Rebecca Barry Hill: Have a deadly fling

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"Don't go anywhere," attorney John Stone (John Turturro) tells Naz (Riz Ahmed) drily as he leaves him in his cell. Photo / HBO
"Don't go anywhere," attorney John Stone (John Turturro) tells Naz (Riz Ahmed) drily as he leaves him in his cell. Photo / HBO

Brevity is a virtue. Doco series Making A Murderer and podcast Serial called for marriage-like commitment. But if you sit down to watch HBO and the BBC's new fictional miniseries The Night Of (8.30pm, Wednesdays, SoHo), you'll get the whodunnit thrills without feeling like you've been called for jury duty. Based on the British show Criminal Justice, the enthralling eight-part murder mystery is reminiscent of True Detective and The Jinx for its chilling plot and subtle wit. After the first two episodes, let alone the first 10 minutes, you'll feel a compulsion to tell your friends, your barista and your barista's boyfriend's sister to make a Night Of it. What makes it so compelling is the idea that bad things can happen to anyone, and that good people can do bad things. Make one stupid mistake or step into the wrong place at the wrong time - bam, your life is screwed, guilty or not.

The prime suspect is Naz, a 20-something American-Pakistani student so wide-eyed and straight-laced one of the sarcastic New York cops he encounters nicknames him Bambi.

Naz lives with his parents, excels at maths, suffers from asthma, doesn't have a girlfriend. His first mistake is to borrow his dad's taxi without permission to get to a party. A beautiful but troubled girl demands a ride and seduces him into coming back to her place for drugs, sex and a game with a knife that you know is going to end horribly. He wakes to find her stabbed to death, and flees the scene.

From this shocking set-up - and Naz' heart-hammering arrest - writer Richard Price and writer-director Steven Zaillian throw us down the justice system rabbit hole. The scenes in the police station play out with a raw horror that make you feel as though it's you who's been booked. Footsteps echo down the corridor. Keys jangle in locks. The neon lights buzz. A cop with the jaded demeanour of Orange is the New Black's "Pornstache" Mendez mans the phone. Naz waits near a volatile man twice his size and a transvestite. Nothing is particularly dramatised, the blow-by-blow telling amplifies the dread. It's not necessary to manufacture the emotion - we see it in Naz' eyes, thanks to an impressive performance from British actor Riz Ahmed. Only his second mistake - hiding the knife in his jacket - stretches credibility too far.

The characters are great. Where True Detective had Rust Cohle, The Night Of has John Stone, (John Turturro) the straight-talking, eczema-suffering, hard-boiled-egg-carrying underdog attorney, a part once intended for Robert De Niro, and later, the late James Gandolfini. Turturro rises to the challenge, playing Stone with an endearingly upbeat attitude and dry New York humour.

"Don't go anywhere," he tells Naz as he leaves him in his cell.

The Night Of also follows in the mystery tradition with a charismatic lead cop. Detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp) follows his hunch not to press charges and tries to dig beneath the racism that follows Naz everywhere.

"He's not an Arab?" asks the dead girl's stone-cold stepfather Don (House of Cards' Paul Sparks). "What," he says, studying the ethnicities of the men in the line-up, "are these?"

Price's confronting writing extends to conversations and scenes that are cleverly juxtaposed. We see Naz go through hell at the station, then cut to his parents, worried he hasn't come home. "Should we call the police?" asks his mother, unaware of the irony.

Likewise, Zaillian finds moments of cinematic beauty. We see Naz driven away with the rest of the felons as the detective negotiates the city streets while listening to opera, and John Stone takes the subway home.

Mostly we see a terrified young man, staring down the barrel of an uncertain future. And six more hours spent transfixed on the couch.

- Weekend magazine

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