The Night Of - an HBO limited series

About twenty minutes into The Night Of, HBO’s new crime drama, you begin to notice the lack of any real background score. It becomes apparent because you can hear a clock ticking – not an actual sound but one in your head. The clock is counting down to the moment when things are about to go horribly wrong for the utterly sweet, all manners-no sass Naz Khan (Riz Ahmed) who is about to make the one stupid choice that will ruin his night for sure, and also possibly the rest of his life.

Naz is American, of Pakistani origin, living with his parents and doing what young immigrant men do – walking the fine line between living life as a First World young man and following the rules of his traditional upbringing. On the whole he seems to be doing fine. On this particular night he is preparing to go to a party. His parents are not entirely pleased with the prospect of a wild night out on the town for their son, but then what parents really are? His friend cancels at the last minute and that’s when Naz makes the choice – to go out anyway. He was excited, this sounded like a really good party, why shouldn’t he go? He sneaks out of home and drives off in his dad’s cab. It’s okay, he’s a smart kid, he just wants to go have some fun and he’ll be back home in no time.

Not quite how it goes.

He can’t get the cab’s off-duty light to come on and has to keep fending off people who get in and ask him for a ride. He manages to get two bros out, with a little help from the friendly neighbourhood cops, but when a beautiful young woman gets in, he has a harder time refusing. One thing leads to another, they end up at her place and when he wakes up from a drunken stupor, his life as he knows it is over. He finds said beautiful woman in her bed, stabbed to death. His time starts now.

The Night Of is an exercise in minutiae. Excruciating, knife-twisting details that play out as they are wont to and make you feel every second of poor Naz’s trauma. He already knows what has befallen him. Now it’s just a question of waiting for the pieces to fall into place for the people in charge. He’s backed into such a tight corner, there is literally nothing he can do. Even breathing is not up to him after some time – he’s asthmatic and he doesn’t have access to his pump.

There are crime dramas you watch for the thrill of the hunt – seeing the people in charge piece together the clues and catch the Big Bad. There are those you watch knowing that you can play out your fears safely and go back to a warm bed, still alive, still untouched by the horror you witnessed on screen. The Night Of is neither of those. It masterfully illustrates how one stupid, almost accidental, choice can land you in a world of pain. I don’t know how you sleep at night after that.

The cast is spectacular – Riz Ahmed is riveting. He begins to realise the levels of trouble he’s in as the night progresses and his body language seems to do a slow reveal as it processes the information. Afton Williamson is remarkable as the no-nonsense cop that pulls Naz over when he makes an illegal left turn. I would not want to get on her bad side. John Turturro as the lawyer is excellent, but then he always is. The real revelation is the actor Bill Camp who plays Detective Box, the big man in charge of the investigation. How have we not seen him front and centre in more things? His listing in Birdman is Crazy Man.

The Night Of, at least the first episode, is the kind of TV you can’t stop watching because it’s so compelling. It’s quietly brutal and effective in how it plays out. You almost wish for some histrionics or an over the top string section to pull you out of the experience and make you think “Eh, it’s just a TV show”. Might be less scary that way.