In the third season finale of Friday Night Lights, the Dillon Panthers won Texas State Championship. It would have been a fitting end to the series, but DirecTV took it from NBC and renewed it for another season. How does a series continue after arriving at the dramatic zenith? That’s what I love so much about the fourth season: Jason Katims took the Dillon Panthers away from Coach Taylor; saddled him with the most underdog of all teams, the East Dillon Lions; gerrymandered all the good players away from him; and asked him to rebuild with an entirely new team from the poor side of town.
Katims stacked the deck against Coach Taylor. It looked hopeless. That’s why the season worked so well as an underdog story.
HBO’s new series The Night Of has absolutely nothing to do with Friday Night Lights, but the opening episode reminded me of Coach Taylor’s plight in that fourth season. The eight-part HBO miniseries The Night Of spends its opening episode stacking the deck against Nasir Khan, a Pakistani-American college student living in Queens, NY. He is a good kid who gets a little out of his depth, and it turns into a nightmare.
Plot details from the pilot to follow
Wanting to go to a popular party, Nas takes his father’s cab without permission. He gets lost along the way, and an attractive young woman, Andrea, hops into his cab. She tells Nas that she doesn’t want to spend the night alone and convinces him to take her out to the river. They bond. They take drugs and drink (although, Nas clearly has little to no experience with either drugs or alcohol). They make out. Nas comes back to her place. They play a dumb game with a knife, and both get stabbed in the hands. There’s blood involved. They have sex.
Nas blacks out, wakes up, and discovers that Andrea has been stabbed brutally and repeatedly. Nas, being Pakistani-American, takes one look at the bloody corpse and runs. He forgets his keys, has to break in to get back into Andrea’s apartment, runs back out, and heads home. Unfortunately, he is pulled over by the police for a possible DUI. The police are called to the murder scene with Nas in their backseat, and ultimately they conclude that Nas is a suspect in the woman’s murder.
Here’s the thing: At this point, regardless of the color of Nas’ skin, the police have him dead to rights. They have witnesses who spotted him with Andrea. They think he was the last person to see her alive. They have evidence that he had sex with her. They have his blood on her body, and her blood on his. Nas even has the murder weapon in his possession when he is picked up.
He is fucked. Even if he was a white choir boy, no police officer would believe that he didn’t kill Andrea.
But we know — or at least think we know — that he didn’t kill her because he’s a good kid. Or maybe he did, and our collective white liberal guilt refuses to allow us to believe it. I really don’t know, but I do know that John Turturro (replacing Robert DeNiro, who replaced James Gandolfini after his passing) plays a lawyer, Jack Stone, who has the murder case fall into his lap.
End Plot Details
What we’re looking at here is not only a mystery — who actually killed the young woman — but an examination of the law enforcement and judicial system. Nas’ ethnicity and religion will almost certainly play a factor.
Richard Price co-wrote the series — along with Steve Zaillian — and Price’s Clockers, of course, helped to inspire The Wire, which Price also served as a writer on, so he’s perfect for The Night Of. Meanwhile, Zallian — who wrote and directed A Civil Action — knows his way around courtroom drama. It’s a great team, and an amazing first episode, if only because it presses all those hot buttons right now: It’s like putting the OJ Simpson trial, Making a Murderer, the first season of True Detective and dozens of newspaper headlines into a machine that spits out the perfect story for this time in America, and having the writers of, collectively, The Wire, Moneyball, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Clockers pen the screenplay. It’s novelistic and cinematic, the two main characters, so far (Turturro and Riz Ahmed, who will be in Rogue One) are sympathetic, and the mystery is compelling.
But this is not Friday Night Lights, and my fear — indeed, the fear we all will have while watching the series — is that the underdog won’t become the victor, because the parents of the underdog are Pakistani. Or worse, maybe Nas actually did commit the murder, but doesn’t remember doing so because he blacked out.
I have no idea, but I cannot wait to see how the season plays out.