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 MARSHA WARFIELD as Roz Russell.
The fourth season of Night Court is the year in which the series finally clicks and the primary reason for this enhanced viability is the introduction of Marsha Warfield as new bailiff Roz Russell. She’s the final addition to the cast, which (thankfully) stays the same for the remainder of its run. Even here in Season Four, without anyone involved having knowledge of her permanency, Warfield’s inclusion begets a sense of completion and stability that was sorely lacking in the years prior. Now, the characterization isn’t yet as sharp or beautifully defined as the other regulars — particularly the ones who have been around since Season One — but this season only gives the character places to go, and pretty soon she’ll be one of the show’s most reliable comedic sources. In the meantime, Roz is already an evident change, both physically and energetically, from Selma (and Flo, who, as noted last week, I believe was too spiritually like Selma to be enjoyed fully) and that’s primarily what this series needs to be able to progress into its golden age, which officially begins now. However, while this season, like all of the years heretofore discussed, is a huge improvement over its predecessor, the level of increase isn’t quite as large as it was between the second and third seasons. I attribute this to a few factors.
First, the second season was much rockier than the third, so there was more of a need for fast betterment. In other words, Season Three had to be significantly better than Season Two, while Season Four wasn’t subjected to the same pressures to improve. Second, I believe Night Court first began regularly tapping into its future viability during the middle of the third season, and despite the shift from Flo to Roz, the relationships with the other characters (and the audiences’ growing familiarity with them) have already been established, and this season doesn’t do anything other than play with what was already there. And third, the fourth season isn’t a perfect year itself, for it includes a handful of episodes that just don’t work. But that’s generally the case with every season of Night Court, so the occasional duds is something — even as we enter the show’s middle era, where there exists the most high quality material — that have to be accepted and understood before even beginning a discussion on this series. And yet, to the fourth season’s credit, the show is better than we’ve seen it in years prior — certainly much better than where it began in the first two years — so there is cause for earned celebration.
What works so well here? Well, as usual, there are some characters who are always good for laughs, and they’re only ripening with age, as, once again, we’ve become even more familiar with them, thus allowing the show to push a little harder for laughs, knowing that the audience is already on board with the character. I’m thinking primarily of Dan as portrayed by John Larroquette, who won his third of four consecutive Emmys at the conclusion of this season, and as you’ll note, makes invaluable contributions to many of the year’s finest episodes. (This may even be his best season…) Also, one of the things that’s notable and appreciable about Season Four is the slow progression of the chemistry between Harry and Christine, as the former recognizes his attraction to the latter during the season, and the two come close to sharing a kiss during the finale. It’s smart for the series to take its time with these two, and although we know with hindsight how poorly handled their dynamic managed to be, in this season, the gradual build-up to something that seems inevitable (albeit, not-yet-ready for exploration in Season Four) makes for a great watch, and also seems to indicate, despite nebulous chemistry, narrative potentials of some significance. So it’s for these reasons, and so many other little things, that the fourth season is one of Night Court‘s strongest. 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 Four. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 58: “The Next Voice You Hear…” (Aired: 10/02/86)
The court gets a new bailiff and Harry gets an important letter.
Written by Reinhold Weege | Directed by Jeff Melman
Season Four starts with a strong entry that both introduces Roz, in a way that’s very comedic (the bit about the names yields big laughs), and also gives Harry some harder emotional drama to play. This is exactly the kind of genre combining that series creator Weege, who wrote this episode — and you can tell, for his scripts are generally tighter than the rest — loves to explore, and to his credit, he almost always does a commendable job. Harry’s story involves a letter from his biological mother, whose husband, played by John Astin (whom we saw in a different role back in a Season Two episode, “Inside Harry Stone”) decides to pay Harry a visit. Their scenes are pretty lofty and aren’t so enjoyable, but Astin helps elevate them, and because the other parts of the script gel so well (like the ventriloquist gag), this is an easy episode to recommend.
02) Episode 59: “Giving Thanks” (Aired: 10/09/86)
Dan expects a physical show of thanks from Christine after he saves her life.
