The Night of, Sky Atlantic

The Night of

Light touch – the cops spot Naz

Taut, detailed and gripping account of a young New Yorker accused of murder

★★★★ HBO in the US, Sky Atlantic in the UK, coming in September

THE PREMISE is nothing to write home about. Young guy on a night out ends up being accused of a murder he may or may not have committed. 

What makes HBO’s new series so compelling is that it is superbly written and acted, and very tense. It’s created by Steven Zaillian and Richard Price, which is a formidable team, with Zaillian having won an Oscar for his Schindler’s List screenplay and Price being a superb novelist (Clockers, Lush Life) who’s also written for The Wire.

Price has done the teleplay for the extended opening episode of The Night of, in which we meet Nasir Khan, a young guy who ventures into Manhattan from Jackson Heights in Queens to go to a party. Naz comes from a Pakistani community in the neighbourhood and his parents are not happy about his going.

Without his father’s permission, Naz borrows his dad’s taxi to get there. However, he gets lost and keeps being flagged down by would-be fares because he doesn’t know how to turn off the for-hire light.

Riz Ahmed as Nasir

The night takes an unforeseen turn when a young woman jumps into the yellow cab and asks to be taken to the beach. The woman is beautiful and says cryptically that she can’t be alone on this night. Naz – played with great appeal by Riz Ahmed – is somewhat innocent and gobsmacked by her.

His muslim background also ensures that he does not take drugs or drink alcohol, but before the night is done he has indulged in both back at her Upper West Side apartment, along with having sex with her.

In time-honoured fashion, when Naz comes to he discovers that the young woman has been stabbed horribly to death. Having done as much as possible to incriminate himself, he eventually crosses paths with a police patrol.

It’s a tense watch as the guileless Naz slowly collides with the callous justice machine, the cynical cops, brutalised arrestees and hard-bitten detectives. He’s going to be mincemeat – all because he wanted to go to a party and meet girls.

John Turturro as Jack Stone

About an hour in, we have the drama’s star turn as John Turturro shambles into the precinct as Jack Stone, down-at-heel jailhouse lawyer on the lookout for clients. He recognises a lamb to the slaughter when he sees one and foists himself on Naz, who desperately needs an ally. First bit of advice: don’t say anything to the cops (he already has).

The role of Stone was originally to be played by James Gandolfini, and, following his death, by Robert De Niro. Both would have been superb, but Turturro still sets an already fizzing story alight when he appears.

Richard Price is renowned for doing his research, and here it is the details that bring Naz’s predicament to life. The bickering between the station sergeant and the forensics guys, the lazy detectives trying to get out of attending the murder and so on. All of which makes Naz’s nightmare seem more haphazard and cruel.

The Night of, an eight-parter, is based on a 2008 BBC series from writer Peter Moffat called Criminal Justice, which was also very good and starred Maxine Peake and Ben Whishaw.

However, the new version is a terrific reinterpretation and should become one of 2016’s outstanding crime series.

The Shield — Killer TV No 6

We’re into the top six of CrimeTimePreview’s Killer 50 crime shows…

the-shield

FX, 2002-2008, seven series

‘Good cop and bad cop left for the day. I’m a different kind of cop.’ – Vic Mackey

Michael Chiklis, Glenn Close, Catherine Dent, Paula Garces, Walton Goggins, Michael Jace, Kenneth Johnson, Forest Whitaker

Identikit: An experimental LAPD division is set up to deal with a crime-ravaged district of the city, with a Strike Team that includes leader Vic Mackey, a brutal and illegal operator who maintains order while profiting from drug-protection scams.


logosExploring the bad side of the badge, The Shield was a slickly scripted, pacy portrayal of city policing as a form of urban warfare. Though an ensemble drama, it was the block-like figure of Detective Vic Mackey that dominated proceedings. He was violent, obnoxious, insubordinate, corrupt – but effective. He made enemies on the street and at the Barn (the converted church that served as headquarters), particularly politically ambitious Captain David Aceveda. From the pilot these two butted heads, with Mackey telling Aceveda that he did not answer to the captain, and Aceveda planting officer Terry Crowley to gather evidence on Mackey’s corrupt methods and protection racket for drug dealers. The episode ended spectacularly with Mackie shooting Crowley in the face during a drug siege and making it look like the cop was killed in the shootout. The question of whether Mackey, whose clean-up rate also made him powerful allies in the police hierarchy, would ever have any justice visited on him kept the tension simmering brilliantly for seven series. Mackey was no pantomime villain, however, but a complicated figure of contradictions, loving his children and generous with his assistance to the odd hooker, but happy to set a police dog on a drug dealer. The biggest threat to the Strike Team came from Internal Affairs Department investigator Lieutenant Jon Kavanaugh, played with scary intensity by Forest Whitaker. The Shield was a riveting journey with a great cast of characters, including Mackey’s cronies, such as Shane Vendrell, the strait-laced, pompous Dutch, and Claudette, the star detective unjustifiably kept from promotion to captain. And topping it all was Mackey – ‘Al Capone with a badge’ – who never failed to appal and fascinate.

