Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation of our series of posts on the best episodes from Night Court (1984-1992, NBC), one of the early hallmarks of the peacock network’s Must-See-TV lineup! I’m happy to report that all seasons have been released on DVD, although the majority of the series is only available MOD.
Judge Harry T. Stone presides over a Manhattan municipal court during the night shift, where he’s surrounded by a host of colorful characters. Night Court stars HARRY ANDERSON as Judge Harry T. Stone, MARKIE POST as Christine Sullivan, JOHN LARROQUETTE as Dan Fielding, RICHARD MOLL as Bull Shannon, CHARLES ROBINSON as Mac Robinson, and FLORENCE HALOP as Flo Kleiner.
Night Court is improving leaps and bounds with each passing season, and while the show’s third year does not yet earn the series the distinction of being called a great situation comedy, there are several elements present in this collection of episodes that prove, with great enthusiasm, that the show is finally on a path towards both guaranteed longevity, and more importantly to us, elevated quality. Like most of the ensemble comedies of the decade prior (most notably Barney Miller, an ambitious coalescence of both the MTM and Lear-Tandem styles of writing), the laughs are increasing as our relationships with the characters, and their relationships with one another, are strengthening. In other words, familiarity is essential in the crafting of this type of comedy, so it’s only natural that, as long as the scripts retain their grasp of logic, the final product is only going to get better and better. And in fact, every character who returns from last season (Harry, Dan, Bull, and Mac) is afforded better material. For Harry, the third season gives him a complexity that was only teased in years prior; his arc with Leon, an orphaned foster child, grants Anderson, whose skills as an actor are also building with each passing season, a chance to justify his presence as the show’s emotional core. Meanwhile, for Dan, the third season sets him up, beyond a shadow of a doubt, as the show’s boldest and most comedically reliable character, even letting him take control of the metaphorical reigns for several episodes, many of which end up among the more laugh-filled of the season. (Larroquette won his second of four Emmys for his work this season.)
But, as is always the case with these early seasons of Night Court, we also meet some new faces. Well, one is an old face: Markie Post, who returns full-time as Christine Sullivan, the public defender who debuted in the second episode of the second season. (You can read all about that story last week.) So in Season Three, Weege finally gets to write regularly for the character he deigned and designed as the permanent leading lady, and you can already tell that the show is devoted to keeping her around. In fact, there are several obvious distinctions already made clear between Christine and her two predecessors. One is that Post, as a performer, is inherently more likable than Austin or Foley (sorry, ladies), and she doesn’t have to prove herself to the audience the way that those two, perhaps unfairly, needed to do to ensure viability. Another quality that separates Post is her chemistry with Anderson, which although not ever as sharp or electric as some fans would lead you to believe, is still superior to anything we’ve seen before (on this series, anyway). But so much of this performative success can be attributed to the fact that the scripts are much more relaxed in their efforts to define the character. No “Christine gets high on drugs” or “Christine goes to jail to protect a cat.” We get to know Christine in a gradual, more organic process, through the weekly scripts — not because of them. And the show is benefited from this tactical change, for we’re not being forced to make up our mind on her right away; we’re just growing to like her. (More on Christine and her dynamic with Harry soon…)
The other new face is Florence Halop, a wonderful character actress — also remembered for playing the title character’s mother in the ’50s sitcom Meet Millie — who replaced the late Selma Diamond in the role of the female bailiff. Unfortunately, Flo’s inclusion doesn’t work as well as Christine’s. Well, let me clarify. Halop is hysterical, and like Diamond, she has a unique delivery that can turn blah lines into big laughs. But that’s part of the problem. She’s too much like Diamond: a little old lady who delivers the big punch lines. As the obvious replacement (in more than just position), one wishes the show took the opportunity to go in an entirely different direction — if for no other reason than out of respect for Diamond. Of course, none if this is the fault of Halop, who contributes many wonderful moments throughout the year, mostly succeeding as a character when the scripts find a way to make declinations (as is the case with Christine). This expansion starts several months into the season, as Flo begins to crystallize as a kookier, more incorrigible presence — in contrast to the sardonic and often emotion-free Selma. Sadly, for all of the show’s efforts to make Flo work (and I do have to add, that she is good on the show, even though the decision to cast her is a mistake), Halop also passed away after completing the season. It’s another tragedy, and while her death finally encourages Weege to do what he should have done at the start of this season — cast someone completely different — the show is diminished by another important loss.
