‘The Night Of’ and the Enduring Power of Police Procedurals

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The HBO adaptation of the British drama isn’t just the epitome of the modern crime serial — it’s a reflection of America’s abiding obsession with crime and punishment.

By Jared Keller

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Riz Ahmed and John Turturro in HBO’s The Night Of. (Photo: HBO)

To understand the allure of The Night Of, the latest stylized crime drama from HBO, just turn to the golden rule of the American criminal justice system: “The truth doesn’t help you, and if you can’t get that through your head, you can forget about the rest of your life.”

That’s the advice imparted by disheveled ambulance-chaser John Stone (a masterful John Turturro) to Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed), a 20-something Pakistani-American college student accused of viciously murdering a young woman on New York’s Upper West Side in new crime drama The Night Of (an American adaptation of the British series Criminal Justice). The Night Of follows Khan’s circuitous route through the criminal justice system, from arrest to incarceration to trial. Khan’s crime is shrouded in uncertainty: After meeting victim Andrea Cornish (Sofia Black D’Elia) while borrowing his father’s cab, the two drink (Khan doesn’t really), take drugs (we don’t know which ones) and make love (we think) before Khan awakens at Cornish’s kitchen table, only to find her dead upstairs. Panicked, he flees the scene before being arrested and indicted. Whether Khan committed the heinous crime is left vague, even to the viewer, but the message of the series is clear: In the criminal justice system, the truth will not always set you free.

The Night Of is one of the most enthralling police procedurals to hit television in years, a gritty narrative that interweaves every minute detail of Khan’s life with the humdrum doings of the civil servants and private citizens caught in his legal conundrum. The show comes in the midst of a true-crime revolution for the American public: Mega-popular series like Making a Murdererand Serial have both brought the legal and moral ambiguities of murder investigations to hundreds of thousands of devoted followers each week, enough to catalyze retrials for both series’ alleged perpetrators, Brendan Dassey and Adnan Syed. Even OJ: Made in America, the in-depth documentary produced by ESPN, transfixed viewers with the careful, deeply personal recounting of a sensational trial that’s more than two decades old. With series like The Night Of and its gruesome cousins, we are living in the golden age of true crime — which coincides with a period of widespread ambivalence about the process of justice in America.

The Night Of isn’t just great TV — it’s the logical consequence of decades of our cultural fixation on crime and punishment.

The Night Of enters the field as crime procedurals have become a staple of American TV, from Dick Wolf’s empire of Law and Order franchises (including the more-idiosyncratic Criminal Intent and lurid Special Victims Unit) to the tamer iterations of CSI and N.C.I.S. to the noir-inflected meditations of Matthew McConaughey in True Detective. While soap operas have traditionally dominated audiences’ thirst for human drama (and maintained their melodramatic regime in the fuzzy wasteland of daytime TV for years), their slow decline over the last few years (mostly hemorrhaging viewers to reality TV, a new type of comic opera) has also opened the door for a new type of crime drama — a re-doubled attention to macabre detail and to the granular process of the whodunnit.

But what is it about these procedurals that so vividly captures the imagination of American viewers? While the psychological appeal of blood and guts is a universal phenomenon — “it bleeds, it leads” is far from a uniquely American obsession — the American fixation with law and order runs far deeper than a reptilian attraction to the naked violence of modern life. American culture hasn’t just fostered an obsession with murder, but also an ebullient fascination with observing “justice under the law” in action, from Westerns to hardboiled detective novels. The Night Of and its fellow neo-noir franchises aren’t just great TV — they’re the logical heirs of decades of our cultural fixation on crime and punishment.

Americans have long been obsessed with documenting gruesome histories of crime and violence, from the broadsheets of local papers to the the encyclopedic collection of Thomas McDade, the “Casaubon of crime literature” (per Casey N. Cep in the New Yorker) who catalogued hundreds of “historical homicides” in The Annals of Murder: A Bibliography of Books and Pamphlets on American Murders from Colonial Times to 1900. The book is one of the most sprawling bibliographies of murderology known to man, Cep writes, a chronicle of “pardon-seeking confessions, moralizing execution sermons, self-justifying stories crafted by law enforcement, tell-alls seeking pardons for the accused, salacious trial transcripts,” all of which capture Americans’ historical fascination with crime and punishment, from famous murderers like Lizzie Borden to famous jurors like Paul Revere. Annalsof Murder may be the original Law and Order: As Cep puts it, “murder has always sold, and McDade was one of the great historians of its salesmen.” Tales of torture and tawdriness have never been far from the center of the American imagination.

Crime procedurals, of course, aren’t a compelling narrative merely because of murder’s innate psychological appeal: We watch these shows because they deliver on the cultural truth of “liberty and justice” that’s been at the heart of the American mythos for centuries. As Richard Slotkin observes in his seminal analysis of American myth-making, the country’s true cultural founding fathers “were not those 18th-century gentlemen who composed a nation at Philadelphia.” Rather, the earliest version of America’s national character was shaped by those who “tore violently a nation from the implacable and opulent wilderness — the rogues, adventurers, and land boomers; the Indian fighters, traders, missionaries, explorers, and hunters who killed and were killed until they had mastered the wilderness.” Westward expansion, washed in the blood of Native Americans and outlaws, became a crucible for everything good and “right” about the American promise, and it spawned a new generation of heroes to be admired: those involved in the mutual protection associations that emerged to protect life and property, the famed lawmen who kept the peace in a nation of gunslingers, even the vigilante organizations that upheld basic norms — all were agents of justice, from the likes of Daniel Boone to Natty Bumppo of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales.