Classic episode: On Tilt – the finale to season three saw the Strike Team targeted by an Armenian hit man and Vic taking matters into his own hands, while Claudette endangered her career by pursuing a risky case that made her unpopular with colleagues and the DA.

Music: Hip hop (Master P), pop (Duran Duran), country (Willie Nelson) and hard rock (Kid Rock) all featured during the series. The theme music was composed by Vivian Ann Romero, Ernesto J Bautista and Rodney Alejandro.

Watercooler fact: Kurt Sutter, who produced, wrote, directed and even starred in The Shield (as Armenian hit man Margos Dezerian), went on to create Sons of Anarchy, which stars his wife, Katey Sagal.

Homicide: Life on the Street — Killer TV No 8

70727-1NBC, 1993-99

‘It’s hard to meet single woman on this job. You meet plenty of widows, but the timing just don’t seem right.’ – Det Stan Bolander

Richard Belzer, Clark Johnson, Yaphet Kotto, Kyle Secor, Andre Braugher, Melisso Leo, Daniel Baldwin, Ned Beatty, Jon Polito

Identikit: Police procedural delving into the work of a fictional version of Baltimore’s homicide detectives.


logosBefore The Wire there was Homicide: Life on the Street, based on a non-fiction book by The Wire‘s creator, David Simon. A former Baltimore Sun reporter, Simon spent a year shadowing homicide cops and the resulting book was an unforgettable glimpse at the lives and work of detectives in that city – the slog of investigation, the tricks of the trade, the galling frustration of knowing whodunit but not being able to prove it. The TV series was an intelligent attempt to dramatise the book, and gave us a series that steered clear of stock characters and cop-show cliches. The cases ranged from the heinous to comic, such that involving the body of an old guy who turned out to still be alive. The cops bicker, ramble on, made bad-taste jokes. Filmed on 16mm handheld cameras on location in Baltimore, jump cutting scenes and with wonderfully natural performances from the likes of Richard Belzer, Ned Beatty and Melissa Leo, the series had a distinctive style, while the stories portrayed the camaraderie and occasionally the soul-sapping nature of the job. It included non-traditional elements of detective storytelling, such as unsolved cases and criminals escaping, and had more psychological depth and truth in it than all of the forensic fantasy shows that clog the networks these days.

Classic episode: Three Men and Adena (season 1, episode 5). Three characters – two detectives (Pembleton and Bayliss) and a suspect – in an interrogation room as the officers try to get a murder confession. Intimidation, bickering among the two cops, failure and how inscrutable the truth can be – masterful writing that won an Emmy for scriptwriter Tom Fontana.

Watercooler fact: Despite all its awards (Television Critics Association, Peabody) and critical acclaim, the seven seasons of Homicide always saw the series in a precarious position because of low ratings (it lagged behind the likes of Nash Bridges!). TV Guide called it the ‘Best Show You’re Not Watching’.

NYPD Blue — Killer TV No 9

600x600bb-85ABC, 1993-2005

‘Andy, I don’t know if you should be a cop, but I think you got a lot of guts.’ – Lt Fancy

‘ Yeah well, for a while there, I was wearing them outside my clothes.’

