Warner Bros. // 1985 // 503 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // February 6th, 2009
"Harry, you're a judge. You stand for justice and the American way. Billie, you're a public defender. You stand for the people and the principles of freedom. I'm a bailiff...I stand." -- Bull Shannon
Confession time: At one point, I had the first five seasons of Night Court on videotape. On Beta, no less. When I had a stack of student essays to grade, I'd pop in a tape and have at it. Whenever the bad prose took me to the brink of despair, I just had to look up and watch for a few minutes, and I no longer had the urge to pound my head against the cinderblock walls. So when Season One was released back in 2005, I was one happy camper. I waited for Season Two, and waited, and waited.
Now, four long, long years later, Warner Home Video brings us Night Court: The Complete Second Season. Night Court ran for nine seasons. At this rate, I'll be 80 by the time the final season is released.
During the day, the halls of the court are trod by giants: the Jack McCoys, the Denny Cranes, etc. That's when all the high-profile stuff happens. However, the judicial system doesn't stop when the sun goes down; it just gets slightly weirder. Welcome to arraignment court, where small-time crooks and crimes are quickly and summarily processed. Into this drab world comes Judge Harold T. Stone (Harry Anderson, Dave's World), amateur magician and unabashed Mel Tormé fan. His offbeat brand of justice keeps everyone on their toes. Harry is aided and abetted by his motley crew:
* Dan Fielding (John Larroquette, Stripes), Assistant DA -- Shameless
womanizer and bootlicker.
* Billie Young (Ellen Foley), Public Defender -- Devoted to her clients, smitten with Harry.
* Mac Robinson (Charles Robinson), Court Clerk -- A Vietnam vet, Mac is arguably the only normal person in the court.
* Nostradamus "Bull" Shannon (Richard Moll), Bailiff -- The towering bailiff who can keep anyone in line, despite being fairly gentle.
* Selma Hacker (Selma Diamond, My Favorite Year), Senior Bailiff -- The wizened bailiff who doesn't take crap from anyone, including Bull.
We get all 22 episodes on three discs:
* "The Nun" -- A young nun abandons her vows after becoming
smitten with Harry.
* "Daddy for the Defense" -- New public defender Christine Sullivan (Markie Post) finds out she still has a lot to learn after her first day in Harry's court, while Harry throws her overprotective father in jail.
* "Billie and the Cat" -- On her first day, Billie Young takes a stand for her client that gets her jailed for contempt.
* "Pick a Number" -- A man with a $3 million lottery ticket asks Harry to give it to the most worthy person.
* "The Computer Kid" -- A school-aged hacker takes the school district's records hostage.
* "Bull Gets a Kid" -- Bull's volunteers for Big Brothers, but his charge turns out to be a girl.
* "Harry on Trial" -- Harry is called before the Judicial Review. Guest star: Ray Walston (Picket Fences).
* "Harry and the Madam" -- An escort service has been raided, and Harry must determine if the diary of the madam (Stella Stevens, The Poseidon Adventure) can be admitted into evidence.
* "Inside Harry Stone" -- Harry has crippling stomach pains, but refuses medical treatment.
* "The Blizzard" -- A blizzard traps everyone inside the courthouse.
* "Take My Wife, Please" -- Mac marries a woman he met in Vietnam. Michael Richards (Seinfeld) guest stars as a defendant who thinks he's invisible.
* "The Birthday Visitor" -- Feeling sorry for Harry on his birthday, Billie takes him to her apartment for a nightcap, but they interrupt a burglar.
* "Dan's Parents" -- Dan's parents come to visit from rural Louisiana.
* "Nuts About Harry" -- A group of mental patients runs loose in the courthouse. James Cromwell (L.A. Confidential) plays one of the patients.
* "An Old Flame" -- While Harry is busy with an annual file review, his replacement, Judge Kopelson, charms the entire staff -- until he's revealed as a fraud.
* "The Gypsy" -- A spiritual medium places a curse on the courtroom; Bull promptly collapses, paralyzed, while Dan's accountant drops dead during an audit.
* "Battling Bailiff" -- Dissatisfied with his job, Bull accepts a wrestling promoter's offer.
* "Billie's Valentine" -- Billie's boyfriend David is brought in on a pickpocket charge.
* "Married Alive" -- Dan becomes engaged to an ugly duckling heiress (Mimi Kennedy, Dharma and Greg), but swears his affections are genuine.
