Asking for a Friend: Just How Good Is HBO's Crime Drama 'The Night Of'?

If you haven't watched HBO's limited series The Night Of, you're doing yourself a disservice. 

Of course, this being HBO, right now it's hard to justify the added expense of $15/month just to watch and stream (or time travel through their catalog of classics) semi-hit-or-miss original programming. 

And that's been the case with too many people I've talked to that can neither stomach the fee nor the sheer sensory overload adding HBO to the carousel of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Crackle (dunno why...), Showtime, Starz, DirecTV/Fios/Time Warner it requires. 

Yeah, TV has a whole lot going on right now, but it's a good problem when―especially when you're spoiled for choice when it comes to watching something worthwhile. 

Mr. Robot. Stranger Things. Game of Thrones. Power. Bojack Horseman. The list of shows you can get through and not feel like you've wasted time (except for Season 2, episode 4 of Mr. Robot in certain spots, but it's still good) is stacked. 

And that's just sh*t going on in the past few months. That doesn't include the backlogs of everything you can still watch, which, in the case of HBO, is one of the bigger reasons to add it onto everything else you might have going on. 

Boardwalk Empire. Deadwood. The Wire. Six Feet Under. The SopranosOz. They've got a deep roster of prestige drama they've been pumping out for the last couple of decades with consistency that no other network's been able to replicate.

And that might be the most important thing. You have to do something well, and you have to do it well for a while―or at least long enough for people to ignore the f*ckups in between (True Detective Season 2, The Brink, Vinyl, Ballers, Entourage if you're not a 16-year-old-boy). 

Then you have to do it again in a way that feels both familiar and wholly new for however long you need to tell a story. Olive Kitteridge. Show Me a Hero. Angels in America. Band of Brothers. The Pacific. Generation Kill. 

And now, The Night Of

But how good is it? Is it something we wish were longer? Are we overthinking it because it's a limited series? Is it owed the deeper thought because it was James Gandolfini's passion project? 

You're hearing that it's good, but you haven't taken the time to watch it yet. So, is it hood, how good, and why―without the spoilers? 

1. Screen time


Not only do I give a shit about every character that takes a spot on the screen, I actually care about what they're there for, who they talk to, and what they say. That rarely works out so well. The same went for Stranger Things and how big a fan I am of those child actors. They did better than not suck, and that's huge. 

Casting and dialogue are two things seemingly at odds with one another when it comes down to answering why something didn't work. 

Take Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, a movie I really, really hate. Stranger Things' Matthew Modine is in that. Completely forgettable part because all he does is call JGL a hot head for no reason a few times, wander off the screen, and then get shot in his dress blues in the final street battle. 

A completely forgettable role they probably paid too much for because the dialogue wasn't there. It works both ways though. You get the overeager extras wrecking entire sequences with stupid one-liners like, "Man, my money's under my mattress," or something stupid. 


(There's really no direct relation between this and DKR except when you look deeper and find some of the underlying HBO threads at work. Petyr Baelish/Thomas Carcetti on the plane, knife guy from GoT season 3 when he murders the Lord Commander, and Ben Mendelsohn who's only had a one-off stay on Girls, but who's performance in Place Beyond the Pines makes it hard to believe he won't ever find a home home at HBO in general.)

Yes, Riz Ahmed is phenomenal as Naz. His father and mother (Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan), and Chandra (Amara "Sweet Lime from Darjeeling Limited" Karan)are also incredible. So are John Turturro and Bill Camp.

But this show lives perfectly in Glenne Headley, and Jeannie Berlin. Small moments of Chip Zien, Ben Shenkman, and Fisher Stevens (even if he's a weird pharmacist nobody would ever actually want IRL). Tiny moments that keep the scenes alive organically as opposed to forcing life into a scene with a dialogue defibrillator.

2. New York City 

I'm trying to remember any sweeping NYC skyline shot, but for the life of me, I can't think of any other than the blue lights of the Manhattan Bridge―far from the sexiest bridge in NYC. 

And that's weird considering if you're going to shoot in NYC, you're generally not going to waste how expensive that even is by not having something to show for it. Showtime's Billions is a great example of doing just that, but it's not a great example of a great show. 

The Night Of doesn't need to appeal to the tourist or future transplant that builds their understanding of the city from film and television. New York City isn't a main character, and the show isn't interested in telling the story of the quintessential anything. 