– Andy Sipowicz, on returning to duty after being shot

Dennis Franz, David Caruso, Jimmy Smits, Rick Schroder, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Kim Delaney, Gordon Clapp, Sharon Lawrence

Identikit: The personal and professional grind of law enforcement at the fictional 15th precinct of Manhattan.


logosMoving on from Hill Street Blues, Steven Bochco and David Milch created this much-admired, long-running new show and simultaneously hauled the genre further away from TV’s homogenised world of The FBI, Hawaii 5-O and Madigan. Location shooting, bad language and nudity – the latter of which had the American Family Association frothing – gave the drama edge and depth, and it had a greater level of perspective on the harshness and injustice of police work than was common on mainstream TV at the time. The series hit the ground with sirens blaring. From the pilot onwards, NYPD Blue was focused on the characters. Our first glimpse of the abrasive Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz, another Hill Street veteran) is of him ‘flipping out’ in the courtroom as he loses a case against a mob guy (he appears to have broken the rules in getting Alfonse Giardella to court, anyway). His alcoholism is destroying him and his career, and later Sipowicz drunkenly attacks the gangster. Giardella retaliates eventually by shooting Sipowicz. This storyline, however, is used to give prominence to the characters of Sipowicz and his partner, John Kelly (David Caruso). Kelly is going through an emotionally cutting divorce, and now seems to be losing his work partner too – ‘You were like a father to me, man,’ he tells the unconscious Sipowicz in hospital. Dennis Franz played Sipowicz as the epitome of a hard-bitten New York cop (though with a heart of gold), David Caruso did his finest work here, and there were many standout performances along the way from actors who went onto further excellent series – David Schwimmer, Sherry Stringfield, Daniel Benzali and more. Booze, corruption, marital mayhem and death – NYPD Blue is a powerful drama. It survived Caruso’s departure during season two, with Jimmy Smits stepping in in fine style as Bobby Simone, another character with demons (he’s grieving for death of his wife). Bochco and Milch, with the invaluable input of Bill Clark, a former NYPD officer turned producer, guided the cop show into a grittier, more adult landscape with this indelible series.

Classic episode: True Confessions (season 1, episode 4). No fireworks here, but just a finely crafted episode in which Sipowicz bristles at working for a new boss, the alcoholic, slapdash detective Walker, and Kelly assists a wealthy, battered wife who shoots her husband. The episode, rated by TV Guide in the US as one of the 100 greatest of all time, is also a shock reminder that there was a time when David Caruso used to act, as revealed in the scene where Kelly’s addressing a tenants’ association and chokes up at the memory of his father, who was the victim of a shooting.

Watercooler fact: Dennis Franz was the only cast member to stay on the beat for the entire run of NYPD Blue, appearing in all 261 episodes.

Boardwalk Empire — Killer TV No 11

BoardwalkEmpireS306-power-2

HBO/Sky Atlantic, 2010-present

‘Nucky, all I want is an opportunity.’ – Jimmy

‘This is America, ain’t it? Who the fuck’s stopping you?’ – Nucky

Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Stephen Graham

Identikit: The rise and regime of Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, the corrupt Treasurer of Atlantic County, who exploits the corrupt possibilities of the Prohibition period of the 1920s.


logosRichly textured and ambitious epic about that unhinged, thrilling period of Prohibition America in the 1920s. It’s the kind of show only HBO and the American cable networks could make, tackling a cast of real characters and big subjects that dwarf any and every series made in the UK. Steve Buscemi is the focus as Nucky Thompson, based on Atlantic City’s real corrupt political figure of Enoch L Johnson, who sanctioned and cashed in on the bootlegging rackets in cahoots with the most lurid gangland figures in US history – Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Arnold Rothstein. The series was adapted by old Sopranos hand Terence Winter from a book by Nelson Johnson. It’s a huge story melding Nucky’s back-room dealings and private life with the quiet but determined Margaret, along with events such as the Black Sox Scandal, the rise of Capone, presidential elections and gang wars. Oddly enough, it is occasionally criticised for its slow pace, but it remains psychologically sophisticated and a mesmerising portrait of a wild age. Winner of 12 Emmys, two for Outstanding Drama Series, and the Golden Globe for Best Drama Series.

Classic episode: Two Impostors (ep 11, series 3). Nucky, Chalky and Capone line up against Sicilian psycho Gyp Rosetti, who’s threatening to dislodge Nucky from Atlantic City. An attempted hit on Nucky, car chases, shootouts. After a slow build, the series delivered full-throttle gangster mayhem. Even Nucky was blasting, and Capone was cool amid the bloodbath – ‘I’ve been on the road for 18 hours. I need a bath, some chow, and then you and me sit down, and we talk about who dies.’

Watercooler fact: The pilot episode was directed by Martin Scorsese and reputedly cost $18million to produce.

