There is way too much television content out there right now. While this could be an understatement, consider the following: “Comedians portraying a fictional version of themselves” is now a comedy subgenre. At least five of these shows have premiered since 2010, and there are probably more examples if you stretch the definition a bit. All are set in urban environments and feature a famous comedian playing a not-yet-famous performer who is unlucky in love and life, and probably depressed as a result.
These shows are meta as hell, but they still expect the audience to empathize with the characters as if they were not just stand-ins for the comedians. It seems doubtful anyone would have understood how this could become a trend as recently as ten years ago, but now standup is practically a stepping stone to creating dramedies, not helming a sitcom. Comedians are now expected to be auteurs.
Aziz Ansari’s Master of None returned with a new season a few days ago, and it feels most akin to the show that truly started this trend, Louis CK’s Louie. CK and Ansari both masterfully channel the same, neverending frustration of searching for a perfect partner, while also paying tribute the hilarious oddities and breathtaking beauty offered by Manhattan’s diverse expanse.
The best part of riding a roller coaster is often the first lift hill. While waiting in a way-too-long queue, the anticipation for the ride only simmers because the mind is restless and bored. Is this terrible wait time-to-ride time ratio even worth it? Yet, somehow, during that slow climb to the first drop, excitement builds exponentially. All of the sudden, the brain thinks, “This is really happening and holy shit, it looks incredibly dangerous.” The imminent thrills are typically right in front of the riders, in plain sight, but that does not take away from the natural release of endorphins that occurs when the coaster lets gravity take over. After that drop, it does not matter if some of the loops and bunny hills cannot compare to the very start of the ride because the initial acceleration was strong enough to carry everyone to end so fast that they barely noticed. The only people who get off of roller coasters without a smile on their faces are the ones who should not have gotten on the ride in the first place.
What that gratuitous, paragraph-long allegory is trying to say is this: the experience of watching a great television drama is a lot like riding a roller coaster over the course of days, weeks, months, or years, depending on whether the viewer was on the train at the beginning or just binged it all on Netflix during one rainy weekend. Mr. Robot’s first season was a near-perfect thrill ride, much like the Coney Island Cyclone often present in the background, and its promise of more crazy loops and fun drops in the future seemed like a sure thing. Unfortunately, the second season did not deliver smooth navigation through inversions and instead opted to jerk the audience sideways through a series fits and starts.
The thing about Netflix original programming is — well, first of all, it’s mostly great. But the thing about it is, sometimes you spend a weekend binging a show, and you love it, and then you completely forget it exists for a year, until the next season comes out. That’s kind of what happened to me and Narcos (the one about the cocaine).
But, because Netflix is kind and generous, they’ve blessed us with a brand new season on Labor Day Weekend. Of all weekends! You know, in case you needed that third day for your binge (but like, honestly, who needs that?). And the thing about Narcos — which is about Pablo Escobar vs. the DEA and the Colombian government, if you needed a refresher and/or didn’t really pay attention to the English subtitles and couldn’t pick up on all the other context clues, is that it takes place mostly in the 1970s and ‘80s, when Escobar was a) alive and b) in charge of basically all the cocaine in the world.
Obvious Editor’s Note: SPOILERS AHEAD
Entering the finale, The Night Of was either the tale of an innocent man broken by a broken system, or that of a guilty man whose impropriety was slowly revealed to himself and those around him. I began the final episode of the miniseries unsure which I was watching. I didn’t want to believe Naz was guilty. Neither did the show. That’s why we met a quiet, reserved young man in the premier, one anxious to attend a party with a crowd he obviously yearned to be a part of. But slowly we learned about Naz’s seedier past. We learned he sold drugs. He assaulted two classmates. We saw he had the propensity to seek violent retribution again a fellow inmate and aided Freddie’s murder.
In college, I was on the Mock Trial team. It shares similarities with a debate team, except in the format of a trial. Each year, you’re given a fictional case, with fictional witnesses. You perform cross examinations and closing arguments before judges and get scored on everything from the logic of your argument, to your auditory skills, to whether you wore the correct tie (seriously). I bring this up because it colors how I view The Night Of. I am, by no means, a lawyer – at best, Mock Trial gave me a base understanding of the law and trial processes – but after a few years of pretending to be lawyer, I’ve realized I view this show in a pragmatic way.
I haven’t been as invested in the emotional beats of the show as much as the legal ones. To be clear, the emotional beats are there. The show has hit hardest when following the destruction of the Khan family. Poorna Jagannathan’s blank stare at the throng of reporters outside her home was devastating in its simplicity. Peyman Moaddi’s bewilderment when he learns his son must withdraw from school because of the violent actions of others. Their lives have been turned upside down because of something Naz is accused of doing. But in The Night Of, just like the real world, there is no presumption of innocence, and as a result, Naz’s family has suffered as much as he has.
It took only three episodes for The Night Of to move on from the grisly murder of the premier and focus on the repercussions of the homicide. In an earlier draft, I wanted to write that night set forth “a wild sequence of events.” Then I deleted it immediately. Because they’re not wild, or unique. The Night Of revels in the understated, both in its story and the color of its cinematic palette.
The Night Of is a story of binaries. It’s the tale of a naïve boy’s first encounter with the legal system and characters that are jaded after years under the crushing weight of the oppressive structure. It’s a story told in the subtly of Jack Stone’s smirk as he begins the biggest case of his career and the blunt reality that comes from the fist of a prison inmate. It’s both the story of the truth and tales lawyers will concoct before a jury of Naz’s peers.
This last binary is what begins the second episode. As Naz tries to explain the circumstances that led him to his prison sell, Stone interrupts him by saying, “I don’t want to be stuck with the truth.” The truth isn’t important, not for the court and not for the viewer. We already know the truth. Well, most of it. The first episode gave the audience an objective telling of the night in question. We saw Naz travel the streets of New York in his father’s cab. We saw him pick up the girl, swallow the pill, have sex. The only part we didn’t see was the graphic homicide. That’s the only truth we are interested in. But as Stone said, that truth does not matter.