellect,” Williams said. “Is he dangerous? Yeah. But there’s a human being in there.”
Zaillian said it was important for him to create a show without obvious heroes and villains, “to not have characters that are so evil that we can put the blame on them. It’s the system that is that character. Really what you’re watching—for the most part—is people doing the best job they can with what they got. The lawyers are not bad. The judges are not bad. It’s too easy to make them the bad guys when it’s the system itself you want to look at.”
Williams added, “It becomes very clear, very fast how there are no winners in the criminal justice system, no matter what side you’re on.”
When asked if it was difficult to stay in character with such intense material, Williams said that much of The Night Of was filmed in Yonkers, in Westchester County, and for him, it was a long daily commute from the city during a brutal winter. “Yonkers is opposite of sexy,” he said. “It was not hard to stay in character.”
The season finale of The Night Of airs on August 28 on HBO.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram.