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, ELLEN FOLEY as Billie Young, JOHN LARROQUETTE as Dan Fielding, RICHARD MOLL as Bull Shannon, CHARLES ROBINSON as Mac Robinson, and SELMA DIAMOND as Selma Hacker.
Perhaps best known as the “Year of Billie,” Night Court‘s second season, which got a coveted post-Cheers spot in a killer Must-See-TV line-up, is a fairly noticeable improvement over the first. The comedy is amplified by the growing relationships between the established characters and the continued expansion of each personality. While Anderson’s Harry still maintains his place at the center of the series, characters like Larroquette’s Dan and Moll’s Bull are really developing as regular sources for hilarity, aiding every script with their big personas (which are getting sharper and funnier by the episode) and even anchoring stories that work — well, this is more true for Dan, who, next to Harry, is the easiest character around whom scripts can be structured (and Larroquette won his first Emmy for his work this season). Also returning from the first season is the indelible Selma Diamond, a legend from the early days of live TV, who served as one of the inspirations for The Dick Van Dyke Show‘s Sally Rogers, as Reiner had worked with her when writing for Sid Caesar. Diamond has a delivery unlike any other — a sardonic and hapless tone that sells every line, even those that ordinarily wouldn’t deserve the laughter she earns. In fact, the right Selma joke can turn a good scene into a great one. Like Larroquette and to a lesser extent, Moll, Diamond elevates material, and if there’s any reason for checking out these perhaps underwhelming initial seasons, it’s for the rare opportunity to see her on an episodic basis. The actress’ unfortunate passing in the summer of ’85 is a big loss for the series, for at this point in the run, she’s the most reliable big laugh-getter, and these episodes, even more than those from last season, illustrate what a TV treasure Diamond really was.
But there are two new regulars to discuss… the first is Charles Robinson as Mac, the new court clerk who develops an easy rapport with the rest of the cast, particularly Harry, and stays for the rest of the series’ run. It’s possible the scripts are becoming increasingly better at crafting character because he already seems a better fit in the ensemble than Karen Austin and Paula Kelly did during their brief run in the year prior. The second new regular is the aforementioned Billie, played by rock singer Ellen Foley (who my Broadway fans may delight in knowing played the Witch in the pre-Broadway production of Sondheim’s Into The Woods). Response to the Billie character has been generally unfavorable and it’s not difficult to see why: she shares absolutely no chemistry with the other members of the ensemble, particularly Harry, with whom her character was introduced as a potential love interest. It’s actually a surprise how little they click, because on paper, it seems like they’d be golden; Billie is crafted, especially in the beginning, as a tough streetwise New Yorker with a hard edge that serves as a definable contrast to the interminably happy and goofy Harry. And unlike Harry with Lana, there’s a real clash of personalities being set-up, and from which sparks seem sure to fly. But it doesn’t work.
In fact, the Harry/Billie pairing is so misguided that the scripts stop pretending well before the end of the season that there’s any chance of a serialized romance between the two. This lack of heat was the official line given as to why Foley was replaced in the third season by Markie Post, who actually debuts this season in a one-shot as Christine Sullivan, future regular. (Check out more about this episode and its somewhat tortured history below). Over the years, it’s been speculated that Foley was always a replacement gal, warming the role until Post got out of her contract at The Fall Guy and could return on a full-time basis, but I’m not sure if I fully believe that — if only because the show actually makes several attempts at exploring the Harry/Billie relationship; and while the results aren’t electric, they’re narratively decent, written (in the beginning at least) with a seemingly serious intent. (Also, I’d hate to think that Weege cast Foley without even any consideration of keeping her beyond the season.) But ultimately, although I dislike coming down so harshly on a performer who’s not without talent, Billie doesn’t fit on the series, and while I’d love to be able to blame Weege and the writing, the fault lies in Foley’s sometimes grating performance and her inability to gel with the rest of the cast. It’s bad.
Aside from Billie, however, the second season is, again, a prime improvement over the first 13 episodes. I often say (and I think if this sentiment hasn’t appeared yet on this blog, it’ll be upcoming in several Wildcard Wednesday posts that have been written and are set to air over the summer) that the ’84-’85 season is the first where TV really embraces the ’80s as a decade with a style and comedic sensibilities — for better or worse — that are entirely separate from the ’70s, an aesthetic space to which many shows of the transitional ’80-’84 period were more attuned. With these ’80s sensibilities comes a tamping down of the cynical grit that defined many ensemble shows of the decade prior (like Barney Miller, Weege’s other big credit), and although the second season still sees its fair share of topical episodes, of which you all know I’m not fond, and a harsher, more realistic bent than all of the upcoming seasons, the comparative broadening up of the humor and the fancying up of the appearances are already beginning to show. I could argue that last season was more of the ’70s than ’80s, but that position no longer holds true for Season Two. Yet with this change in style comes a tendency to go for slightly bigger laughs, and because we know the characters better than we knew them previously, this is a change that’s both welcome and worthwhile. So I have picked ten episodes that I think 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 Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 14: “The Nun” (Aired: 09/27/84)
A nun decides to leave the convent after falling for Harry.