Still, there’s no doubt about it: Season Three is a transitional year that shows infinite improvement over the season before, tapping into a rhythm (around January 1986) that points towards the excellence that’s still to come. Sure, there are some bumps along the road, many from Weege’s socially relevant and overly dramatic Barney Miller roots, but there are occasions when this mode of storytelling is done well (and this often occurs, as noted at the beginning of our coverage on this series, when the drama is more connected to character development instead of the all-important weekly story). So ultimately, if you’re already a fan of Night Court, this is a season you’ll like a lot, because things are falling into place. As usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think collectively exemplify this season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Three. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 36: “Hello, Goodbye” (Aired: 09/26/85)
Harry interviews replacements for Selma, while Bull grieves.
Written by Reinhold Weege | Directed by Jeff Melman
As a regular reader noted months ago when we covered the fourth season of Cheers, the premieres of both series, which aired back-to-back, had to handle unfortunate deaths. While the Charles Brothers give Coach two heartfelt mentions and then somberly soldier on (quietly), Weege does what his Barney Miller background might suggest: milk the tragedy for all its worth, mirroring the show’s grief through the characters’. It’s the more ostentatious approach, but it’s one that’s justified for Night Court, especially at this point in its run. Of course, I think suicidal Bull is heavy-handed, but it comes from true character drama, and it’s therefore noble. And aside from the tears, I like the way we’re re-introduced to Christine: effortlessly.
02) Episode 38: “Dad’s First Date” (Aired: 10/17/85)
Christine’s dad goes on a date and winds up in jail.
Written by Reinhold Weege | Directed by Jeff Melman
Eugene Roche returns as Christine’s father in this funny companion of sorts to the episode that first introduced the character last season. With series creator Reinhold Weege crafting the script, there’s a level of tightness within the construction, and a consistency among the characters’ voices. The premise itself is a bit obvious and easy — we know the beats, we know how individual characters are going to react, and we know how it’s all going to turn out in the end. But the installment nevertheless satisfies, because we’re not watching for the story, we’re watching for the way the show can combine humor within the building of character — and both Christine and Flo are still being slowly, but surely, integrated into the rest of the ensemble. (Also, the nudist subplot is a highlight as well, filled with solid laughs!)
03) Episode 41: “Best Of Friends” (Aired: 11/07/85)
Dan learns an old friend of his has had a sex change.
Written by Howard Ostroff & Gilbert Spragg | Directed by Reinhold Weege
A socially relevant episode covering an issue that still dominates the headlines today! We’ve seen transgender issues addressed in sitcoms before (The Jeffersons, Soap, and WKRP In Cincinnati all come to mind), and while this installment doesn’t do anything new within its premise, the humor is naturally different. This is because the story is centered around the reaction that Dan has to the news, as his former male friend is now a woman. For a show that wants to handle topical stories, having a character like Dan is a blessing — because a moment of perhaps unearned earnestness is balanced with a deliciously dark (and politically incorrect) irreverence. From this, comes the comedy. So this installment, because of Dan, is a seasonal highlight.
04) Episode 42: “Dan’s Boss” (Aired: 11/14/85)
Dan meets his new boss, who isn’t at all what he expected.
Written by Bob Stevens | Directed by Jeff Melman
Like the above episode, this installment is centered around Dan (and is therefore benefited greatly from this construction). In fact, this offering is my pick for the season’s best, and it’s for several reasons. First, I think the premise does a solid job of combining the inherent gimmick of using a dwarf for the sake of comedy with a potentially more substantive beat about how people judge others who are different. Second, the combustion of Larroquette’s Dan Fielding with Daniel Frishman’s Vincent Daniels, a delightfully nasty presence whom we’ll see again twice more over the next two seasons, is prime for laughs. Also, this script is particularly strong because it’s the first one that makes a concerted effort to distinguish Flo from Selma, by revealing her to be a motorcycle-riding kook. This subplot is funny, it’s necessary, and it adds to an already wonderful episode. Not a difficult choice to make this one the MVE.
05) Episode 46: “Walk Away, Renee” (Aired: 12/19/85)
Bull is unwittingly dating a prostitute.
Written by Teresa O’Neill | Directed by Jim Drake
Full disclosure: this is the most obvious episode benefited from my decision to select ten outings from every full season covered here (unless the quality is so disappointing that I have no other choice). It’s one that would ordinarily be of “honorable mention” quality, but since the pickings aren’t quite as bountiful as they’ll be in several years to come, this episode is boosted. Why? Well, there are a handful of laughs revolving around the other characters’ discovery that Bull’s new girlfriend (Randee Heller) is a hooker, which, of course, is unbeknownst to him, and I like that this is actually a Bull story that’s not as lacking in logic as most scripts thrown his way. So it’s one of his better showcases. (The first act’s much stronger than the second act though.)
