Almost 20 years ago, HBO got ambitious with its original content. The impact was immediate, astonishing and cleanly broken along gender lines.
After "Sex and the City" turned the classic urban ingénue comedy into a smart and exceedingly sexual look at the modern woman, "The Sopranos" offered viewers the flip side: an extremely violent, at times darkly funny examination of the power and pitfalls of masculinity.
Both transformed American narrative and character but "The Sopranos" created a cottage industry: Tales of men battling internal demons and external pressures took the idiot box to "prestige television" until, inevitably, their sheer number and similarity ensured a backlash.
There is no easier target than the ill-shaven, dimly lit, perpetually brooding antihero attempting to free himself from troubles which are almost always of his own devising.
Which makes the simple beauty and unexpected power of the HBO's new limited series "The Night Of" even more remarkable. That and John Turturro's extraordinary performance (a more literal title could be "The Night of the Character Actor").
Adapted by Steve Zaillian and Richard Price from the BBC series "Criminal Justice," "The Night Of" is as much conceit as story. Lives intersect when a beautiful young woman is brutally stabbed and a young man, who appears to be a victim of circumstance, is charged. There will be cops and lawyers, the parallel brutality of prison and public reaction.
Crammed with familiar tropes (see: beautiful young woman, brutally stabbed) and many HBO alum including Price, it utilizes an artistic array of sped-up street scenes and off-center still lives, all stained with the dark, urban-weary tones that so often define the network – #HBO #TBT.
If that weren't enough, "The Night Of" carries its own personal tragedy. James Gandolfini was to have starred; he had just begun filming when he died suddenly three years ago.
Under all that weight, not to mention the network's recent management shift, "The Night Of" could have very easily sunk.
Instead, it sings. Mournfully, triumphantly, poignantly, of failed dreams and second chances; of the simple mistakes that accumulate into tragedy, of the cold calculations required by redemption.
But mostly it sings of itself, an anthem to television's unique power to turn a series of understated performances into sustained magnificence.
"The Night Of" refers to a series of events that puts a college student in jail, charged with a murder. A wannabe athlete turned tutor, Naz (Riz Ahmed) decides to go partying with a friend over the objection of his parents because, just once, he'd like to be "cool." So when his friend bails, Naz "borrows" the cab his father shares with two other men. A series of near-laughable mishaps leads him to meet, and then sleep with, a young woman in possession of many drugs and obvious thrill issues. When he wakes to find her horrifically dead, Naz panics and runs, trailed by the pattern of bad decision-making and worse luck that has dogged him throughout the night.
Soon he is in custody, his fear and confusion gently leveraged by Det. Dennis Box (Bill Camp). A good cop on the verge of retirement, Box is quite certain he has his man but he is also undeniably tired. Noting Naz's panicked eyes and callow mien, bottom-rung lawyer Jack Stone (Turturro) offers his services and a jaded tutorial on the criminal justice system: Innocence is now beside the point.
With its subject matter and switchback storyline—each character is followed separately in his or her own sphere—"The Night Of" bears some resemblance to John Ridley's "American Crime." Certainly Naz's arrest stirs up anti-Muslim sentiments and nearly destroys his parents, while the realities of jail and the rigors of the prosecution make clear the dangers of mass incarceration.
But "The Night Of" is a character drama, sometimes even at the expense of the plot. The seven episodes (the eighth was not made available) feel as much like vignettes as they do a single narrative.
While there are female characters—a young defense attorney (Amara Karan), and a breathtakingly efficient prosecutor gorgeously played by Jeannie Berlin— "The Night Of" is, for the most part, a meditation on masculine survival under duress. But there are no antiheroes here, no crooked cops, no drunken or debauched attorneys, just a group of men trying to make good decisions.
Even Freddy (Michael K. Williams), the ruthless former boxing champion with whom Naz aligns himself in prison, is doing the best he can with what he has.
Having chosen pragmatism over self-pity, "The Night Of" becomes something new: An anti-antihero drama. Like found-object art or high camp, it is deceptively ambitious in its ability to dance so closely to the edge of derivation.
Fortunately, Zaillian and Price are working with a remarkably nimble ensemble, and in Turturro they have not just an actor but an artiste.
As Naz, Ahmed shines in his ability to express the excruciating transformation of fear and disbelief into full-throttle toughness with minimal dialogue. But it's Turturro who provides the story's axis, and he is almost unbearably splendid.
Gray, grizzled and swallowed by an overcoat too worn even for Columbo, Stone is a man literally crumbling at the foundation—the most noticeable thing about him is his feet, weirdly sandaled and encrusted with eczema. His wife has left him, his career has devolved into cheesy subway ads, even his body has broken down—on top of the eczema, he has asthma and a host of allergies.
Yet beneath the sackcloth and leper's feet, a shabby saint stirs. Though incapable of many things that make the modern man, Stone still loves. His son, his job, the notion of justice, even the cat the murdered girl has left behind.
And because he loves, Stone still hopes. Reluctantly, secretly, and perhaps, in vain but enough to keep moving forward.
Which is the greatest act of heroism an anti-antihero can achieve.
'The Night Of'
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)