Law & Order Killer TV No 13

law-300x1401990-2010 NBC

‘I specifically asked for him to be put on suicide watch. Apparently, here at Riker’s, that means that they watch you commit suicide.’ – Detective Lennie Briscoe

George Dzundza, Chris Noth, Richard Brooks, Jeremy Sisto, Paul Sorvino, Linus Roache, Alana de la Garza, Sam Waterson, Jerry Orbach, Diane Wiest, Dennis Farina

Identikit: Police procedural come legal drama split equally between the cops who do the arresting and the lawyers who prosecute.


logosA tight format, with its ‘law’ and ‘order’ segments, gave the series a winning formula for 20 years, taking in Emmy awards and leading to a several major franchise of spin-offs. Telling the criminal-pursuit story and then the trial story meant that plotting and characterisation was extremely pared down, but this didn’t prevent the show from giving us good protagonists and memorable stories about challenging dilemmas. The series, created by Dick Wolf, was similar to a 1963 series called Arrest and Trial and a UK series also called Law and Order, with Wolf injecting a good dose of realism into the dramas and lining up the prosecution instead of the defence to be the heroes. Jerry Orbach, twice turned down in favour of George Dzundza and Paul Sorvino, eventually became a memorable Lennie Briscoe, while Sam Waterston (as assistant DA Jack McCoy), Chris Noth (detective Mike Logan), Diane Wiest (DA Nora Lewin) and Dennis Farina (detective Joe Fontana) all stood out in a terrific, evolving cast. Storylines were often ‘ripped from the headlines’, inspired by real murder, bribery or rape cases, some with complex racial elements. Each 50-minute episode was slick, packed with plot and subplot, and filmed on handheld cameras and snappily edited. The series was cancelled by NBC in 2010, meaning it narrowly missed usurping Gunsmoke as primetime TV’s longest-running drama.

LAW_AND_ORDER_UK_SAFE_04-pop

Law & Order: UK with Bradley Walsh and Jamie Bamber

Spin-offs: Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent, Trial by Jury, LA, and overseas revamps set in Paris, Russia and London.

Classic episode: Savages (season 6) – The death penalty has just been reinstated in New York. When an unlikely suspect murders an undercover cop, prosecutors must decide whether to press for capital punishment. DA McCoy (Sam Waterston) wants it, while Kincaid (Jill Hennessy) argues powerfully against. An excellent episode with a politically charged storyline.

Watercooler fact: When Chris Noth was jettisoned from the show by head honcho Dick Wolf, fans and critics were stunned and disappointed. Wolf had felt there was not enough dramatic contrast between Noth’s Mike Logan and Jerry Orbach’s Briscoe. But years later, Noth convinced Wolf to make the TV movie Exiled to wrap up Logan’s story, and Noth followed that up by returning as Logan for two seasons in Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Anti-heroes take over TV

Breaking bad – a cult hit on television

Breaking bad – a cult hit on television

More than ever, the anti-hero theme has become a mainstay on TV. Many shows portray these charming characters engaging in all forms of vices that we simply can’t emulate. That however, hasn’t stopped everyone admiring them.

With TV shows such as Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, we stick with the lead character without any feelings of guilt or remorse.  In fact, many of us sit and wish for his luck as we play in UK online casinos on a Friday night. With anti-heroes, you constantly remind yourself that this is someone you don’t want to become. In some cases, like Walter White in Breaking Bad, you end up wondering why you even empathise with him at all.

Walter White is a high-school chemistry teacher who decides to go rogue after being told he has lung cancer and very little time to live.  To give credence to his heinous actions over five series, he keeps reminding himself that everything he does is for his wife and son. In the final season, he is rejected by the very same family, and, at that moment, what he has become over the course of his rogue period dawns on him.

With all the negatives, why do we love anti-heroes?

One reason is that their actions are deeply rooted in everyday circumstances. People can relate with their struggles as they remember one or two real-life cases that touch on the plots of these shows. The imaginary transgressions, as lived out by the anti-heroes, therefore don’t feel too far-fetched. 

Secondly, such characters are often greeted with widespread condemnation and/or countercultural celebrations. This enhances ambivalence on the subject of these characters. An individual feeling revulsion or antipathy for Walter White’s actions, for example, can be pointed to the beginning of the story when he was a nice family man. An argument can be made that without the cancer diagnosis, Walter White may not have discovered such levels of distasteful behaviour within himself.  On the other hand, no one can feel good about the character without moralistic inquisition.

What prompted the rise of the antihero?

