Legal Dramas

A Night To Remember

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

When Nasir ‘Naz’ Khan (Riz Ahmed), a shy, maths-loving college student in New York is invited to a party that holds the promise of “mad females”, he’s elated. He makes plans with a friend to drive there, but as his luck would have it, his friend cancels at the last minute. Naz is so desperate that he decides to borrow (read steal) his father’s cab to drive to the party. It’s not the greatest drive, with him being unable to figure out how to switch the ‘off duty’ light on, resulting in random people getting into his cab asking to be driven around. To make matters worse, he gets lost. It is when he stops to figure out his way that a beautiful young girl gets into his cab, and Naz decides that he’ll drive her, setting into motion a chain of events that will alter his life forever.

Naz and his mysterious, beautiful passenger (Sofia Black-D’Elia) whose name he doesn’t know end up taking a long drive, having copious amounts of alcohol, and fall into bed. Naz wakes up in the kitchen, and when he goes up to the bedroom to say goodbye, he sees her body, bleeding and brutally stabbed. He makes a run, only to get caught for drunk driving. It isn’t long before the police put two and two together and sweet, soft-spoken, wide-eyed Naz becomes the lone and prime suspect in a gory murder.

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Naz now faces a future in jail, and must learn to deal with life in prison, forge bonds with other convicts for his own safety and decide whether or not he should place faith in his lawyers, or in his own memory of events.

The Night Of is a tightly paced mini-series (it only has eight episodes in total) which covers a variety of themes including Islamophobia and racial prejudice in the backdrop of the American Justice system. Riz Ahmed is mesmerizing in his portrayal of Naz, a student whose life has shut down because of a mistake which he can’t even recall in full. John Turturro is also excellent as John Stone, an eczema ridden, street smart lawyer who defends petty criminals. Stone is the first lawyer who comes to Naz’s defence in jail, and decides to fight for his innocence. Bill Camp, who plays Seargent Box, a ‘subtle beast’ of a detective who isn’t convinced about the case despite all the evidence in the bag, is a treat to watch as well. Naz’s parents are played by Poorna Jagannathan and Peyman Moaadi, and they are both very convincing as hardworking, middle class immigrants grappling with the shock of their son’s arrest, the attention from the press and most importantly, the fact that they don’t know their son as well as they thought they did.

The Night Of is intense, dark, and gripping, which isn’t a surprise considering the fact that it has been directed by Steven Zaillian, who has Schindler’s List to his credit. The series has been reportedly inspired by the BBC thriller series Criminal Justice which aired sometime around 2008, but I also found that it had striking similarities with a viral podcast called Serial, that came out a few years ago. Serial unraveled a real murder of a young girl that had happened in Baltimore in the late ‘90s, where the accused was also a Muslim student, Adnan Syed. Like Serial, the audience isn’t given the whole picture, and the evidence is unfolded through the course of the series as it reaches crescendo in the finale.

Although The Night Of is a short series with only eight episodes, the impact of the show is one that will stay seared in your memory for a long time to come.

{The Night Of is presently streaming on HotStar}

Good Things, Small Packages

{First published in The Hindu Metroplus}

My love for the miniseries format is one that has been well documented in this space. I cannot get enough of them, and it isn’t just the low commitment that it requires which draws me, again and again, back to them. A well made mini-series is the perfect hybrid of film, and serial episodes. It combines the well defined storyline of a movie with the steady, more fulfilling pace of storytelling that multiple episodes allow. The slow burn of the miniseries allows characters to shine and for the audience to develop a greater understanding of, and attachment with them, making the format perfect for novel adaptations. Olive Kitteridge, the Emmy award winning miniseries about a cynical American schoolteacher, was based on the novel by Elizabeth Strout. The recently released and phenomenally successful miniseries, The Night Manager, was adapted from the novel of the same name that was written by the master of espionage, John Le Carre. Both Olive Kitteridge and The Night Manager, with their intense screenplay and masterful acting performances, were an accomplishment in televised storytelling.

Another miniseries that I couldn’t stop raving about, was Wolf Hall. Wolf Hall was also named after the novel (by Hilary Mantel) whose story it took on, but the story was essentially a dramatised version of actual events which took place in the 16th Century, known as “The King’s Great Matter”, which today stands immortalised by the Traitor’s Gate in the Tower of London. People vs OJ Simpson: An American Crime Story, is another miniseries which took on a real life incident: the much publicised trial of OJ Simpson, a sports superstar and actor, who was accused of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and a restaurant waiter, Ron Goldman.

