By Ed Diokno
Everybody is talking about the breakout performance of Riz Ahmed in HBO’s new crime drama The Night Of.
Ahmed’s portrayal of college sttudent Nasir Khan, a Pakistani American from Queens. is subtle and riviting. Gawky, socially awkward, secretly seeking to break out of the nerd image he’s saddle with, Khan sounds like some Asian Americans I’ve known. It was easy to relate to the character.
Seeing an Asian American in a lead role is still a rarity on television despite the success of several groundbreaking shows last Fall. What makes Khan different though, is that The Night Of is not a comedy, nor is Khan a bad-ass martial artist.
The character played by Ahmed is a Pakistani American student accused of murdering a young white woman. When the woman, played by Sofia Black-D’Elia, gets into the cab driven by Khan, you instantly know she is trouble. Sensing his attraction to her, she manipulates the young student back to her apartment. After having sex, he wakes up to find her dead in bed. He panics and tries to flee the scene, but a neighbor spots him.What really drives the show, though, is Ahmed’s spot-on interpretation of Khan. He turns him into a sympathetic character despite the poor choices he makes.When he meets his lawyer, an oddball, disheveled Jack Stone played by John Turturro, the two actors play off each other like a duet of excellent jazz musicians.
“I found a real connection to Riz as a person,” Turturro told EW in a recent interview. “He’s really talented and a real hard worker and so smart. Look at his performance — it’s not overdone, not at all. That’s where the whole thing lives. It’s all in the minutia and the moment-to-moment life and the cost to this young man’s life. And that’s all Riz.”
“What’s interesting about this show is it’s not preoccupied with race or religion,” Ahmed tells Vulture. “It’s just a reflection of a society dealing with cultural dissonance.”
Despite Ahmed”s description, one cannot help but sense the overlaying layer of race throughout the premiere last Sunday, especially in the context of the events of the previous week when two black men were shot dead by police officers and the ongoing debate about Black Lives Matter.
Ahmed has a big year in store. In addition to starring in this HBO series, he’ll also pop up in the new Jason Bourne flick and he’s playing a hotshot pilot in a little film called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
The Night Of is an eight-part limited series created by Steven Zaillian and Richard Price. The series is based on the BBC’s Criminal Justice, created by Peter Moffat. The story examines the police investigation, the legal proceedings, the criminal justice system and the infamous Rikers Island, where the accused in New York await trial for felony crimes.
The Night Of airs on Sunday nights 9 p.m., ET/PT, on HBO.