Written by Teresa O’Neill | Directed by Jeff Melman
Admittedly, this is an episode with which I struggle. On one hand, I appreciate the inherent comedy of the premise (Dan anticipating a sexual thanks from Christine after he performs the Heimlich maneuver on her in the cafeteria) and the continued exploration of the humorously combative relationship between the two attorneys. On the other hand, Dan’s lecherousness works better when it’s reserved for characters in whom we have less of an emotional investment, and also, the final scene is just a let-down; it’s broad, it’s unfunny, and frankly, it’s just a little bit sloppy. In fact, this was the lucky episode that got bumped up from the honorable mention category. Is this fan-favorite better than the honorable mentions below? Slightly.
03) Episode 65: “Contempt Of Courting” (Aired: 11/27/86)
A substitute judge throws Christine in jail for contempt.
Written by Tom Straw | Directed by Jeff Melman
This episode’s premise, which reminds a lot of a Season Two entry in which the current public defender, Billie, was thrown in jail for contempt of court, is irrelevant to the offering’s prime source of enjoyment. Really, this episode remains notable for being the first milestone in the quasi-dynamic between Harry and Christine, for this is the installment in which the judge comes to terms with his repressed feelings for her. Now, I’m not a “shipper” of Harry and Christine (nor do I think they share the kind of electric chemistry that Sam and Diane enjoyed), but the possibility of their pairing always remains fascinating because it’s a way to explore character interactions with an emotional weight that isn’t preachy or issue-heavy. Seasonal highlight.
04) Episode 66: “Earthquake” (Aired: 12/04/86)
Dan and Roz are trapped in an elevator with two wrestlers during an earthquake.
Written by Dennis Koenig | Directed by Jeff Melman
Writing this post, I’m noticing that many episodes employ stories or, at least, story elements, that are reminiscent of offerings from past seasons. I am choosing to believe that a lot of this is intentional, as the show is improving and is therefore better equipped for every idea. This particular installment, which I’ve chosen as the year’s MVE, reminds of the Season Two episode “Blizzard,” in which Dan is also trapped in the elevator during a natural disaster with someone with whom he’d rather not spend time. While that aforementioned episode found him trapped with a gay man portrayed by Jack Riley, this time Dan is trapped with Roz and two gigantic Sumo wrestlers. Not only is this a much funnier story idea, but the bonding between Dan and Roz, a character who spends the entirety of this season virtually unexplored, is fresh, exciting, and necessary. The entire story works wonderfully. Also, the subplot of Harry, Christine, and Dan finding their mini-me’s is cute, and reminds of several episodes of The Jack Benny Program, when kids would take over for the regulars. A classic episode; definitely the season’s strongest.
05) Episode 69: “Murder” (Aired: 01/08/87)
Harry doesn’t believe a woman’s confession of murder.
Written by Reinhold Weege | Directed by Jeff Melman
Another script by Weege, this serves as a good representation of Barney Miller‘s continued influence on Night Court. (Series creator Weege was a staff writer on that aforementioned series, which has come up regularly in our survey of Night Court.) I’ve often believed that this show’s success has been in the combination of the grittier more topical storytelling of the ’70s (particularly Barney Miller) with the broader laugh-seeking antics of the ’80s. Both are evident here. The primary plot of a woman (Florence Stanley) falsely claiming to have murdered her husband is the type of darker story-driven fare that skews to the former; while the subplot of Dan having trouble becoming a sperm donor skews to the latter. The two ideas are so disparate in tone and aren’t narratively or thematically compatible, but the juxtaposition of styles is fascinating. And while I prefer the part that yields more laughs, I really appreciate both.
06) Episode 72: “A Day In The Life” (Aired: 02/05/87)
Harry and the court have a whole docket of cases to complete before midnight.
Written by Nat Mauldin, Teresa O’Neill, & Bob Stevens | Directed by Thomas Klein
The first in a series of episodes that will become an annual occurrence over the next few seasons, this was another contender for the year’s MVE. Part of the enjoyment within this episode is that it’s all business, showing us a series of comedic cases that come before the bench. Not only does this allow for the type of easy gag jokes that this series does so well, but for a show that’s set in a courtroom, it’s always exciting to see the regulars doing what they’re actually supposed to do; this adds credibility to the storytelling and feels like a more direct connection to the series’ core premise, which is always a GOOD thing. Furthermore, there are a lot of laughs here, and the episode just works from start to finish — still a rarity for this series.
