Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Frank Review of "Night Court: The Complete First Season" (2005)

The Short Version? Crazy city court with a zany staff.
What Is It? Sitcom with regular doses of human drama.
Who Is In It? The sorts you'd expect.
Should I See It? Yes.

Growing up, Night Court was one of my favorite sitcoms, and I followed it both in first run and syndication. I'm always wary of revisiting shows like this, especially after years distance without exposure, because they rarely live up to those misty watercolor memories of the way they were. While not exactly an exception, Night Court still holds up as an amusing, entertaining program with standout performances and strong episodes. Others, well, we'll take a look at that. This disc covers the show's debut 1984 season as a midseason replacement, and it's fun to see both how much was in place from the very beginning, and how many changes were made. Harry Anderson often says he was essentially playing himself as Judge Harry T. Stone, so the consistency over nine seasons isn't shocking. The only character written expressly for the actor cast was Selma Diamond, who does not deviate from the very start. Karen Austin is a treat as Lana Wagner, who was built up as Harry's primary support and love interest all season. I expect that would come as a shock to viewers who missed this half-season, since the character vanishes three-quarters of the way through. Richard Moll's take on Bull solidified very quickly, and the actor has understandably been most associated with the character ever since. Paula Kelly was terrific all season, so it was a shame that she received so little attention, especially give the two Bull episodes and an awful lot of time devoted to Lana. John Larroquette grew the most organically, reasonably prominent but not quite a featured player yet, with the seeds of the future "crème de scum" planted over a series of episodes only just beginning to hatch by the end of the season.

  1. "All You Need Is Love": This one was all about introducing viewers to the wacky, improper, youthful Judge Stone, with a fair amount of time bouncing off his first court clerk, Lana Wagner. Assistant D.A. Dan Fielding is uptight and pretentious, Bull is brusque, and Bailiff Selma Hacker is dry as a bone. The very basics of the supporting character are there, but only to play off Harry. Actress Gail Strickland breezes in for a single episode as P.D. Sheila Corinth, while Rita Taggart makes the first of several appearances as hooker with a heart of gold Carla B. Not bad for a start, even if things go a bit overboard in portraying Harry as a loose cannon.

  2. "Santa Goes Downtown": An after Christmas comedown, with wonderful character actor Jeff Corey as a mentally ill St. Nick. Michael J. Fox as a runaway is a nice surprise, but he overplays the disaffected youth angle to the point that you kind of want to brain him. Paula Kelly makes her debut as Public Defender Liz Williams, and helps play this one for heart more than laughs.

  3. "The Former Harry Stone": Terry Kiser joins the cast as muck-raking journalist Al Craven. I enjoyed the character, but the cases coming through the court didn't warrant press, and many of Craven's smarmy characteristics would later be adopted by Dan Fielding. '80s sexpot Judy Landers gives Dan his first opportunity to show signs of lechery. Seinfeld's dad Barney Martin has a cameo as a bum.

  4. "Welcome Back, Momma": The disgusting, manipulative, womanizing Dan Fielding we all know and love really starts to blossom here, amidst a parade of beauty pageant contestants charged with assault. For the second episode in a row, an element of Harry's past comes back to haunt him, bringing either the humanity the series was known for or the wet blanket over the humor the show was also known for. Bull's sweet naivete is developing. Martin Garner debuts as newsstand operator Bernie.

  5. "The Eye of the Beholder": The first Bull-centric episode, showing the big guy for the teddy bear he is. Character actors Al Ruscio and Stanley Brock turn up, for the first of several appearances in a variety of roles.

  6. "Death Threat": Character actor Phil Leeds offers the first of several appearances, this time memorably as "God." George Murdock is also great as Womack of Homicide. Jack Murdock (relation?) as a twitchy member of the bomb squad is a kick, contributing to an already strong episode. For once, even the shoeshine boy with a sob story (Gabriel Gonzalez) injects humor, instead of the usual soap opera.

  7. "Once in Love with Harry": Carla B.'s third episode is a spotlight that wrings drama out of her situation, leaving it up to John Larroquette's Dan Fielding to keep things from getting depressing. Howard Honig's cameo is a bit much. Bull is about as hairy as he gets. The sexual tension between Harry and Lana gets ratcheted up. Jason Bernard makes his first appearance as the adversarial Judge Robert T. Willard, though his run is limited.

  8. "Quadrangle of Love": What the title says. Harry, Dan and Bull competing for the same woman. Not as funny as it sounds, unfortunately. Too much Mel Torme, as well. Like, way.

  9. "Wonder Drugs": A Lana Wagner spotlight, even more so than usual. I liked this character, and it still surprises me that someone so important disappeared before the second season. I'm glad she got this showcase. Jack Riley is great as usual in a cameo. Lionel Mark Smith makes a good straight man.

  10. "Some Like It Hot": Mike Finneran debuts as maintenance man Art Fensterman, who would appear sporadically for the rest of the series. Combined with the first of repeat performer Yakov Smirnoff, this one was pretty painful sitcomedy. Larroquette and Kelly have some rich moments in handcuffs, at least. Still, a rotten episode to serve as Karen Austin's last, as she departed the series without notice, and only really had a cameo here.

  11. "Harry and the Rock Star": Pandering to a younger audience with Kristine DeBell. Fairly grating, but Alice Drummond is fun in a cameo. Paula Kelly was especially good this time, as well. The one good thing about the loss of Lana is that there's no repeat cattiness against another Harry love interest.

  12. "Bull's Baby": A strong episode, aside from a painfully out of place Murphy Cross as a substitute court clerk.

  13. "Hi Honey, I'm Home": Murphy Cross remains stiff in an expanded role, likely written for the Lana character. A good story to end the season with, enhanced by the always awesome Charles Napier in a guest appearance. Bernie and Selma have a sweet subplot, as well. Shame Paula Kelly didn't see much action in her last episode.


  • Commentary on All You Need Is Love by Creator/Executive Producer Reinhold Weege Discussing pre-production and the difficulty of getting all the necessary information about the show across in a pilot. Really though, this is a tight overview of the series, well worth a listen.
  • Night Court: Comedy's Swing Shift Eighteen minutes of a fantastic hour long documentary. What's here is swell, but they only got Reinhold Weege and Harry Anderson.


Nicholas Ahlhelm said...

Now I need to go watch Night Court again.

I actually always thought the first season was week. The show gained a lot of traction with the better supporting cast of subsequent seasons.

Diabolu Frank said...

It's really heavy on Harry, which I see as a bad thing, but at least he's still kind of crazy at this point. He's a lot mellower/blander in later seasons. The season is also hurt by a lack of Dan. Still, there's a lot of good stuff, and it's really neat to see so many different characters that fell by the wayside. Now, the second season? That one was weak.


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