TV MISERY: ‘The Night Of’ (2016)

The Night Of, HBO’s new limited series directed by Academy Award winner Steven Zaillian, is a revelation, like the first season of True Detective—a game changer.  If everyone’s not already talking about it, it’s the show everyone’s gonna be talking about.  And with good reason.  Get on board.

The Night Of

Have you heard the plot?  You shouldn’t, and I won’t go into it here.  This is one of those artworks that plays best the less you know about it.  HBO’s trailers have been fairly brilliant in this regard.  But I also won’t summarise a plot because I don’t need to.

Because, thank god, here is a show that isn’t about its plot.  The Night Of is one of those shows, like Better Call Saul, where many will complain that nothing is happening, when in fact, director Steven Zaillian is allowing space for so much to happen.   A shot will focus on a detail that seems superfluous. Or, a shot will linger just a tad longer than it feels like it should, just to be sure you notice some little thing.  All of these things are vitally necessary to the show—which, of course, is not the same as saying they are necessary to the plot.

The Night Of

In an interview with Roger Ebert, Hayao Miyazaki discussed why his films were filled with so much silence:

“We have a word for that in Japanese… It’s called ‘ma.’ Emptiness. It’s there intentionally.” He clapped his hands three or four times. “The time in between my clapping is ‘ma.’ If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness…

”The people who make the movies are scared of silence, so they want to paper and plaster it over.  They’re worried that the audience will get bored. But just because it’s 80 percent intense all the time doesn’t mean [an audience is] going to bless you with their concentration. What really matters is the underlying emotions–that you never let go of those…

”What my friends and I have been trying to do since the 1970’s is to try and quiet things down a little bit; don’t just bombard them with noise and distraction. And to follow the path of…emotions and feelings as we make a film.”

And this is the crux of The Night Of.  It is, to some degree, about ‘ma.’  It is about the space between tiny moments, insignificant decisions, universal entropy that affect a life.  All our lives.  It is about how one moment leads to the next.  Consequences.  Reactions.  As I said, Zaillian’s camera lingers over small details: a convenience store security monitor, a character’s eyes, an inhaler.  He holds some shots for several beats longer than a director in this genre typically would.  We have an internal sense of what the pace and rhythm of a procedural like this should be, but Zaillian frustrates this rhythm.  This stylistic choice sends klaxons off in our head: these are details of great import.  He commands our attention, rather than simply trying to pummel it out of us.

The Night Of

For instance: why does Stone turn back around and go into the precinct for Khan?  This is a rhetorical question.  Watch how Zaillian pieces that sequence together; watch John Tuturro’s face before he goes back in.  You know exactly why he turns around.  This will only make sense to you if you’ve seen the pilot; if you haven’t, you know what to look for.  Zaillian is allowing us in the audience space to follow feelings, thoughts, and emotion more clearly and deeply than we normally can in a TV show or movie.  I find this intensely bracing and gratifying.

Only complaint: can we cool it with this eczema shit?

I want to go on, to keep writing, but I need to make a confession here: I’ve written this essay after watching only the first two episodes.  Honestly, I’m a bit afraid to watch the rest.  Because, well, can the remaining entries keep my cinematic high going?  We’ll see.

The Night Of is on HBO and HBO Now.

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