Most people I know, when they talk about viewing experiences, like to share what they've most recently binge-watched. You know, as in, "Hey, have you seen 'Stranger Things'? We watched the whole of season one this weekend! It's great!"
Actually, I have not watched "Stranger Things." That's because what with Hulu, and Netflix and Comcast On Demand and everything else that's available through my smart TV, I just have too many choices. "Stranger Things," though, is on the list.
My wife and I did make time recently to watch the HBO miniseries "The Night Of," and that's what I decided to review this week for Spokane Public Radio. Following is an edited transcript of that review:
One of the basic problems with cinema is its continued reliance on a limited notion of running time. Only a handful of films extend past two hours, the standard length of a mainstream feature.
Why? As video editor and producer Matthew Belinke wrote online, “Hollywood (is) … convinced that two hours is the point of diminishing returns. Longer than that, production costs go up, theaters can squeeze in fewer showings, and audiences start to shy away.”
Some moviegoers aren’t likely to complain, especially those whose aging bones begin to ache after even a 90-minute sit. Yet the result of this so often leads to screen adaptations of stories that beg to be done in a longer format. Take the many movie versions of the Charles Dickens novel “Great Expectations.” Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 version, for example, runs for 111 minutes – some nine minutes less than two hours.
Just so you know, the first edition of Dickens’ 1861 novel was 544 pages long. Even a master such as Cuarón can’t hope to capture all of Dickens’ magic in a mere two-hour time frame.
So it’s a good thing that television – especially cable television – has perfected what’s known as the limited miniseries. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences defines such a miniseries as a “category of limited series (composed of) two or more episodes with a total running time of at least 150 minutes. The program must tell a complete, non-recurring story, and not have an ongoing storyline or main characters in subsequent seasons.”
The Academy awarded its 2015-2016 Emmy to FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” an honor richly deserved. Equally deserving for the coming year, though, should be HBO’s eight-part production “The Night Of.”
Created by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian, directed by Zaillian (except for one episode, which was directed by James Marsh) and starring, with one notable exception, a cast of not overly familiar actors, “The Night Of” tells a compelling story of what happens when a young college student of Pakistani ethnicity (Riz Ahmed) makes a series of stupid decisions that ends up with his being accused of murder.
John Turturro, the afore-mentioned notable exception, plays the ambulance-chasing attorney who attaches himself to the case, at first seeing it as a chance for a big payday but slowly becoming the series’ closest version of an actual hero. Price and Zaillian fill out the rest of the cast with veteran actors such as Bill Camp and Jeannie Berlin, with foreign stars such as Peyman Moaadi (of the 2011 Iranian film “A Separation”), and they save a special role for the always-dependable Michael K. Williams (Omar on HBO’s acclaimed series “The Wire”).
Cast aside, though, what makes “The Night Of” so special is how Price and Zaillian weave contemporary issues – everything from racism to prosecutorial rush to judgment – into a coherent collection of eight one-hour chapters that works as a commentary on U.S. culture and yet serves as a satisfying, dramatic experience.
Watching it just might satisfy your own – wait for it – great expectations.