Written by Bob Stevens | Directed by Jeff Melman
Season Two opens with the funniest installment to date, as Dinah Manoff (Soap, Empty Nest) guest stars as a nun who decides to leave the convent after meeting and developing a crush on Harry. Okay, this is a routine sitcom story, and one that doesn’t often yield worthy laughs, but here it’s different. First, it’s explicit that Manoff’s character’s decision to leave the convent is not independent of her feelings for Harry; there’s no misunderstanding (a la Mary Tyler Moore or The Golden Girls). Second, the script is darn funny — with a steady stream of laughs, some of which come out of the main story and a few that come from Dan’s attempts to bed interim public defender (Sharon Barr, whom you may remember from two Cheers episodes). A favorite.
02) Episode 15: “Daddy For The Defense” [a.k.a. “Christine And Mac”] (Aired: 10/04/84)
A new public defender’s father makes her night in court difficult.
Written by Reinhold Weege | Directed by Jeff Melman
Markie Post makes her debut in this very funny episode, which was intended to open the season and introduce a new regular public defender, Christine Sullivan. But Post, who was under contract for one more season to the ABC drama The Fall Guy, wasn’t actually the first choice for the role (no matter how Weege tried to spin it later). Originally cast as Christine was one of Charlie’s Angels, Shelley Hack, who signed for the whole season but was let go during rehearsals of this, her first episode, and replaced at the very last minute by Post. And because Post couldn’t do more than this episode, the show had to create a new character for a new leading lady. It seems, however, that either the character or the actress left an impression on Weege, for one way or another, Christine Sullivan, as played by Markie Post, would return.
03) Episode 16: “Billie And The Cat” (Aired: 10/18/84)
Harry sends Billie to jail for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of a cat.
Written by Zachary D. Wechsler | Directed by Lee Bernhardi
As one of only a few scripts centered around Billie (who never clicks), this installment, her debut, is really the only one that works. The reason for its success is, as usual, based not on Foley’s strained performance, but on the quality of the material, which does a dynamite job of introducing a character whom the show is intending to have around for a while. Unlike Lana, Billie seems straight off the streets of New York; she’s tough, she’s harsh, and she feels like a realistic depiction of an inner city public defender — well, on paper, anyway. The comedy from this installment is aided by the quirkiness of the premise, which has Harry throwing her in jail for refusing to comply with his orders to reveal the whereabouts of a contested pet cat.
04) Episode 22: “Inside Harry Stone” (Aired: 11/29/84)
Harry goes into the hospital for surgery.
Written by Chris Cluess & Stu Kreisman | Directed by Jeff Melman
John Astin appears in this episode not as Harry’s father, but rather as his hospital roommate after Harry goes in for stomach pains. (Spoiler alert: it seems like Harry’s going to have an ulcer, but he actually just swallowed a toy whistle that came in a box of cereal). Cluess and Kreisman, as noted last week, offered some of the first two season’s most amusing scripts, and this one is no exception, giving great lines to both Astin every member of the ensemble — even Billie, who gets a fair amount to do here; she becomes overly protective of Harry and admits to not wanting him out of her life yet. The scene between the two isn’t what it needs to be, due to that obvious lack of spark, but it’s livened up by Astin’s responses behind the curtain. Funny outing.
05) Episode 23: “The Blizzard” (Aired: 12/06/84)
A blizzard leaves everyone trapped in the building.
Written by Reinhold Weege | Directed by Jeff Melman
My choice for the season’s strongest offering, this script by series creator Reinhold Weege is one of the Barney Miller‘s alum’s specialities, combining solid character-driven humor with a socially relevant issue, in this case homosexuality and more specifically, homophobia, as a blizzard strands Dan in the elevator with a gay man (played by Jack Riley, known by sitcom lovers everywhere as Ellion Carlin) who’s just made a pass at him. It would be disingenuous to pretend that their moments aren’t a bit heavy-handed or that the show doesn’t work better when it avoids these kinds of lofty plots, but this episode, despite all its strengths, helps to illustrate just how far this series still has to go to become a great sitcom; it’s not there yet, but this offering, even employing a type of storytelling that really shouldn’t work for Night Court (despite the fact that the trapped-in-the-elevator plot will be used over and over again in years to come), is enjoyable for the sum of its parts, and the high quality of the script itself. Easily the MVE.
