Judge Jim Thomas once named a Call of Cthulu character "Harry Stone." Never pull coins from an Elder God's ear.
Our reviews of Night Court: The Complete First Season (published February 2nd, 2005), Night Court: The Complete Third Season (published March 3rd, 2010), and TV Favorites: Night Court (published April 5th, 2006) are also available.
"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.
Facts of the Case
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.
We get all 22 episodes on three discs:
• "The Nun"—A young nun abandons her vows after
becoming smitten with Harry.
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 Rebuttal Witnesses
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.
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