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Monitor: Why it’s a crime to watch The Night Of without Criminal Justice

For Monitor this week, Aaron Yap watches BBC series Criminal Justice, the lesser-known original version of HBO sensation The Night Of, and compares the two gripping murder mysteries. 

David Fincher, the notoriously exacting American director behind such lurid, ultra-stylish thrillers like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, is a master of making cinematic silk purses out of sows’ ears. “David Lean doing Jackie Collins”, film critic Walter Chaw once memorably wrote. It’s hard not to think of this when viewing, back-to-back, the buzzy HBO mystery-crime drama The Night Of and its earlier, lesser-known BBC incarnation, Criminal Justice.

Not that the latter is low-level trash in any sense – just that the cosmically revisionist American remake seems to be designed to attract a certain subset of viewership who might otherwise consider watching an episode of Law and Order beneath them. Fundamentally, The Night Of is just high-end, polished pulp that still traffics in stock genre tropes: a naked, gored-up female corpse, world-weary, beaten-down characters, eleventh-hour plot twists, grand courtroom theatrics.

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The narrative guts of both shows remain essentially the same. A young man takes his dad’s cab out for a night of partying. He picks up an attractive, mysterious girl who invites him round to her place. Sex and drugs ensue. He wakes up and discovers her dead, but has no memory of what happened. He’s arrested and wrung through the nightmarish, near-farcical grind of the judicial process.

True crime buffs who’ve obsessed over the Serial podcast and documentary series Making a Murderer will know this territory well. Both Criminal Justice and The Night Of orbit around the troubling flaws of the justice system (“The truth can go to hell”, a line uttered verbatim in both versions, appears to their operating mantra). However, there are distinct, fascinating differences – in characterisation, structure, and tone – that make both shows worth watching. They each do a lot of things very well, and some other things less so.

Criminal Justice, running five episodes as opposed to The Night Of’s eight, is the tighter, more focused of the two. You can already see its intent in the stark minimalism of the opening credits, which features a series of thin horizontal bars blending to form the face of its accused protagonist Ben Coulter (Ben Whishaw). The Night Of’s impressionistic, HBO-house-style urban-noir iconography suggests a more diffuse form of storytelling.

It’s not just a murder mystery. It’s not just a courtroom drama. It’s a Great New York Mosaic.

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With its heightened attention to location, convincingly brought to life by seasoned personnel like crime writer Richard Price (The Wanderers, The Wire) and veteran cinematographers Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) and Frederick Elmes (Blue Velvet), the show aims to teleport the viewer from their couch to the sleepless, humming, multicultural boroughs of the Big Apple. As much as it wants us to play detective, it’s a show that wants to immerse us in its gritty, sprawling, lived-in spaces.

The expansiveness of The Night Of is indicative of a typically American “bigger-is-better” sensibility. The British are known for producing shorter TV seasons, and Criminal Justice fits that mould. It possesses the discipline to tell the story it needs to and knowing when to call it quits. The Night Of isn’t without flabbiness, but occasionally the extra length is justified.

In the pilot – which runs nearly half an hour longer than Criminal Justice’s – the extended time devoted to the scenes between Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed) and soon-to-be-victim Andrea Cornish (Sofia Black-D’Elia) allows breathing room for the characters. We can see how Naz could fall under the bewitching spell of Andrea. It also gives director Steven Zaillian an opportunity to stage one long, skillfully sustained suspense set-piece, slowly tightening the noose around Naz’s neck until his eventual arrest.

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Unlike Criminal Justice, The Night Of frequently exhibits sensationalist tendencies. Andrea is revealed to have been stabbed 22 times. The murder scene is coated in arterial spray straight out of a grisly slasher flick. In Criminal Justice, the victim Melanie Lloyd (Ruth Negga) is stabbed once, through the heart. There’s no artfully applied Jackson Pollock-esque splatter.

The Night Of’s lack of restraint extends to its excessive use of flashbacks. We don’t really need to be constantly reminded that Naz had a wild, debauched night that’s impaired his memory. Criminal Justice is much more trusting of its audience – and Whishaw’s superb performance – to understand the gravity of the night’s experience.

In the same vein of overstatement, The Night Of is quick to strategically establish Naz’s movements before the murder. Here Zaillian and Price are laying their cards on the table so we don’t feel cheated when they come into play later on, especially with regards to potential suspects. It’s a totally valid, visually dynamic technique, but laid on a bit thick when compared to Criminal Justice’s more fleeting, naturalistic approach to the same thing. We are never told, “Hey, look at this guy, he could be a suspect”.

It’s doubly glaring in The Night Of because instead of rewarding viewer attentiveness, Zaillian later resorts to flashbacks once again to jog our memory. The viewer doesn’t get the satisfaction of piecing together the puzzle on their own.

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The portrayals of the rumpled, precinct-crawling solicitor who comes to Ben/Naz’s aid in both versions are fantastic, though if I had to pick, I’d go with John Turturro’s John Stone in The Night Of. This is not to take anything away from Con O’Neill’s strong work, but purely because The Night Of grants Turturro more breadth to develop a substantial arc. John functions as a co-lead protagonist next to Naz, whereas in Criminal Justice, O’Neill’s Ralph plays second fiddle.

Some might say allocating an entire subplot to the extensive nursing of John’s eczema-ridden feet was unnecessary and too cute by half. If anyone can sell it persuasively, it’s Turturro, a wholly underrated, likably offbeat actor who’s rarely been given the chance to shine on such a large canvas. He performs the shit of the material, subtly gauging John’s sympathies to Naz while wrestling with the frustrating nature of due process and his own occupational integrity. John Stone is possibly Turturro’s finest moment.

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Perhaps the most controversial and crucial change that The Night Of makes to Criminal Justice is the introduction of heavier racial elements to the story. Criminal Justice briefly addresses Ben Coulter’s white privilege: his folks have little trouble hiring expensive lawyers due to rainy day funds. There’s also a reference to the problematic “white guy kills black girl” aspect of its murder case. But racial discourse is largely absent.

By casting its alleged killer Naz, of Pakistani origin, The Night Of stays true to its textured, melting pot world-building. We’re given access to the lives of a conservative, working class Pakistani-American family. The father’s stolen cab isn’t simply a plot point but a beacon of daily struggle. Ultimately, The Night Of makes a powerfully ironic case for its racial focus when Naz transforms himself through the prison system. Where outside his immigrant background renders him something of a misfit, inside, among the hardened, smack-abusing felons, he’s able to forge a strangely peaceful sense of belonging.

Whether you decide to go with Criminal Justice or The Night Of first might depend on time and taste. Viewing one won’t ruin your experience of the other. There are plenty more narrative and character deviations in each to surprise you. Criminal Justice is an extremely good show about criminal justice; The Night Of is an extremely good show about criminal justice that also thinks it’s The Godfather Part II.


Get behind the bars of BBC’s Criminal Justice, available on Lightbox below:

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