* "Mac and Quon Le: Together Again" -- Quon Le is caught sharing a house with some prostitutes. Billie and Dan compete for a recommendation from Harry.
* "World War III" -- Yakov (cold war comic Yakov Smirnoff) is brought in with his brother, who wants to defect; in short order, Harry's courtroom is overrun by a Russian circus troupe, KGB and CIA agents, and a pair of hot-tempered arms negotiators.
* "Walk, Don't Wheel" -- When a wheelchair-bound protégée of Harry's expresses romantic interest in him, he becomes aware of some uncomfortable feelings about her disability.
Particularly in its first few seasons, Night Court was praised as being one of the more realistic law shows on the air, just as Barney Miller was praised as a realistic portrayal of police work. That's not surprising, as creator Reinhold Weege was a longtime writer on the earlier show. For the most part, the cases deal with regular people with regular problems. Standout episodes include "The Nun," "Harry and the Madam" (a riff on the then-current Mayflower Madam scandal), "Inside Harry Stone," and "The Gypsy." The only episode that doesn't work is "Dan's Parents," primarily because Dan's parents are so over the top. The show benefits from strong guest stars; Michael Richards, Ray Walston, James Cromwell, and Stella Stevens are the big names, but you'll also see TV veteran Jack Riley (The Bob Newhart Show), Dinah Manoff (Soap), and Jack Gilford (Cocoon). The talent level lifts the show above occasionally average material.
Acting is good across the board. Harry Anderson captures Harry Stone's youthful whimsy perfectly, whether he's growing sea monkeys in his chambers, making fish lips at a nun, or waxing rhapsodic about Mel Tormé (Anderson and Tormé were good friends). John Larroquette won four consecutive Emmys for supporting actor as Dan Fielding, finally withdrawing his name from contention in the show's last few years. This season, he begins to find the right balance between Dan's lechery, ambition, and general caddishness. Richard Moll works well with whatever material he's given, but in the first two seasons, the writers bounce his character all over the place, vacillating between lumbering ox and surprisingly gentle intellectual, sort of like Radar in the first two seasons of M*A*S*H.
There were a few cast changes between the first and second season. Karen Austin never quite worked as court clerk Lana Wagner; in sharp contrast, Charles Robinson is in the groove from day one, and his easygoing manner balances Harry's manic energy. There weren't any problems with Paula Kelly's performance as public defender Liz Williams -- she got an Emmy nomination for her first season work -- but a sitcom was a waste of her considerable talents, so she opted out. Finding a replacement for Kelly was harder than expected. Shelley Hack (Charlie's Angels) was cast as Christine, and was to join the regular cast in the second episode ("Daddy for the Defense"). She was fired after just a few days of filming, presumably because she was just as bad as she was on Charlie's Angels; Markie Post was quickly brought in for the one episode but Post was still doing The Fall Guy, so she couldn't stick around. That led to Ellen Foley; she does a good job, but the writers never quite found a good hook for the character. Billie's basically too normal for this group, and at the end of the second season she was let go, Post had by then left The Fall Guy, and Christine Sullivan returned to the courtroom at the beginning of Season Three.
Video is marginally better than the Season One set; there is a bit less grain and artifacting around titles, probably more due to improvement in the standard remastering algorithms than to any additional care. Sound is clear and without hiss; the mono audio track is perfectly sufficient for the show.
Your trivia for the day: Ellen Foley was a backup singer on Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell, including the "female lead" on "Paradise by the Dashboard Light."
The biggest problem is the utter absence of extras. Season One had a retrospective with series creator Reinhold Weege, as well as his commentary on an episode or two. What about getting a couple of cast members together, opening a bottle of whatever, turning on an episode and a microphone, and seeing what happens.
Night Court is a wonderful reminder of a bygone era when there were sitcom formulas other than "shleppy husband and hot wife" or "a bunch of hot twentysomethings." I can't help it; I love this show. The other night, I had a stack of laundry to fold. I just popped in a disc and had at it. Whenever sorting socks brought me to the brink of despair, I just looked up, watch for a few minutes, and I no longer had the urge to pound my head against the coffee table.
Defendant is guilty of failure to provide any extras. That'll be $50 and time served.
Review content copyright © 2009 Jim Thomas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 503 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Not Rated