by Gerald Dworkin
From time to time my friends, knowing that I watch many television series, ask me what current show I recommend. I always start by asking if they have watched The Wire. If they say they have not, I suggest they watch all five seasons and then I will make suggestions about what to watch now.
The Wire, which ran from 2002 to 2008, was created, and largely written, by David Simon, a former police reporter on the Baltimore Sun. It is a systematic examination of the oppression of poor and black Baltimore citizens by five major institutions as they interact with the criminal justice system. These are drug trafficking, the seaport and its unions, city hall (politicians and bureaucracy), the school system, and the press.
The series is brilliant both artistically and sociologically. Using mainly unknown–at the time–actors, kids from the streets of Baltimore, as well as real-life characters from Baltimore, superbly written and directed, it exposes how these institutions not only oppress the poor but corrupt and compromise all those who act with power within these institutions.
This spring HBO introduced a new eight part series The Night Of, henceforth TNO. It was presented as a crime series with the crime being the murder of a young woman, and the person arrested for the crime being a young Pakistani college student, Naz. The show received quite favorable ratings although also some criticism as to pacing and some implausible plot points.
Considered as a police procedural or as a mystery I think it is excellent watching although not in the same class as, say, the first series of True Detective, the first series of Broadchurch, Happy Valley, River, or the Fall.
However I am going to argue that viewing the series as the sixth episode of The Wire it is a brilliant success as a portrait of the criminal justice system– the institution that The Wire never got around to portraying in detail.
The first thing to notice as the credits role is that the series was written and produced by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian. Richard Price is a wonderful novelist (Clockers, Lush Life, Whites) noted for his scrupulous attention to dialogue. Most relevant to my thesis is that he wrote the 5th series of The Wire which examines the press –work which was recognized by the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Dramatic Series.
The next thing to notice is that TNO is based on a BBC series called Criminal Justice. This can be watched on a website called DailyMotion. It has a very similar plot line–murder, suspect, who dun it–but what it is lacking, and what makes it a different, and inferior, show is the presence of a continuous story and critique of the British criminal justice system. Price has Injected into a police procedural the kind of ideological critique present in all the episodes of The Wire.
The central focus of TNO is a detailed, thematic portrait of a system of criminal justice which is unjust, racially biased, cruel, at all its levels. From the moment of arrest to the verdict (guilty or acquitted) we are shown a system whose (mostly unintended) consequences include turning some innocent people into criminals, tutoring criminals to become more successful criminals, turning lawyers Into liars and worse, corrupting judges, prosecutors, prison guards, witnesses, and detectives.
Spoiler Alert: This blog post is intended for those who have watched the show. I have carefully avoided issues having to do with the mystery aspects but I will be mentioning things that happen which you may prefer not to know about before you watch the show.
Analysis Alert: I am not going to be saying much about the acting, directing, filming, writing, plotting of TNO. Because I am concentrating on its ideological message this may sound a bit like the man who, asked what the opera William Tell was about, replied “It is about men shooting at fruit.” There are many available critical evaluations of the show which pay proper attention to its artistic elements.
Naz is first picked up while driving his father’s taxi because of an illegal left turn. He is clearly under the influence of something. The cops, one white , one black, seem quite decent types. The two go back and forth about what to cite Naz for. “Reckless driving? No, I feel he’s done more.” “ He’s just a kid. Kids do stuff.” Then a call comes in from the murder scene asking for their assistance. The cops debate between “cutting him loose” and “bring him with us” finally opting for the latter.
Nothing gone wrong here but it illustrates the role of luck and the complete discretion of the arresting officers as to whether Naz gets involved with the murder at this point.
Police Station and Booking
Naz winds up in the police station. Because he was not tested for drugs at the scene of the arrest the desk sergeant decides to release him. During the routine search that precedes his release they find a bloody knife on Naz.
He is processed by Detective Box–a very complexly drawn character. Our first introduction to him exhibits his expressing sympathy for Naz and his plight–a sympathy which is partly motivated by a desire to get a confession. A sympathy which is undercut by the fact that he interrogates Naz without a lawyer present, not raising the issue of whether he wants a lawyer, the whole interview being videotaped without Naz’s knowledge. Later a visit of Naz with his parents is also videotaped without their knowledge.
This is followed by a detailed, and somewhat rough, body search, and a DNA retrieval (preceded by a statement that Naz’s consent is required but that if he does not give it a court order can be obtained quickly.) At a later point Naz says he wants a lawyer, to which one of the people searching him says. “Why? You know what kind of message that sends.”
Stone, the lawyer who decides to represent Naz after seeing him in the police station introduces us to the real world of legal defense. Stone is one step up from the overworked, under-paid, legal aid lawyers who are assigned cases at random. He gets his cases being on the scene and available. “Right place. Right time.” he cheerfully informs the judge at arraignment.
Like the legal-aid lawyers he makes his money by making quick deals for defendants to plead to a lesser charge. Whether the defendant is guilty or not is irrelevant. Whether the defendant is telling the truth or lying when he tells the judge that he is guilty is irrelevant. One of the best scenes in TNO shows Naz first saying he was guilty of killing (though not murder since it was self-defense–all this fictitious) and then when asked by the prosecutor to confess to the grisly details, reverse his plea. All this was contrived by his fancier trial attorney–in it for the publicity–but also looking for the deal so she doesn’t waste billable hours on a pro bono client.