In the past, broadcasters had strong restrictions on what could be aired. With the rise of autonomous cable TV networks, programme-makers were at liberty to explore the boundaries of what was moral. This explains shows like Banshee and Better Call Saul. The producers don’t have to worry so much about widespread acceptance. As long as the behaviour manifested by the anti-heroes is compelling and there is a context to their actions, producers have a broader canvas to play with. Most importantly, shows with some transgressive element tend to get more people talking, and that generates higher ratings.

Dexter — Killer TV No 14

Dexter_S5_Gal_Bathroom_022

Showtime, 2006-2013

‘There’s something strange and disarming about looking at a homicide scene in the daylight in Miami. It makes the most grotesque killings look staged, like you’re in a new and daring section of Disneyland – Dahmerland.’ – Dexter Morgan

Michael C Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, Desmond Harrington, CS Lee, Lauren Velez, David Zayas, John Lithgow, Charlotte Rampling

Identikit: Dexter Morgan uses his job as a blood-spatter analyst for Miami Metro Police as cover for his secret compulsion to murder people like himself – serial killers.


logosHBO bosses were horrified when Tony Soprano, star of the show, committed his first onscreen murder in episode five of The Sopranos. The boundaries of the TV anti-hero were pushed to breaking point in a short time, seven years later, with the arrival of Dexter. The premise is unhinged. Dexter Morgan is a Miami police blood-spatter analyst and closet serial killer, the drama’s hero/antihero. Dexter follows ‘the Code’ set out by his father, Harry, who wanted to keep him from murdering the innocent. This decreed that Dexter’s victims had to be murderers who killed without any justification. He must also, like a comic-book superhero, avoid having his secret persona exposed at all costs, forever to ape normal emotions and pretend to be normal. The series pushed the premise to breaking point by suggesting that a psychopath might develop certain feelings for those around him (his baby son, his step sister). His ‘feelings’ always seem open to question (Dex doesn’t know who he is, so our fascination with him centres on our own attempts to puzzle him out). There is usually enough ambiguity about Dexter’s motivations to keep the tension bubbling, and by toying with the reality of the serial killer’s cold mentality, the series DEX-castpair701i_copy.jpg_rgbsuccessfully explored the mind of these modern bogeymen. Dexter is something of a subversive social commentator – being so phoney, a ‘near perfect hologram’ of a man, he can easily spot the insincerity and machinations of those around him. And of course he is always way ahead of the cops in predicting a serial killer’s next move. Inspired by Jeff Lindsay’s slightly camp novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter, its distinctive features were black humour, chilling tension and gruesome violence, and it successfully continued to ‘entertain’ for eight seasons. We’ve seen him stalk and be stalked by the Ice Truck Killer and the Trinity Killer, evading detection as the Bay Harbor Butcher, dispatching his evil brother Rudy, marrying and having a child with Rita, who is then murdered, leaving Dex as a single parent and with certain surprising feelings he never knew he had. Michael C Hall’s deadpan performance and narration have been key to its success. But it has been controversial, receiving criticism for its empathy with a killer. Always a minority taste, Dexter is TV on a knife’s edge, so to speak – a lurid and provocative take on a modern obsession and contemporary life.

Music: the main theme is written by Rolfe Kent.

Classic episode: The Getaway, the finale to series four. The writers had the courage to dispatch one of the show’s popular and best developed characters, Rita (Julie Benz). Dex believes he has got Rita to go ahead of him on a belated honeymoon, only for him to find her dead, along with Harrison sitting in her blood, fearing the boy will be traumatised as Dexter was in childhood. It appears Rita is the victim of John Lithgow’s Trinity Killer, whom Dexter has killed, but too late – he realises he had feelings for Rita and blames himself for her death. Season four is one of the most highly regarded series, and viewers were rocked by this finale. Michael C Hall and John Lithgow both won Golden Globes for their performances.

Watercooler fact: Jeff Lindsay was inspired to create the psychopathic vigilante when watching an audience of businessmen. He says,’I was speaking to a businessmen’s lunch. I was sitting at the head table and watching them smiling when they didn’t mean it and handing out business cards, and the idea popped into my head – serial murder isn’t always a bad thing. Not that I wanted to kill all these people, but it occurred to me that technically you could justify it. I started technically justifying it on the back of napkins and by the time I went home that day I had an outline for the first book and the idea for Dexter himself… I think it’s important that Dexter kills people who, according to his code, deserve it, and it’s a code that we can all agree with, to some degree at least. I wanted Dexter to be likeable. I wanted people to catch themselves rooting for a killer, and hopefully pause and go, Huh, is that right?’

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