“The Night Of” • Three and a half stars (out of four) • When 8 p.m. Sunday • Where HBO • More info hbo.com/the-night-of
James Gandolfini was supposed to play lawyer Jack Stone in “The Night Of,” launching Sunday on HBO. The adaptation of the British series “Criminal Justice” was a passion project for Gandolfini, who worked hard to get it made.
HBO originally passed, but in May 2013, the premium cable network picked up the drama as a limited series that would star Gandolfini.
Just a month after that, the “Sopranos” star died of a heart attack at age 51.
Three years later, the eight-part drama arrives on HBO for an eight-week run, with Gandolfini getting posthumous executive producer credit.
John Turturro (who in turn replaced Robert de Niro) stars as Stone, a shabby jailhouse lawyer who doesn’t appear until near the end of the first episode.
Until then, this is Nasir Khan’s story.
Naz, played beautifully by British rapper and actor Riz Ahmed, is a shy and slightly nerdy college student, U.S. born and living with his Pakistani-American family in Jackson Heights, Queens.
One night, Naz finally gets invited to a party by the cool kids, the jocks. His parents are uncomfortable with the idea, so Naz, goaded by a friend, waits until they are asleep and takes the keys to his father’s cab.
At that point, everything begins to go wrong, in a combination of terrible decisions and worse luck.
The light atop the cab, advertising it as vacant, won’t turn off. A beautiful young woman wants to go to the beach and promises Naz thrills he can’t even imagine.
In the morning, she is dead.
As “Criminal Justice,” “The Night Of” aired in Great Britain in 2008-09. At the time, the idea of following the aftermath of a single crime in depth might have seemed innovative (although “Law & Order” had long been doing it weekly).
Since then, though, we’ve had the podcast “Serial,” the documentary series “The Jinx” and “Making a Murderer,” “The People v. O.J. Simpson” and two seasons of ABC’s “American Crime,” to which “The Night Of” seems most similar. Season 1 of that John Ridley drama also followed a young man (in this case, Mexican-American) caught up in a complicated crime.
Apparent familiarity doesn’t make “The Night Of” any less involving, though, in large part because of Ahmed’s charismatic and sympathetic performance as Naz.
Almost frozen with fear, he sits in a cell with huge, dark eyes that make sandal-wearing lawyer Stone drawn to him, taking his case before he even knows what Naz is accused of. If finding out is a shock, he conceals it well.
With 200 speaking parts, “The Night Of,” shot entirely in New York, has a cast with a few familiar faces and many fresh and diverse ones.
Maybe you’ll recognize Kevin Dunn, Bill Camp and Sofia Black-D’Elia early on, and later Michael Kenneth Williams, Glenne Headly, Paulo Costanzo (“Royal Pains”), JD Williams (“The Wire”), Aida Turturro, Max Casella, Fisher Stevens and Paul Sparks (“Boardwalk Empire,” “House of Cards”). But “The Night Of” succeeds in providing vivid moments even for characters with the least to do.
The production values are excellent throughout, ranging from lively scenes of street and market life in Jackson Heights, home to many residents of Middle Eastern descent, to security camera footage capturing Naz en route to disaster.
“Whodunit” is certainly the question here. Even Naz, who has no memories of much of the night, turns out not to be 100 percent sure he is innocent. But the rich story also weaves in the topical subjects of race and culture, police behavior, and criminal justice.
Who will enjoy “The Night Of”? The core HBO audience, of course; subscribers have already had a chance to stream the first episode or watch it on demand.
But fans of series like “The Killing,” and even HBO’s own “True Detective,” should appreciate the fact that “The Night Of” is a limited series, with a beginning, middle and end.
If “The Killing” had stopped with Season 1 and provided the promised conclusion, it might be more acclaimed today. Likewise, “True Detective” went wrong by defining itself as an anthology and presenting a second season that didn’t come close to living up to the first.
Given how long it took to get on the air, “The Night Of” isn’t likely to make that mistake.