06) Episode 24: “Take My Wife, Please” (Aired: 12/13/84)
Mac marries a Vietnamese girl and Harry is temporarily blind.
Written by Tom Reeder | Directed by Jeff Melman
Quon Le, who will remain a recurring presence throughout the show’s remaining eight seasons, is introduced in this episode as a woman that Mac marries on the fly to keep her from being deported. She’s a character about whom I’m not overly enthusiastic, but each episode in which she appears should be adjudicated on their individual merits, and some of her offerings actually are written surprisingly well — like this one, which was penned by funnyman Tom Reeder (he also did some high quality Cheers scripts). The laughs come fast and furious, and the subplot may even be better than the primary story, as Harry conducts the court while he’s temporarily blind — including a case where Michael Richards plays a man who think he’s invisible. Ha!
07) Episode 25: “The Birthday Visitor” (Aired: 01/03/85)
Billie and Harry meet a burglar when they celebrate his birthday at her place.
Written by Ron Osborn & Jeff Reno | Directed by Gary Shimokawa
Full disclosure: this is one of three episodes whose presence on today’s list wasn’t obvious, as there are moments here, unlike most of the others, that are cringeworthy. But that’s part of the reason I personally enjoy the installment and think it needs to be highlighted as one of the second season’s seminal. You see, this is the episode where the show throws in the metaphorical towel on Foley and the Billie/Harry romance. She’ll be a major factor in other scripts, and there’ll be other sweet moments between the two, but those are all half-hearted after this go-for-broke gag-heavy offering (complete with a burglar and a sequence where Harry and Billie are bound-and-gagged), in which the ratio of hits-to-misses is only 5:5. At least it tries!
08) Episode 26: “Dan’s Parents” (Aired: 01/10/85)
Dan’s parents make a surprise visit to New York.
Written by Reinhold Weege | Directed by Jeff Melman
Here is another episode I wasn’t sure would make this list, because, honestly, I’m disappointed that it’s not close to reaching the levels of hilarity that I usually expect and, given the circumstances, should have easily been reached. Not only is this installment written by creator Weege, whose offerings, if they’re not saddled with some lofty social issue, are generally among the show’s funniest and most focused (like the pilot), but this episode also boasts guest appearances by real life couple Jeanette Nolan and John McIntire as Dan’s hick parents, of whom he’s so embarrassed that he changed his name and pretended they died. There are a few too overblown moments, but it’s all about expanding Dan’s character, and that’s needed.
09) Episode 27: “Nuts About Harry” (Aired: 01/17/85)
Patients from a mental institution decide to go on strike.
Written by Tom Reeder | Directed by Jeff Melman
Billie doesn’t appear in this episode because it was actually the third produced of the season, one script before the future regular was introduced. The season’s early offerings are actually among the year’s funniest, and this one is perhaps the most broad of the bunch. In fact, this is one of those episodes that almost feels like it belongs to a different era of the show. Of course, the story’s entangling with the issue of medical treatment for the medically ill essentially shows its early Night Court (a.k.a. wannabe relevant) origins. It’s not a terrific outing (or close to it), but because there’s less competition this year than in others, this installment was bumped up. Note that tough Deborah Harmon, who starred in Just The Ten Of Us, is the temp public defender.
10) Episode 33: “Mac And Quon Le: Together Again” (Aired: 02/28/85)
Mac’s wife returns and Harry has to make an important decision.
Written by Tom Reeder | Directed by Alan Bergmann
As you can see from the title, this episode sees the return of Denise Kumagai as Quon Le, the woman Mac married to spare from deportation. The script, also written by Tom Reeder, is at least of the quality of the prior installment, with comedy that’s consistent and always well-motivated by the characters and the action. Meanwhile, I also appreciate the subplot, in which Harry has to choose between Billie and Dan as he recommends one for the mayoral commission. It’s another story that makes use of solid character moments, and because Reeder is one of those writers who usually knows how to layer in comedy (even when a story itself doesn’t work), a mediocre story-driven premise is elevated to higher level of excellence.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Harry On Trial,” a popular episode that is narratively satisfying for making Harry feel like a truly accepted member of the night court but features a cloying premise and easy laughs, “An Old Flame,” an episode that’s memorable for being the only one centered around Selma and for featuring Jack Gilford as her old love interest (and it almost made my list, but it simply isn’t funny enough — no matter how hard I try to pretend otherwise) and “Married Alive,” a solid Dan episode that nevertheless isn’t as amusing as it both could and should be.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Night Court goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the third season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!