The city, if anywhere, lives in the people, and every New Yorker in it feels and sounds like a New Yorker completely devoid of the campiness of stereotype nearly everything else plays to (think Damian Lewis's accent in Billions).

We can literally spend a minute talking about Amare Stoudemire in 2014 and never say anything about the Knicks again. That's hard to do. 

In The Night Of, NYC is what it is often without asserting the idea that it's what it is always. It's dirty. It's rainy. It's gross. It's gray. It's noisy. It's violent. It's scary. 

Every shot is granular. It dwells on stair case railings of Rikers. Mortar linings of brick. Newspapers and crisco. It's not heavy-handed imagery. It's not a bunch of visual cues. It's not aerial shots of bridges, rail yards, or underground, frenetically paced subway cuts.

3. The What-If

What if James Gandolfini hadn't died? What if Robert De Niro had taken up the mantle? What if this weren't a limited series and it focused on a different mystery each season? What if James Gandolfini were still around and instead of eczema, it was plaque psoriasis on his scalp that ailed him? 

All of this makes the show better because we can say, "Yeah, Gandolfini's huge stature reduced by the sheer grossness of eczema would be super effective," and believe it, and support it, and always wish that was the reality because it would be great. 

But then we can look at Turturro and say, "Damn, that shit is gross, and everything about this guy is super pathetic, but there's still something dreadfully heroic about him that I'm just going to keep at it." 

We can imagine this show great in whatever what-if scenario we throw it in, but at the end of the day, we're more than fine with what this show is. 

4. The HBO Recycling Program


Okay, so this is a brilliant idea that I'm so glad has been written about at length by then-Grantland's, now-The Ringer's Andy Greenwald. For a while, I thought it was just limited to The Wire―that's what started it all, that's the pool from which any great TV show would draw casting from. 

Nope. So, go on and read it. It's essential. 


The Night Of pulls some of the greatest from this (shout out to Bustle for putting this together). Paul Sparks, Michael K Williams, JD Williams, Bill Camp, Ben Shenkman, Glenn Fleshler, Max Casella, and, of course, Richard Price. 

Is this what makes it good? Not necessarily. This is part of what makes HBO good. This is how you stay consistent. This is how you make something good that feels familiar and new. 

5. Limited

It's a stupid question that we don't even need to ask, but we do with every show ever: Is it good? Yes, it's good. It's beautifully shot, impeccably cast, carefully written, and almost perfectly paced. 

But with every show you generally wonder how long can it be good. Take USA's Mr. Robot for example. 

The first season was good and dark and slick and beautiful and clumsy and unique and derivative and stupid but still a very, very good show. It borrowed the right things from what we've seen before and spun away from them into something we're ready to see in season two. 

Sure, it hit a rough patch for a second, but it's become something that can continue to be great for the rest of the season. Then you're back to the same question, and you still have to wonder―because you don't know how long it will last―how long can it be this good? 


Or maybe you don't. Maybe you just take it one week at a time. Maybe you don't constantly measure it up against what other shows have done well or poorly. Maybe you don't hold grudges for disappointment.

You don't remember season 2 of True Detective as a cautionary tale, and, similarly, you don't hold season 2 of The Leftovers as the standard of growth and evolution every other show should reach for. 

Limited series are by design, and unless there's something fundamentally wrong with casting, writing, direction, or plot, you have to be a real bastard and get nit-picky about episodes if you're looking for a reason to suggest why the work as a whole wasn't as great as it could have been. 


It's not like you're throwing out the second season of The Wire, bravely killing off AJ Soprano instead of Christopher Moltisanti, bringing Mad Men to HBO instead of AMC as God intended, re-casting The Watchmen as an HBO mini-series, telling Aaron Sorkin, "No, you can't play 'Oh Shenandoah,'" or giving Scorsese an ultimatum: "Either you re-write Vinyl as an actual series, or you do a 3-4 hour mini-series. None of this bullshit where you make a two-hour pilot and leave everyone in a bad spot to make a show of it."

With The Night Of, it's limited because someone decided it was. It has a discernible, governable lifespan. It's over when it's done, and you know that show runners won't be taking a stab at these questions in preparation for its second season. It tells the story it has to, and is as good for as long as it lives. 

Which, it's good right now. Like, really good. 

[Feature Image Courtesy Instagram] 

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