07) Episode 74: “Christine’s Friend” (Aired: 02/19/87)
Harry and Dan compete for the affections of Christine’s hot friend.
Written by Bob Stevens | Directed by Jim Drake
Yet another episode that engages a story we’ve seen before. In this case, we’re going back to the first season and an installment, “Quadrangle Of Love,” in which Dan and Harry (and in that offering, Bull) were all chasing the same woman. In this episode, Dan and Harry compete for the affections of Christine’s attractive friend, Heather, played by Sela Ward. However, this episode isn’t really about that story (and Ward even performs the episode in a way that makes her choice obvious from the start) or even the surprise cameo by Mel Tormé; this installment’s primary aim is actually about bringing Harry and Christine closer together, as they both feel inferior in comparison to others. More importantly, I like the forthrightness of the comedy.
08) Episode 75: “Caught Red Handed” (Aired: 02/26/87)
Christine’s new boss sexually harasses her.
Written by Harry Anderson | Directed by Howard Ritter & Harry Anderson
I’ve always found this episode, which was written and co-directed by series star Harry Anderson himself, to be way too story-driven as opposed to character-driven (this is a complaint I raise often with this series). But I appreciate the interaction among the core characters, particularly Harry, Christine, and Bull, as they challenge a man (played by Michael Gross, then a regular on NBC’s Family Ties) who sexually harassed Christine and fired her after she confronted him. Also, I appreciate the show’s ability to tie-in Harry’s penchant for magic into the narrative in a way that works and is funny. And yes, while the casting of Gross is a gimmick that I kind of detest, he does a fine job in the role. Another narrative balance of the ’70s and ’80s aesthetics.
09) Episode 76: “Paternity” (Aired: 03/18/87)
Dan is served with a paternity suit.
Written by Teresa O’Neill | Directed by Jim Drake
O’Neill’s scripts are as schizophrenic as the series itself — sometimes they’re broad, sometimes they’re understated, and more to the point, sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. This one, obviously works, and it’s neither too broad nor too understated. Once again, I would attribute this episode’s viability to the fact that it’s centered around Larroquette’s Dan, the series’ only remaining regular who is consistently able to elevate material. (The late Selma Diamond was the other one, incidentally.) The story of him getting slapped with a paternity suit for a smart-mouthed kid who desperately wants a father is an ideal story for his character and the series, allowing both laughs and drama to coexist and mingle with ease. Seasonal highlight.
10) Episode 78: “Her Honor (I)” (Aired: 04/29/87)
Christine is appointed as a judge over Dan.
Written by Linwood Boomer | Directed by Jeff Melman
As the first part of a two-part series finale (and a four-part arc, as there are two more “Her Honor” episodes that open the fifth season), this is a much funnier entry than the installment that follows, mostly because the annoying and unwarranted drama of Harry NOT getting reappointed as a judge doesn’t yet get to overtake the proceedings, as it does in the actual season finale. Also, this is the best and most comedic usage of Jim and June Wheeler, who appeared several times during the last season and were introduced in another lofty two-parter that simply didn’t work. But everything actually meshes in this episode; thankfully, there are necessary laughs and logical character-oriented storytelling. A strong offering — and a favorite.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “The New Judge,” another offering which is a bit too heavy on story, but is collectively the strongest of this honorable mention lot, “New Year’s Leave,” which features Harold Gould but is saddled with a false sentimentality that kills the whole episode, “Baby Talk,” which boasts a jokey script and a fun subplot, but a terrible main premise with Mac and Quon Le that really devalues the whole offering’s enjoyment, and “Here’s To You, Mrs. Robinson,” a fairly amusing episode that nevertheless doesn’t work because it’s too exaggeratedly broad and gaggy — to the extent of negating the humor, which comes across as cheap, forced, and tacky.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Night Court goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fifth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!