In a certain sense the most important decision for Naz is presented in less than two minutes of screen time–the bail hearing. Being allowed out is the difference between maintaining contact with his parents and friends, continuing his schooling, being allowed to talk to his lawyer in full detail about the events of the night in questions, being able to aid his lawyers in considering alternative suspects, in short being able to live his life as he has been. The alternative is, as is shown in gruesome and extensive detail to be sent to Rikers Island. In other words to be sent to that part of the criminal justice system which is a factory for the production of criminals (Naz’s case) or the higher education of criminals (the starter criminals who have a record and are facing additional sentences). It is important to recognize that Rikers is a holding prison and many who are subsequently acquitted, but denied bail, will have served long sentences in appalling circumstances.
Here is a basic summary of the two minutes of screen time devoted to the bail hearing. The state says that Naz has family roots in Pakistan, that he is facing charges that are extremely serious and that provides a strong motive for flight. Stone points out that not only has Naz never been to Pakistan, he has never been out of NY State. That he has no prior offences. That he is anxious to prove his innocence so he has no motive to flee. He concludes by pointing out that CJA recommends ROR. (This use of acronyms is of the many instances in which the writer puzzled the viewers but maintain the goal of presenting the bureaucratese that passes for language in all transactions. Price is brilliant at capturing the actual language used by people as when the arresting officer says she “does not want to conversate” with Naz.) The CJA is a not-for-profit corporation which contracts to provide information and recommendations to the NYC criminal justice system. It results from an experimental project demonstrating that defendants with strong ties to the community who are released on their own recognizance –ROR–return to court as frequently as those who post bail.
The Judge–presented as a fairly decent character–replies he is “doesn’t care” what the CJA recommends. Bail denied.
After the bail decision is the crucial issue of what the defendant will be charged with. Here the entire system depends on enough defendants not exercising their “right” to a trial. Plea bargaining is the solution. It does not matter if the defendant is actually innocent. He is faced with the possibility of the jury finding him guilty of a serious crime. Here is the perfectly captured dialogue between Naz’s “real” attorney, i.e not-Stone, and the prosecutor. It is cleverly placed just after a scene of a prison boxing match in which one prisoner is beaten to a pulp by another.
Prosecutor: We’ll knock five years off the max, 25 to life. He’ll be before a parole board in 20. Attorney: Before them for what? Murder is murder. They’ll never let him out. You want to talk seriously, take life off the table.
Attorney: Oh, I don’t think I can do that I won’t be able to sell him on an indeterminate sentence. So I guess that’s it.
P: Murder 2, no sexual assault. Capped at 25.
A: Man 1, flat 10.
P: You’re kidding.
A: No, I’m not.
P: High man, 20, serves 15.
A: We’ll take our chances with the jury. (Starts to leave)
P: That’s it? You expect me to negotiate against myself?
A: Man 1, flat 15.
P: Man 1, flat 15
A; I can try that.
P: I think you’ll succeed. (spoken ironically since this was the deal aimed at all along)
Hours of screen time are devoted to what happens to Naz as a result of his imprisonment at Rikers and what that hellish place is like. In short he enters as a kid who has had sex twice in his life, who has some anger problems, who sold some drugs and leaves as someone willing to personally brutalize a fellow prisoner, smuggle heroin into the jail by swallowing condoms handed him by a visitor who smuggled them past the guards in her vagina, having prison tattoos, selling time on smuggled-in phones, aiding his prison protector in the brutal murder of another prisoner and finally becoming a protector of newcomers–for a price. As his protector, and friend, says “I’m going to make a proper criminal out of you.”
The film covers many other aspects of the criminal justice system–sometimes in very brief scope– jury selection, what kind of clothes defendants should wear, harassment of visitors to Rikers (invasive searches), whose death gets press attention (Box looking at a dead black girl in an alley, “Where’s the press on this one?”), the fact that Naz’s fathers taxi was used, if Naz is convicted, in a crime means that during the trial it is evidence, and post-trial it may be seized in a civil proceeding–thus making it impossible for him to earn a living.
Many of these aspects of the system are familiar but there are some that will be new. We are aware that “expert testimony” is produced by experts who specialise, for considerable sums of money, in producing testimony that will help the prosecution or the defense. We might not remember that the state has experts–such as pathologists or drug experts–who can, and do, tailor their testimony. TNO presents two examples. In one a pathologist is questioned by the prosecutor about how Naz received a cut on his hand from the murder weapon. He could have gotten it from using it as a weapon on another, or by defending himself against attack. He asks the prosecutor how she wants him to testify.
Another, a drug expert, tells her that the type and quantity of drugs in Naz leaves some people able to fly 747’s across 5 time zones and others unable to get off the floor. How does she want it? “Flying airplanes” is the response.
Perhaps Lenny Bruce–one of those harassed by the legal system– was not cynical enough; “In the Halls of Justice, the only justice is in the halls.” The halls themselves are used to strike corrupt bargains.