A man wakes up, disoriented after spending the night with a woman he just met ... and realises that she's covered in blood, dead from stab wounds. Soon, he's a suspect in her murder.
That's a tantalising premise for a TV show, especially when it's co-created by Steve Zaillian, known for writing acclaimed movies such as Gangs of New York, Moneyball and Schindler's List.
It's also a lot of story to unpack. But when Zaillian took on HBO's highly anticipated crime drama The Night Of, his first project for television, he encountered an unexpected luxury: time.
"I'm just as interested - sometimes more interested - in scenes that you don't have to have, but are very revealing in terms of character," said Zaillian, who created and wrote the eight-episode limited series with famed novelist Richard Price. "With a film, you really can't get away with that." Zaillian's mind-set is evident in The Night Of, which debuts tonight.
The show moves at a deliberate pace. The camera lingers on details that might not matter - or could become absolutely crucial. That type of precision proves absorbing, and the suspenseful series has gotten rave reviews from critics - and, possibly more important - accolades on social media. ("You should get on board for this one," author Stephen King recently tweeted.) It's no secret that HBO, the longtime king of premium cable, needs another buzzworthy drama. Game of Thrones is still a smash success, but aging quickly. True Detective may never recover from that disappointing second season. Vinyl was abruptly cancelled after a lacklustre first season. Can The Night Of become the network's next Sunday night hit?
HBO is optimistic, citing "overwhelmingly positive" internal reaction to the series and solid word-of-mouth. Kary Antholis, president of HBO's miniseries division, says that he doesn't remember ever working on something (even standout mini-series such as Angels in America, Olive Kitteridge and John Adams) with this type of "positive vibe", even before the air date. Still, the network is measuring expectations.
"We're not looking for the huge hit to follow up Game of Thrones. We're just looking to engage the audience and give them something that they're going to want to come back to, week after week," Antholis said, adding, "I don't know that it's going to have huge numbers starting off. But our hope is that the quality of it and the addictive nature of it as a television show will speak for itself." Despite the critical love now, at first it was unclear whether The Night Of would make it on to the screen. Adapted from the BBC mini-series Criminal Justice, the tale starts with a quiet, studious college student, Naz (Riz Ahmed), who lives at home with his parents in Queens. One night, he secretly borrows his father's taxi to drive to a party in Manhattan. On the way, a young woman named Andrea (Sofia Black-D'Elia) stumbles into the back of his cab. She doesn't care that he's not actually a driver, and they embark on an adventure.
After they spend a wild night together, Naz blacks out and wakes to find Andrea stabbed to death. Fast-forward, and Naz is taken into custody. He insists he's innocent, although it doesn't help that he has a bloody knife in his jacket.
A stunned Naz is transported to Rikers Island prison to await trial, and the series delves into the tangled and infuriating web of the criminal justice system, including the timely issue of racial politics; Naz is Pakistani-American.
He is referred to as everything from "that Arab dude" to "towel head". Ahmed, a 33-year-old British actor, spent weeks in Queens, immersing himself in New York culture to get a feel for his character.
He felt added pressure after he saw the real-life parallels to the tragedy of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old accused of stealing a backpack and held at Rikers Island for three years without trial. Although prosecutors dropped the charges and Browder went home, he never recovered from solitary confinement and committed suicide at 22.
"It felt like a big responsibility portraying that story," Ahmed said. For prisoners, he said: "There's something permanent about that experience ... it's not really something you can walk away from unscathed. It's very often something people don't walk away from."
What: The Night Of
Where and when: SoHo, 8.30pm, Wednesday