All these series had actors of immense calibre put together on the same screen, for the miniseries format allows them to explore stronger, deeper characters with more nuance, and directors to take on stories that are more complex and can’t possibly contained in a time frame of a few hours. People vs OJ Simpson: An American Crime Story managed to lure in the likes of John Travolta, Cuba Gooding Jr., and David Schwimmer. The Night Manager had Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston. Hiddleston’s portrayal of the spy, Jonathan Pine was so successful that it sparked rumours across the United Kingdom of him being cast as the next James Bond. Wolf Hall had Mark Rylance, (who went on to star in Spielberg’s celebrated film, Bridge of Spies, and win an Academy award for it) and Damian Lewis. The more recently released thriller miniseries about an immigrant who is jailed for the murder of a girl in New York City, “The Night Of” was written by Steve Zaillan, who has worked on movies like The Schindler’s List, and Gangs of New York, among others.

For all their merits and the hype surrounding them through all these years – Meryl Streep and Al Pacino made a miniseries way back in 2003 called Angels in America for HBO – the miniseries is only now finding its way into Indian Television. If you don’t have the time for a full fledged television series and all its characters, I recommend you embrace the miniseries with both your arms (and your legs). It’s the best way to experience not only modern television, but the power that a good story can have over you.

{People vs OJ Simpson, The Night Of are available on HotStar. Angels in America premieres today, August 6th on Star World Premiere HD}

An End And A Beginning

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

The premise of Suits lies in a secret. Mike Ross, a brilliant young man who practices law in one of New York’s top law firms, is no qualified lawyer. He’s a genius, yes, and is relentless with his arguments in the courtroom, but he never appeared for the bar exam, or even went to law school. Harvey Spectre, the managing partner who hired Mike is fully aware of this, but hires him anyway because he is convinced that Mike’s smarts, his interest in the law, and most importantly, his flawless photographic memory compensate for his lack of formal qualifications. These are the events which transpire in the first episode of the first season of Suits. Over the course of the five seasons that have followed, Mike and Harvey have formed an everlasting friendship, won dozens of cases, and have battled against all odds to protect Mike’s secret.

suits, suits on abc, suits season 5 review

The show thrives on a delicious irony – here’s a man who knows the law, and knows how to apply the law as well as, if not better than most qualified professional lawyers, but he’s a fraud by all standards. A few of the previous seasons saw Mike come very close to having his secret busted wide open and going to jail, but the show’s creators would always place a twist at the very end and pull him out of the situation. It started getting predictable in the third and fourth season, but in a way, it was hard to entirely place blame on the show’s writers, after all, what was the show without the secret?

The fifth season of Suits, which concluded recently, blew the storyline wide open. Mike’s secret is out, and it doesn’t matter who outed him because he’s now facing serious charges for fraud and must go through trial in front a jury who could potentially put him away for many years. It doesn’t help that the defence lawyer who has taken the case against Mike, Anita Gibbs, is as unwavering as she is bloodthirsty.

The story arc of the fifth season has been a roller coaster. While the first few episodes seemed like it was going to focus on character development (we saw Harvey going to a psychiatrist to deal with his past, which made for great television), the following episodes saw many dramatic developments take place in a manner which was unlike the light, frothy and mostly unbelievable drama that Suits has perfected the past few years.

The last few episodes leading to the very intense season finale were entirely focused on Mike’s trial, and had an ending which felt more like a sucker punch. Everyone had expected the customary twist – the eleventh hour saviour, the defence lawyer’s hidden agenda being exposed, something, anything that could miraculously save Mike, but the twist ended up being the fact that there was none.

While this felt more like a series finale, I can’t help but wonder if this could be the best thing that has happened to the show in a long time, for it offers a fresh perspective and a new beginning to not just Mike Ross, but Suits as well.

{Suits is presently telecast on Comedy Central}

It’s All Good

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

When the TV phenomenon Friends came to an end, I was devastated, and I missed it terribly. It was this devastation coupled with the free time that one gets while waiting for exam results that led me to watching Joey, the Friends spin-off that picked the life of Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc) up from where Friends left off. I was quite excited for the show, given that Joey was my favourite character in Friends, but hardly a few episodes in, I found myself wishing that I had just stuck to watching reruns.

A spin-off more or less ruins the original show for me. There is something so unimaginative and bland about them, and watching a spin off when there’s plenty of fresh content on television otherwise, feels like a criminal waste of time. Naturally, when Better Call Saul, the spin off to Breaking Bad was announced, I had neither had expectations from it (despite the fact that it was going to be directed by Vince Gilligan himself), nor any intention to watch it. Then, one very dull evening, I gave in to Better Call Saul.

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The show’s undercurrent is the same as Breaking Bad’s – good men in a bad world. In Breaking Bad, Walter White, a chemistry teacher who gets cancer, turns to drugs to support his family. We saw him make his way through it all, not knowing exactly how things would turn out in the end. In Better Call Saul, however, there is no suspense because it is a prequel, and the story of how Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), a small time defence attorney, ended up becoming the despicable and widely hated lawyer from Breaking Bad.

