How The Night Of and Serial Made Me Fall in Love with Long Form Storytelling

Indie filmmaker turned showrunner Morgan Jon Fox tries to dissect exactly what makes HBO's latest hit show so outstanding.

I’ll never forget where I was when I was first introduced to the Sarah Koenig-produced true-crime episodic podcast Serial. It was in hour one of a 10-hour road trip from Memphis, TN to Savannah, GA with director-producer Kim Sherman. I’d never really listened to podcasts before, and true story, I almost turned down This American Life when they offered to produce a segment related to my documentary This is What Love in Action Looks Like – because I’d never heard of the show. Luckily my then roommate Kentucker Audley quickly shamed me into the realization that This American Life was a big deal. A couple hours into this trip with Kim, though, I was forgoing restroom breaks because I’d already become addicted to the true-life story of what appears to be the wrongful conviction of Adnan Syed. Wait, are all podcasts like this? Riveting episodic cliffhangers invested in relatable characters? No, Kim assured me, sadly not yet. As it turns out, Serial is the Simone Biles/Usain Bolt/Michael Phelps of the podcast world.

Following Serial, there has been an onslaught of other excellent true-crime real-world dramas, including a podcast that followed the same case as Serial called Undisclosed (now on an excellent second season with a new case), the Netflix doc Making a Murderer, HBO’s The Jinx, and O.J.: Made in America. We are officially in a golden era of top-notch episodics in this genre, and the latest to enter the room is HBO’s mystery/thriller mini-series The Night Of. The description on HBO’s site reads:

The Night Of is an eight-part limited series that delves into the intricate story of a fictitious murder case in New York City. The series follows the police investigation and legal proceedings, all the while examining the criminal justice system and the purgatory of Rikers Island, where the accused awaits his trial.

I like how it’s carefully specified that The Night Of is fictitious (it was created by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian), just in case you may have been confused, or like myself instantly began to see resemblances to bits and pieces of the true-crime productions mentioned above. Whatever similarities may exist are likely projections of the viewer, because the pilot was shot back in 2012-2013 (HBO originally passed on the show). After I jumped right into Episode 1 … well, I don’t know how else to explain it, but my life began to fall apart. I think it’s just really very bad practice to fall in love with an incredible cliff-hanging, nail-biting show amidst its early-to-air days, unless you genuinely enjoy making yourself miserable all week, waiting until the next episode gives you your fix. That’s what The Night Of has done to me, and what it’s done to everyone I know currently watching it. Lucky for you, if you haven’t already begun, the final episode aired two nights ago.

There are two worlds in The Night Of, each providing a parallel storyline. There’s the “free world,” featuring a corrupt judicial system where lawyers fight lawyers, suspicious suspects get questioned, and a lost family mourns in the wings. Then there’s the prison system, a hellish purgatory where our main character and suspect, Naz, navigates tense relationships in order to survive. In both worlds, the binding themes are trust and fear, and in both they are a matter of life or death. The stakes are always high and everyone’s motives are unclear. Everything about this is familiar, and everything about it is uniquely new.

A quick detour on the current TV craze … I’m a filmmaker, I’ve written and directed four microbudget features and I love movies. But I’ve fallen in love with long form storytelling. There’s just something so much more fulfilling about the investment we get to place in characters where they’re allowed to step outside of the constraints of the two-hour box and evolve over an infinitely greater time and space. There’s so much more room for nuance and the small moments that otherwise get brushed out of the way because of plot points and the Snyder Beat Sheet. I love the idea of serialized content so much that I created my own show, Feral (premiering October 6 on Dekkoo), about a group of close knit twenty-somethings living in Memphis, and I currently have four new episodic projects in different states of development. TV basically took a note out of the movie book, got super cinematic on us and suddenly is the best thing going.

So, why is The Night Of so good, and how do I explain it without spoiling anything? Maybe it’s simply that it’s tapping into this trending true-crime craze of relatable characters in regrettable situations. Maybe it’s because the show’s depiction of Manhattan as a dark undersaturated Gotham City-esque world is so mesmerizing that it feels like it exists in a hyper-real version of the “upside down” universe of Stranger Things, where the monsters are the judicial system, a slew of terrifying untrustworthy characters, and a disgusting foot fungus living in one of our lead character’s feet. Maybe it’s the incredibly subtle and perfectly pitched performances by the amazing cast, which includes Riz Ahmed as the Pakistani-American college student turned murder suspect Naz, and John Turturro as his mess of an attorney. Equally attributable are the many brilliant supporting performances by Michael Kenneth Williams, Jeannie Berlin, Bill Camp and Amara Karan. Maybe it’s the tone, because the tone of The Night Of is everything. Depicting everything from fancy Manhattan apartments to the dark corridors of Rikers Island Prison, the long, continuous takes are slow and measured and feature a cold, uninviting palette I can’t look away from.

What’s wild is that if you turn on the TV right now, you’d find endless numbers of crime/detective/criminal justice shows with similar thematics. So what is it that makes The Night Of stand out in this overcrowded genre? The truth is, I don’t need to tell you why it’s so damn good, because if you’re already watching it then you already know, and if you haven’t begun, then drop what you’re doing and go find out for yourself.

Named one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film” by Filmmaker magazine, Morgan Jon Fox is a writer-director from Memphis, currently living in Chicago, whose work has focused primarily on youth and self-discovery in the South. His short film The One You Never Forget is now streaming on Vimeo here. (Picture by Breezy Lucia.)