Judge Erick Harper worries that if this founding member of Must-See Thursday were debuting today, it would probably be called Law & Order: Night Court CSI.
Our reviews of Night Court: The Complete Second Season (published February 6th, 2009), Night Court: The Complete Third Season (published March 3rd, 2010), and TV Favorites: Night Court (published April 5th, 2006) are also available.
Comedy's swing shift!
The late Brandon Tartikoff, one-time head of NBC's entertainment division, stands as a legendary figure in the world of television programming. To hear his admirers tell it, he single-handedly rescued NBC in the 1980s with his uncanny gift for finding quality shows. Unusual among his peers, he often showed the wisdom to give a new program a chance to develop an audience, rather than canceling it prematurely if it wasn't an overnight ratings success.
One of Tartikoff's best-known legacies is still with us today: "Must-See TV" Thursday nights. The original "Must-See" lineup included such pillars as The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers and Hill Street Blues. Sandwiched in among these ratings and critical standouts was a bizarre, anarchic little sitcom that took place during the night shift of the Manhattan Arraignment Court. Supported by the ratings titans in NBC's Thursday night lineup, as well as the wisdom of Tartikoff, Night Court managed to carve out its own little piece of television history.
Facts of the Case
All rise! Criminal court, part two, City of New York, is now in session, the honorable Harold T. Stone presiding. Young, eccentric Judge Harry Stone (Harry Anderson, Dave's World) presides over a courtroom packed with some of the strangest people and cases in the history of law in the thirteen episodes of Night Court's first season.
• "All You Need is Love" (Pilot Episode)
Series creator Reinhold Weege (also the brains behind the cop sitcom Barney Miller back in the 1970s) developed the Night Court idea after spending considerable time researching the New York criminal courts, including sitting on the bench with actual night court judges. The proceedings in Night Court may seem a bit informal and outlandish at times, but they are accurate. Time magazine once called Night Court the most realistic legal program on the air at the time. According to Weege, couples looking for a cheap date would sometimes attend New York night court sessions as entertainment, just to see precisely the sort of people that appear in Harry's courtroom.
Verisimilitude aside, there are a lot of things to like about Night Court even in this creaky first season. Probably the best-remembered cast member is John Larroquette (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, The John Larroquette Show, The Practice) would go on to land four consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for his portrayal of Assistant D.A. Dan Fielding, a character whom Weege refers to as the "crème de la scum." The venal, self-serving, arrogant, lecherous Fielding would be off-putting if it were not for the veneer of Larroquette's smooth, sophisticated presence.
Also priceless is Richard Moll (The Sword and the Sorcerer) as Bull Shannon, the hulking, none too bright bailiff with the heart of gold. Moll's imposing physical presence (at just over 6'7") is played for laughs a little too often in this first season, but Moll manages to give the character a real personality that makes him part of the strange family in Judge Stone's courtroom.
I would be remiss if I did not mention Selma Diamond in her role as Selma, an old, tired, sarcastic bailiff. Diamond was one of the first women to break into television comedy writing, working for the legendary Sid Caesar in the 1950s. (The character of Sally on The Dick Van Dyke Show was based largely on Ms. Diamond.) Her job here is mostly to deliver crusty wisecracks at key moments, but every one of them is funny, and her timing and delivery is impeccable. Diamond only completed this first season of the show, succumbing to lung cancer during the hiatus between Season One and Season Two.
Speaking of lung cancer, it is interesting to see how much public attitudes about smoking have changed in the past twenty years. The Selma character smokes constantly, even in the courtroom, and Dan often lights up either a pipe or a cigar in court or in Harry's chambers. I would have expected that sort of thing in a show from 1954, but I did not realize that such a thing was still acceptable in 1984.
Tying the whole show together is the presence of Harry Anderson, whose youthful exuberance and sincerity conceal a surprisingly sensitive and serious side. Judge Harry cracks jokes, does magic tricks, and generally approaches the job of justice in a very unconventional way, but he never slights the people who come into his courtroom, and he never shortchanges the overall purpose of the justice system. There is something so irresistibly likeable about this good, decent person (both character and actor, by all appearances) that the wacky sitcom hijinks and the heartfelt "meaningful" portions of each episode are equally believable.
Video quality for these episodes is about as good as a half-hour sitcom from 1984 is likely to look. I did not notice any glaring digital defects; Warner Brothers is usually pretty careful about such things. However, the show dates from a period where shooting and editing technology were not quite up to today's standards, so the whole affair does have a somewhat muted look and feel that seems a bit amateurish, or at least outdated, by today's standards. Audio is mono only, and sounds pretty good, all things considered.
There are two extra features accompanying these first thirteen episodes. Series creator Weege does a commentary track for the pilot episode, in which he discusses a lot of his intentions and inspirations for the Night Court concept and characters. There is also an 18 minute featurette entitled "Night Court: Comedy's Swing Shift," with interview clips of both Weege and Harry Anderson, which covers much the same material. Still, it's nice to see that at least a little effort was put into these discs.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Many of the episodes in this collection are laugh-out-loud funny, but the show still hadn't hit its stride yet in this first season. Later, with the addition of Markie Post as a new defense attorney, Marsha Warfield as a new bailiff, and Charles Robinson as Harry's court clerk, the show would develop a more solid chemistry. The writing improved later on as well, and the "heartfelt" moments were better incorporated into the structure of each episode, rather than stopping the comedy cold. As Harry Anderson puts it in the "Comedy's Swing Shift" featurette, "the show became a lot less bipolar" in later seasons. Still, there is much to enjoy in this first season, even if it doesn't quite measure up to the memorable laughs to come.
On a technical note, there is one major problem with these DVDs: the complete and utter lack of chapter stops within episodes. I realize that they are only half and hour long, but other studios manage to throw in at least a couple per episode, often corresponding to the original commercial breaks. Leaving them out is just laziness, but it seems to be a pattern where WB television releases are concerned.
I enjoyed Night Court very much during its initial run from 1984-1992. There are lines and situations that my sister and I still quote to each other on a regular basis. It's nice to see this old favorite on DVD, and I look forward to later, improved seasons.
Not guilty! Night Court: The Complete First Season is free to go. Warner Brothers, on the other hand, is fined $50 and sentenced to time served for its failure to include little amenities like chapter stops in these episodes.
We stand adjourned.
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Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Night Court: Comedy's Swing Shift" Featurette
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