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HBO's 'The Night Of' and TV's deep dive into criminal justice

Drama that originally was to star James Gandolfini places its new lead, John Turturro, at the center of a conversation about a flawed system.

Riz Ahmed (left) and John Turturro in a scene from HBO's "The Night Of," which begins Sunday
Riz Ahmed (left) and John Turturro in a scene from HBO's "The Night Of," which begins SundayRead moreCraig Blankenhorn/HBO

If not for the death of actor James Gandolfini three years ago, HBO's anatomy-of-a-murder-investigation drama The Night Of might have arrived much sooner, and with all the fanfare you'd expect to accompany the return of the star of The Sopranos to series television.

I'd love to have seen what Gandolfini, who filmed a pilot for The Night Of and is still credited as an executive producer, would have done with eight episodes as the rumpled, down-on-his-luck lawyer John Stone. He's now played by John Turturro, who stumbles into the case of his career in Sunday's 90-minute premiere.

Yet, Turturro (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) is terrific as Stone, a part that appears to have been retailored to fit this particular actor (and far better than his character's clothes).

What's more, the resurrected show arrives at a good time, joining a conversation that has been long overdue.

After decades of locking up fictional characters and throwing away the keys, television lately is taking a keener-than-usual interest in the workings (and nonworkings) of a system that leads the world in the number of people it imprisons but whose production of equal justice often falls short.

I don't know if it's that TV is growing up, or that viewers bombarded with news - and cellphone videos - about people for whom the system may not have worked are demanding more from their crime stories than just-the-facts-ma'am, but it's a great time to be a living-room juror.

Shows such as HBO's The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst and FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story remind us that in America, money talks, and suspects with enough of it often walk. Netflix's Making a Murderer, chronicling the case of a man who didn't have Simpson or Durst's resources, ends up making much the same point.

It's not only that true crime has been having a moment.

When we're bingeing on the stories of the incarcerated women of Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, experiencing a former inmate's rocky reentry in SundanceTV's Rectify, or watching, week by week, as John Ridley's ABC anthology, American Crime, dissects and examines a single case from multiple points of view, we're being invited to put ourselves in the place of people for whom a single terrible mistake, theirs or someone else's, can have damning consequences.

In The Night Of, that person is Nasir "Naz" Khan (Riz Ahmed, Nightcrawler), a college student who borrows his father's cab one evening to go to a party and ends up with a bloody knife in his pocket, accused of the savage murder of a young woman (Sofia Black-D'Elia) he has just met.

From the start, it's a murder mystery, but one that raises questions beyond whodunit, including: Can anyone, once accused, ever be presumed innocent?

A limited series adapted by Steven Zaillian and Richard Price from the first season of Peter Moffat's British anthology Criminal Justice, HBO's version raises the stakes by making the accused a young U.S.-born Muslim of Pakistani descent.

Ahmed delivers a beautifully calibrated performance as Naz, who, while he may not be quite the innocent he first appears, can't help but be changed by his experiences at New York's notorious Rikers Island. There, he quickly finds a mentor and protector named Freddy (Michael Kenneth Williams, The Wire), whose help, naturally, comes at a price.

Turturro, whose character's many quirks include a nasty skin condition that makes it hard for him to wear shoes, is reason enough to watch The Night Of. As he shuffles from doctor to herbalist, seeking solutions (and trying to off-load a cat, in a running plotline), he's a study in downward mobility, a man who understands the system and may be able to get it to work for others, but has never quite made it work for himself.

Other standouts include Jeannie Berlin as the raspy-voiced prosecutor, Amara Karan as a young lawyer who inherits Naz's case, Bill Camp as a lead detective with one foot out the door, and Payman Maadi and Poorna Jagannathan as Naz's parents.

The performances, in fact, are so uniformly strong and the direction so deft that it's possible to overlook a plot that, like The Killing (and Netflix's new thriller Marcella) introduces a few too many Law & Order-like plot twists to be totally believable.

This isn't HBO's first experience with how-stuff-works drama, even if what was once the land of Oz and The Wire has lately been more engaged in exploring the wildly unequal justice meted out in Westeros.

Given the number of people who discovered The Wire only after its five-season run ended, one of the best - possibly the best - TV series ever might just have been ahead of its time.

The Night Of shouldn't have that problem.