If you look at HBO’s drama offerings beyond the massive hit that is “Game of Thrones,” you’ll find a pretty barren cabinet. While “The Leftovers” has critical acclaim, it’s ratings are not nearly strong enough to anchor anything on its own. The upcoming “Westworld” has been in a tumultuous development and production cycle for years now — either a sign of creative turmoil or a struggle to find what they want the show to be. And, most embarrassingly, HBO rolled back its season two renewal of “Vinyl” after realizing the massive creative revamp the drama would need wasn’t worth their resources. So, this year, they were forced to give their summer drama slot to a smaller miniseries that has also been in development for a while (originally intended to be a vehicle for the late, great James Gandolfini, “The Sopranos”, who retains a posthumous executive producer credit), a show that wouldn’t usually be thought of as a network anchor. The move seems to have paid off from a business perspective, as the drama premiered to significantly higher ratings than last year’s “Show Me a Hero.” Creatively speaking, “The Night Of” is HBO’s best series premiere since “Hero,” as its slow build of a story hooks you in a slow and painful manner.

“The Night Of” ’s premiere follows a night gone horribly wrong. While Nasir (Riz Ahmed, “Nightcrawler”) is on the way to a party in his father’s cab, Andrea (Sofia Black D’Elia, MTV’s adaptation of “Skins”) gets in. She leads him on an adventure across town before bringing him home for an evening of drugs and sex. However, when he wakes up in the kitchen, he walks over to the bedroom to find her brutally stabbed to death and blood everywhere. He runs, but is caught by the police for an unrelated crime. Brought to the station, the police find the murder weapon on his body and proceeds to question him about the crime (which he has no memory of), at least until lawyer Jack Stone (John Turturro, “The Big Lebowski”, in a role originally planned for Gandolfini) shows up and starts to help Nasir.

The episode unfolds this story methodically across its hour-plus runtime. It takes nearly a half-hour for Nasir’s full encounter with Andrea to play out. As it continues, the sense of dread builds. The show is completely aware you know something bad is going to happen to them, and it uses that to build a palpable sense of tension. As Nasir gets arrested for a completely different act, you know they’re going to figure out he was at the scene of the murder (in fact, the cops who arrest him are called to the scene while he’s in the car and bring him to sit in the car outside of the building he just left). It plays with your knowledge of what happened and made me physically uncomfortable in the best way possible.

By the end of the first episode, we have no idea where this story is going. Heck, we don’t even know if this is a case of mistaken identity or if Nasir committed the murder when his memory falters. In this case, we’re as in the dark as the main character, and it’s going to be exciting to see how the series deliberately unravels its story. While a single miniseries is not enough to come close to securing HBO’s drama future, “The Night Of” gives hope that the pipeline might not be as barren as reported. 

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