The Night Of Sundays, 9 p.m., HBO.
When it was first announced nearly four years ago, HBO’s The Night Of (then titled Criminal Justice, after the British series on which it’s based) was set to star the late James Gandolfini, who filmed a pilot for the show before his death in 2013. After deciding to go ahead without Gandolfini, HBO and creators Steven Zaillian and Richard Price cast Robert De Niro in the lead role of rumpled New York City attorney John Stone, but De Niro quietly dropped out in 2014 due to all-purpose “scheduling conflicts,” and the show that finally premieres on HBO this week stars John Turturro as Stone.
Turturro is a less high-profile lead for the show, but his performance as Stone is the best part of the often maddeningly slow and self-serious Night, which follows a single New York City murder case over the course of its eight episodes. Stone, a small-time lawyer who mostly represents low-level drug dealers and prostitutes, is in the right place at the right time to take on the case of Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani-American college student accused of murdering a young white heiress in her apartment. Although the show lays out almost every aspect of the story in meticulous and sometimes tediously repetitive detail, it leaves a hole during the first episode right when the murder takes place, so that doubt remains as to whether Khan is guilty.
At its heart, then, Night is an incredibly drawn-out crime procedural, but creators Zaillian and Price work hard to give it larger resonance. They devote a large amount of time in the later episodes to Khan’s struggles in jail at Rikers Island as he awaits trial, but his increasingly dangerous alliance with a charismatic murderer played by the always appealing Michael K. Williams feels like it belongs in its own separate show, and ends up overshadowing the more nuanced legal drama. The show frequently loses sight of the murder mystery, introducing alternate suspects who then disappear for multiple episodes. Khan himself is a bit of a cipher, which might be necessary in order to keep the audience guessing as to his guilt, but makes him less interesting to watch as the series progresses.
Stone, however, is fascinating, even if the show sometimes spends too much time on overly symbolic details of his life (as a director, Zaillian favors distracting close-ups of pseudo-meaningful objects and background elements). It’s hard to imagine Gandolfini or De Niro more effectively capturing the wry, downtrodden Stone, who has a core of integrity even as he defends a string of scumbags. A show about Stone and his colorful clients, treating them with a mix of humor and respect, could have been a great ongoing HBO series. This drawn-out, plodding miniseries stretches every one of its meager strengths beyond its breaking point.