The landscape of television over the last ten or so years has been manicured with high budgets, production values, and top talent—from premium networks to streaming services, from miniseries to TV movies, the elevation has been felt across the spectrum. So it’s no surprise that new HBO miniseries The Night Of, in just two episodes, has proven to be yet another boon to the continuing television renaissance. But it’s not just because the show is a who-done-it, which America loves. Or just because it’s in collaboration with the BBC, or graced by a titan network. It’s also because the story bares a striking resemblance to a real-life crime mystery most of us are quite familiar with. It’s because The Night Of is eerily similar to the true story of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, and the prosecution of Adnan Syed, which was detailed during the first season of the hit podcast, Serial.
If you’re unfamiliar with the unprecedented success of Serial (God be with you), it was the investigative brain-child of This American Life producer, Sarah Koenig, after being contacted by Rabia Chaudry, a Baltimore lawyer, and family friend/ruthless innocence-advocate of Adnan Syed (if you’re an Adnan-truther check out Chaudry’s exhaustive spin-off podcast, Undisclosed). The eccentricities of the story enticed Koenig into creating a serialized (get it?) podcast, teasing apart the case over the course of twelve episodes, imparting it with her production savvy and journalistic instincts. Serial gained a frenzied following, for a podcast alone, and for a story with an already known ending. But the real surprise here is how a 2016 HBO miniseries, based on a 2008 BBC miniseries, ended up oddly paralleling a 2014 podcast about a 1999 murder.
Let’s start with the most obvious, being that Adnan and the main character, Naz (Riz Ahmed), are both Pakistani and Muslim. Stating that fact isn’t meant to scandalize being either, but the reality is that being a Pakistani Muslim was used against Adnan during his trial—with under qualified “cultural experts” testifying that because of his faith and ethnicity, the murder could have been an honor killing. And it seems as though the same prejudices are going to be pointed at Naz, with one cop thoughtlessly quipping in Sunday’s episode, “some Muslim freak carved up a girl,” in front of Naz’s parents, portrayed as loving, hard-working first generation immigrants.
More intriguing than the obvious stereotyping parallels, are the more nuanced similarities. The most vexing part of Adnan’s case was the involvement of Jay Wilds. Both Syed and Wilds admitted that they were not good friends, and yet for some reason Wilds is the person who establishes a timeline for the police, and gives them locations of key evidence, because he was either there or Adnan told him. But it’s made clear through podcast sleuthing that Jay might not have come by any of that information honestly—that perhaps the police wanted to nail down Adnan so badly, they made a deal to let Jay off for separate drug charges in exchange for going along with their winks and knocks (literally) during interviews.
It seems The Night Of might end up going there as well. In episode one, a passer-by sees Naz entering Andrea’s apartment, the show’s victim, with her. The passer-by and Naz have a racially-charged exchange, but move on. After the murder, once cop chaos is unfolding outside the brownstone, the passer-by walks back by and mentions what he had earlier seen. He and detective Box are combative with one another, until Box asks, “If I turn you upside down how much weed is gonna fall out?” And the witness ends up getting dragged down to the station for some very leading questioning.
Speaking of Detective Box (Bill Camp), he bears a resemblance to Baltimore detectives, Ritz and MacGillivary, who tirelessly created the questionable case against Adnan. Box is portrayed as hungrier for the truth than Ritz and MacGillivary have been suspected to be (Undisclosed detailed multiple high profile Baltimore convictions in which the cases built by Ritz and MacGillivary were found fraudulent through appeals, and the accused released). But Box almost seems like what the two real-life detectives would be like if they were combined into the same person, making their follies more muted and determination more focused. Across fictionality, all three men share a reputation for blurring the lines between circumstantial and hard evidence. In the words of Naz’s lawyer in Sunday’s episode, “I’m not saying he’s a bad cop. On the contrary, he’s very good. And like all good cops he does you over just inside the rules. He’s a talented oppressor.” A line which could easily be applied to Ritz and MacGillivary, who were revered, and never prosecuted, for constructing so many damning cases against innocent people.
Which brings us to the last odd quirk shared by both stories, council, or rather the ineffectiveness of it. One of the more mythologized parties in Adnan’s case is his lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez. Partly because she has since passed away, and isn’t here to set any record straight. But more importantly because it was later revealed that she was sick with MS during trial, which could have been the reason she failed to contact Adnan’s only alibi witness, and other feats of gross negligence. Gutierrez was also disbarred the year after Adnan’s conviction for taking money from clients and not following through with the case.
Naz’s council, Jack Stone (John Turturro) is portrayed as more hapless than sinister, a man who’s never been able to catch the right break due to his own lack of ambition and just plain bad luck. But he still stands to potentially be just as damaging to Naz as Gutierrez was to Adnan. He swoops in while Naz is still in the holding cell the night of the murder, taking advantage of Naz’s naiveté. He is obviously over-stretched and ill-prepared, scrambling around on the subway, always a mess of papers and complications from his foot fungus. The most striking similarity between the two attorneys however, is that they both should, or should have, stepped down, seeing that a young kid’s life was hanging in the balance of their ego. But Gutierrez didn’t, and it doesn’t look like Stone will either.
It might seem pointless to compare fact and fiction. But in our pop culture-obsessed society, there is a benefit in x-raying the roots underneath the giant rainforest of Hollywood, and that’s to show how interconnected everything really is. We’re always examining each new feat of the entertainment world as being somehow completely autonomous, when in reality that’s impossible. I earnestly just enjoy seeing the storm that was stirred up by Serial continuing to drizzle, even if it’s only a drop of what ultimately inspired The Night Of. But on the flip side, I find it odd that the creators of The Night Of have addressed the ongoing fad around true crime entertainment—citing the also riveting doc-series The Staircase as such an influence that they had Turturro and Ahmed watch it—but made no mention to Serial.