“Good cop and bad cop left for the day. I’m a different kind of cop.”
With those words, Detective Vic Mackey of the FX program The Shield helped solidify what had become a slow, but inevitable trend in the TV content business. For years, police officers and TV went together with the harmony of peanut butter and jam. Not only did our boys (and girls) in blue live inherently exciting lives that made their profession ideal for television, but the very nature of their job, which involves investigating a multitude of different cases, perfectly aligned with the episodic structure of early, non-anthology programs. Were one to trace the history of television, I’m willing to bet cop procedurals would overtake law shows and medical formats as TV’s most common subgenre.
The overall effect of cop shows on our cultural landscape cannot be understated. Just as cops seemingly protect us in our real lives, they become idealized vehicles of justice and honor that we watched in our living rooms. Sure, there were depictions of corrupt or unethical officers in film, but TV was largely seen as a place for more accessible (and, yes, reductive) forms of storytelling, whether it’s Dragnet, Hawaii Five-O, Starsky and Hutch or countless others. Then came Hill Street Blues and Homicide: Life on the Streets and NYPD Blue and The Wire and, yes, The Shield. These were shows that gradually repositioned the perception of the police in popular consciousness. Suddenly cops were not just the straightforward, white hat heroes who would chase down bad guys and trade quips as a form of gallows humor. They became more human, more damaged. Some—in the case of the aforementioned Vic Mackey—even crossed the line into straight-up villainy.
In this regard, HBO’s new miniseries, The Night Of feels like a logical next step in the evolution of the televised crime drama. It’s not a lionization of the police, nor does it seek to highlight the force’s more anti-hero members; rather, it positions itself as something more measured and clinical. Whereas most programs dive headfirst into the extremes, The Night Of’s portrait of its police department feels akin to a more grounded Law & Order installment. Where the engaging drama takes hold is in its perspective. The pilot episode puts its audience through a fairly familiar case by having our surrogate not be the authorities, but the person they arrest. In effect, the show is taking the cop show viewer and throwing them right under the interrogation room spotlight. The moments we’ve come to see as relatively routine and banal (cops arriving at the crime scene, interviewing witnesses, etc.) now become the stuff of white-knuckle suspense.
First, a relevant tangent. During my freshman year of college, I was brought in for questioning by the police. To be clear, this wasn’t an “arrest.” I was not read my Miranda rights or carried away from my dorm in cuffs. In retrospect, the situation was little more than the officers gathering intel. I won’t go into details, but the investigation was regarding stolen property. Due to what I later learned was an error in record keeping, I had been confused with another college student with a similar name and appearance. The situation was (very quickly) resolved and the officers were incredibly professional, albeit not without first subjecting me to a thorough line of inquiry.
This is all to say I know nothing of what it means to be physically arrested, but I know the sinking feeling in the gut that comes with being in the presence of a police officer as they ask about your whereabouts, habits and daily schedule. Having watched as many police shows as I have, I now wonder how certain characters can act so casually about this procedure without a hint of nerves or flop sweat. Indeed, in my experience, there was a certain horror in watching police casually slog through what’s clearly become a daily routine for them as, internally, you live in fear that your life—even if you know you’re innocent—will collapse around you at any second. It’s this very specific feeling that the premiere episode of The Night Of captures with great gusto.
For a bit of context, The Night Of is a remake of the British series Criminal Justice. That series starred future Q, Ben Whishaw, as Ben, a young man who takes his parents’ cab out for the night. In the process, he picks up an attractive mixed race girl (played by Preacher’s Ruth Negga) with whom he later ends up going home with. The two take ecstasy and he awakens the next morning to find the girl stabbed to death. The subsequent episodes follow his experience through the justice system. The new series somewhat flips this dynamic around, recasting Ben as Naz (Riz Ahmed), a shy Pakistani-American man who finds himself in the same scenario with Andrea (Sofia Black D’Dlia), a wealthy white college student. The episode ends with an arrested Naz meeting John Stone (John Turturro), a lawyer who is prowling the NYPD precinct in search of clients.
In describing the nearly hour-and-a-half debut of this latest miniseries, “Hitchcockian” is a term that most readily comes to mind. Indeed, the Master of Suspense frequently alluded to the fact that—due to a traumatic childhood experience wherein his father had him arrested and thrown in jail for a few hours—he carried around an unshakable fear of policeman. If the auteur theory is to be believed, this led to many films revolving around the concept of “the wrong man” set-up. In one case, he literally adapted a true-life “wrong man” story into a 1956 feature literally called The Wrong Man. That film stars Henry Fonda as a run-of-the-mill New York musician who—through a series of tragic misunderstandings—is mistaken for a robber. The film is one of Hitchcock’s most frightening and unnerving, not due to the presence of psychotic murderers, killer birds or malevolent spouses, mind you, but in the way Fonda’s character (and, by extension, the audience) finds the proverbial walls closing in around him as every bit of evidence somehow points the finger at him. In one sequence, he is forced to recreate his “crime” in front of a witness who is so thoroughly convinced he’s the perpetrator that she almost faints in fear; furthermore, the situation becomes absolutely Kafkaesque after he accidentally misspells a word in the same way the robber did.
Now, Night Of works a bit differently than Hitchcock’s docudrama thriller. For one, there is never any doubt with The Wrong Man that Fonda’s character is innocent whereas, with Naz, the crime could very well have been committed while he was in the midst of a drug-fueled state and unaware of his actions. What connects the two projects, however, is in how each of their directors visually builds the evidence against their protagonist. Unlike The Wrong Man, wherein Hitchcock documents these moments after-the-fact, pilot director/co-creator Steve Zaillian telegraphs the mounting evidence before the murder has even occurred. Throughout the course of Naz and Andrea’s “date,” Zaillian noticeably cuts to black-and-white security footage in both the gas station where Naz stops for supplies as well as a toll road he travels through on the way to a destination. Moreover, the show makes specific note of Naz and Andrea’s seemingly innocuous interactions with police officers, chauffeurs and passersbys. For anyone even the slightest bit of aware of what direction the narrative is following, there’s a gnawing sense of dread that, with each new stop and each new exchange, Naz is inadvertently building more of a case against himself.
Though I’m not privy as to the exact timeline when it comes to the show’s production (it was originally supposed to star the late James Gandolfini in the John Stone role), co-creators Zaillian and Richard Price could not have planned for a more topical environment for their project to air. Not only is the show entering into a heightened political atmosphere wherein characters like Naz are being treated by prejudiced right-wingers like jihadist terrorists waiting to detonate their vest bomb, but the show’s premiere coincides with the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile as well as the killing of several Dallas police officers. And while the episode stops short of offering any kind of intense political statement—with the notable exception of one African-American witness who delivers blatantly racist comments regarding Naz’s ethnicity—the portrait of a Muslim-American’s experience at the hands of the police is hitting all kinds of buttons. The themes here, combined with the recent pop culture explosion of such documentaries/docudramas as The Jinx, Making a Murderer and The People v. O.J. Simpson, will no doubt provide an avalanche of intense speculation and think pieces for the next month and a half. Whatever the outcome, I think it’s safe to say that we should expect, to paraphrase Detective Mackey, a different kind of cop show.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.