Jimmy McGill, a one time scam artist, is now a struggling defence attorney who works out of a makeshift office housed in an Asian salon. He defends a variety of criminals, from drunk drivers to men who commit armed robberies to students who decapitate a head off a cadaver in the biology lab because they thought it was fun. After one particularly trying day, he goes back to his scamming roots to procure a client, only to get caught in the middle of a vicious drug circle ruled by a brutal overlord. Walter White and Jimmy McGill are both men who were pushed to the corner by circumstance, men who had no choice, but the difference between them is that Jimmy is a natural fraud who has to try really, really hard to be good.

Unlike Breaking Bad, whose slow, tedious first season nearly made me give up on the show, Better Call Saul is interesting right from the start. You want to know Jimmy better, you want to know why his brother walks around wearing a blanket made of aluminium foil, and you want to know what happened between him and his ex-girlfriend who he still has a soft spot for. The characters in Better Call Saul are also very oddball, and very original. In many ways, it’s unfair to call Better Call Saul a spin off to Breaking Bad – I would call it a companion show because although there is some reminiscence to Breaking Bad here and there, it stands on its own. Vince Gilligan hasn’t just taken a hit show and spawn something new, he’s also made sure that it wouldn’t be overshadowed by its predecessor.

There are ten episodes in the first season, where each episode is about forty five minutes long. Should you watch it? If you are already a fan of Breaking Bad, then it’s easy – you will thoroughly enjoy Better Call Saul. If you haven’t watched Breaking Bad, I would recommend Better Call Saul anyway. It’s interesting, it’s funny, it’s dark, and it’s unlike anything else on television right now.

{Better Call Saul is presently being telecast on Colors Infinity}

The Law of The Land

{First Published In The Hindu Metroplus}

The fifth season of Suits, which is currently underway, has been a revelation. Although I’ve been a fan of the series since it’s inception, I’ve always had this niggling worry in my mind about the show’s eventual deterioration – after all, there’s only so much you can do around the show’s basic premise of a fraudulent genius who practices the law. Season three was tiring, and season four improved steadily, with the last few episodes leading up to the finale having a few plot twists that were unexpected, but also the kind that you’d think would iron themselves out the moment the fifth season began.

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Well, they haven’t, and that’s why the fifth season is my favourite season of Suits, yet. We get to see the human, vulnerable side of Harvey Spectre (Gabriel Macht), everyone’s favourite tough guy lawyer, and the story behind why he is who he is. We also see how he deals with the loss of his secretary and Woman Friday, Donna Paulsen (Sarah Rafferty), who has just started working for his rival partner, Louis Litt (Rick Hoffman). The Donna-Harvey split was probably one of the best things that happened in Suits. It gave the show the shake-up it’s been needing for a while, and has given it new direction. Initially, I’d expected only unnecessary drama, but I’ve been proven wrong – it’s been really enjoyable, endearing even, not only to see Donna and Louis working together, but also to see a sensitive side to Harvey.

There are four new characters this season so far, and all four of them have been excellent, and at times, steal the show from the mainstays themselves. Dr. Paula Agard (Christina Cole), Harvey’s psychiatrist, and Jack Soloff (John Pyper-Ferguson), this season’s bad guy, are both very well written characters, but the standout new character has been Gretchen Bodinski, Harvey’s new, brutally honest secretary.

Gretchen, who is played to the hilt by Aloma Wright, is sassy, eminently likeable, and has bags of personality. The Harvey-Donna chemistry was one of the show’s focal points, and something that a lot of fans even held sacred, but I hope that Gretchen stays on for the seasons to come. The latest addition to the cast has been Esther Litt (the gorgeous Amy Acker), who is Louis’ sister, and potentially, Harvey’s new love interest. Who would’ve thought, eh? Every episode of this season has had a twist, or a character, or a detail which has surprised me, if not completely taken me away, and has really reinforced my love for watching legal drama.

It is because I love this genre, that I know that although Suits is thoroughly entertaining television, it isn’t the particularly relatable, or even close to reality. Enter Silk, a courtroom drama series that is produced by the BBC. Silk chronicles the trials (literally) and tribulations of Martha Costello (Maxine Peake), a barrister in practice who is on her way to making “silk”, which is the informal term for the Queen’s Counsel (the British equivalent of Senior Counsel in India), a powerful and prestigious status that is bestowed on to lawyers based on merit. Martha’s rise isn’t going to be easy, and in order to make silk, she has to not only deal with difficult clients, but rival lawyers from her own chambers as well. The cast has many recognisable British actors, including Natalie Dormer and Nina Sosanya.

If you want to watch this show because you enjoy Suits, you should know that the similarities between Silk and Suits end with the fact that they’re both about modern lawyers. Silk delves into courtroom proceedings, and how cases are actually argued in court. Silk is also grittier, darker, much less glamourous and more cleverly written. The reason I love this show though, is not merely because I can associate with the black gowns and white bands, but because of its protagonists. It’s impossible to tell who’s good or who’s bad- making them all so very grey, and so very human.