It’s no wonder that the lawyer became something of a modern nobleman in a New-World civil society dependent on the rule of law: “There are neither nobles nor men of letters in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America; instead, “the lawyers form the political upper class and the most intellectual section of society.” This was a structural necessity, of course: A country founded on the principles of liberty and equality, as Boston College Law School’s Judith McMorrow puts it, has “lots of law,” lending lawyers a particular level of political and social power. As a result, lawyers became crucial figures in American culture. Nowhere is this better captured than Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and Henry Drummond in Inherit The Wind, two 20th-century avatars of the noble lawyer, both taught in almost every English class in the country.

These figures are embedded in American mythology, and they shaped the course of American mass media in the run-up to World War II. Consider the rise of pulp detective novels in early 20th-century popular culture, which combined the classic Western gunslinger (which Slotkin identifies as the essential mythopoetic core of American culture in Gunfighter Nation) with archetypal, Victorian-era gentleman detectives like Sherlock Holmes against against a slew of sinister fiends. “The collapsing of the Western hero’s individualistic, near-outlaw identity and the classic detective’s more intellectually, socially refined identity into a single hardboiled figure is an effective generic move,” Pamela Bedore observes in Dime Novels and the Roots of American Detective Fiction: Judge and jury are embodied in one hard-nosed sonuvabitch with a .38 and a stronger sense of right and wrong than you mooks will ever know.

These narratives helped inject a more ghoulish class of evil into the American popular consciousness, from drug rings to sexual slavery: Just look at the steadfast appeal of ass-kicking Mariska Hargitay in Law and Order: SVU compared to her cousins in blue in the original series. But they also helped usher in their own demise: Crime comics and other violent books wereself-censored by nervous publishers under the Comics Code Authority after the comics panic catalyzed by Frederick Wertham’s infamous Seduction of the Innocent in 1954, paving the way for the more child-friendly reign of superheroes. Of course, true crime and bloody murder would find a new home in broadcast during the 1960s and ’70s, bolstered by the rise of Barry Goldwater’s “law and order” politics, the psychological foothold of “it bleeds it leads” among the news media, and the related cultural fetishization of law enforcement.

In the last few decades, true crime attained a dominant role among bloody news items — those stories that “prey on the anxieties we all have and then hold us hostage,” as psychologist Deborah Serani puts it in Psychology Today. Dick Wolf’s Law and Order, the longest-running crime drama on American TV (and longest-running live-action series, rivaled only by, appropriately, Western drama Gunsmoke) re-invigorated the true crime serial not just by distilling ripped-from-the-headlines violence into one-hour blocks, but by probing the anxieties of the perpetrators. Jean Murley notes that the genre gained prominence and popularity in the 1980s and ’90s by “constructing killers as subjects worthy of minutely focused and lengthy depictions of their lives, motivations, and behaviors using the twin lenses of psychology and personal history.” As she writes in The Rise of True Crime: 20th Century Murder and American Popular Culture:

True crime presents killers as knowable subjects whose devious and transgressive actions can be understood through narrative dissection. Most true crime forms position an individual act of violence as both an isolated and knowable event that has a powerful individual actor at its core. Writing in the New Yorker in January 2008, Adam Gopnik suggests the preoccupation with individual experiences evinces a “curious double consciousness,” because it emerges from a century where people “have been shaped by mass death and a readiness for mass killing”…. The fascination with and focus on individuals in true crime partakes of and further demonstrates this double consciousness; like water dripping on a stone, true crime narrates a mass of murders, story by story, and drop by drop.

Law and Order has come to offer a cycle of narrative fear that’s as addictive as a sudden shock of adrenaline; now, America’s twin psychological fascinations with the indecency of murder and the engines of justice have culminated in The Night Of. The HBO series has pushed the cramped confines of Wolf’s formula a step forward, injecting a stylized neo-noir sensibility into the otherwise routine back-and-forth between law enforcement and prosecution. While the series’ plodding pace is a persuasive frame through which to view the grit and grime of the court and prison systems, the steady interrogation of its cast through long silences and spurts of violence — Khan’s prison transformation, Detective Box’s (Bill Camp) queasy investigation into Cornish’s murder, even Stone’s rancid feet — is a cacophony of contradictions, and also the purest psychological drama to grace prestige TV in years. The truth doesn’t help Khan, and it doesn’t help viewers either: We’re in it for the cold, brutal mysteries of the legal system and what they tell us (or don’t) about the people who inhabit it. That’s noir in a way that Dick Wolf never was.

There’s a gentle irony in America’s fixation on crime and punishment, and it’s captured beautifully in The Night Of: Despite (or perhaps because of) the cultural obsession with law enforcement, Americans fixate on a version of the justice system that doesn’t really exist. A majority of the public believes that violent crime is worsening (it isn’t) while ignoring the fact that the American penal system, which incarcerates more people than every other country combined, is a brutal maze of risks and rewards. The Night Of is enthralling because, like McDade’s Annals of Murder or the gruesome dime novels of the early 20th century, it makes the abstractions of crime and punishment visceral and compelling; in its attention to detail, the fog of ambiguity that plagues the real-life justice system falls over the entire series. We want to believe that Khan is innocent, but we’re not totally sure, and the evidence and facts of the case themselves remain obscured by complexity. The Night Of contains all the elements of historical crime procedurals while capturing the complexity and ambiguity of true crime.

As it turns out, Stone was right. The truth won’t set Khan free — and it won’t stop us from watching.

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