06) Episode 50: “The Apartment” (Aired: 01/30/86)
Harry throws a surprise birthday party for Dan that goes awry.
Written by Teresa O’Neill | Directed by Jim Drake
O’Neill’s scripts for the third year are hit-and-miss, mostly taking bold, potentially dramatic stories and attempting to find moments of character comedy within the lofty narratives (as in the offering highlighted above). But this is clearly her funniest, as the number of laughs is increased as a function of the episode’s sole (and surprising) focus on comedy. It’s also a busy offering, as there are several stories — Dan and his date, Mac and Quon Le’s family, Harry’s magic show — that have to converge, succeeding mostly because they’re all set in Harry’s apartment, where he’s also keeping Leon, the foster child he temporarily adopted in the episode prior. With lots of big laughs to tie everything together, it’s one of the year’s more memorable.
07) Episode 51: “Leon, We Hardly Knew Ye” (Aired: 02/06/86)
Mel Torme visits the courthouse as Leon gets adopted.
Written by Bob Stevens | Directed by John Larroquette
This episode’s comedy — and actually, there are a fair amount of laughs — is immaterial to its earning a place on this list. It’s actually the drama that’s worthwhile, and it’s because we get to see Harry in a new metaphorical light, as his deep connection and compassion for Leon is revealed when the boy is about to be adopted by a couple. The entire story is played seriously, ending in a haunting moment of Harry alone in the courtroom after Leon’s departure. But that’s not all this installment offers; there’s also that aforementioned comedy, most of it stemming from the surprise appearance of Mel Torme, Harry’s favorite musician, whom Harry never sees because he’s so focused on Leon. A clever idea, well executed by Larroquette’s direction.
08) Episode 53: “Could This Be Magic?” (Aired: 02/27/86)
Harry’s idol, a former TV magician, takes advantage of his generosity.
Written by Lisa A. Bannick & Jack Carrerow | Directed by Jim Drake
Another episode with its metaphorical eye on strengthening the depth of Harry’s character, this installment finds Harry exerting some generosity to his idol, a former magician who once hosted a kids television show. But said magician, played by Carl Ballantine (best known from McHale’s Navy), takes advantage of Harry’s kindness and sells all of his belongings for some quick cash. It’s an easy dramatic moment (and I should note that this is another good-but-not great offering), but the whole thing is mostly well-handled. I’m also fond of the subplot between Flo and Bull, which has her teasing him about his low pay, only to learn that he’s been incorrectly receiving less while she’s been receiving more. Great bonding for those two.
09) Episode 55: “Flo’s Retirement” (Aired: 03/13/86)
The group tries to postpone Flo’s mandatory retirement.
Written by Nat Mauldin | Directed by Tim Steele
The truth about this episode is that it’s not hilarious, but it’s notable for being the only A-plot given to Halop’s Flo, and like the one episode last season given to Selma, it’s special for that reason alone. Halop is a wonderful performer, and by now she’s established a rhythm with the others members of the ensemble, so it’s particularly enjoyable to see her getting to interact more with everyone else and shoulder some of the burden of the story. Now, I’m really not fond of the premise (and I’ve spoken before here about why these dramatic “one character might leave in the middle of a season” stories don’t work), but the script is decent enough to act as an uplifter. Of course, the sad irony is that she would only be around for two more episodes.
10) Episode 57: “Hurricane (II)” (Aired: 05/08/86)
Four babies are born as everyone is trapped inside the courthouse during a storm.
Written by Reinhold Weege | Directed by Jeff Melman
Season Three concludes with a soapy two-parter that’s basic premise involves four pregnant women in labor being trapped in the courthouse during a severe hurricane that has sequestered them for the night. It’s a well-liked pair of episodes, and Weege’s masterful hand is clearly evident. Although I’m completely turned off by the ideas upon which this two-parter is formed, I understand the desire for a slightly bigger episode to close out the season, and I like that all of the characters are equally involved in the action. The first half of this installment, aired the week prior, is mostly set-up, and a lot of the beats are easy and telegraphed from the start, but this part is actually brimming with laughs, and there are a lot of individual moments that help subvert my qualms about the story. Not a favorite, but in a few ways, quite strong. It’s neither smart not novel, but it’s fun and feel-good; an overall success.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “The Hostage,” which thinks its premise is quirky enough to cover for a mediocre script, “The Night Off,” which has the same problems as the prior, but makes more laughs with even less logic, and “Harry And Leon,” which starts off the Leon arc and is terribly unfunny, but nevertheless features the most amusing and memorable scene of the season, as both Dan and Harry get pie-d in the face. (Also, “Hurricane (I)” is an honorable mention by proxy!)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Night Court goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fourth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!