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.
After finally graduating from the metaphorical minors to the metaphorical majors last season, in the first year that I would call emblematic of a show good enough to be called great, Night Court further ripens into a series worthy of increased attention and study here in Season Five. If you’ll remember way back to our coverage on the first season, I discussed the way that the show is often divided into equal thirds, voicing the opinion (and, for once, my point-of-view actually aligns with the majority’s) that the three middle seasons (fourth, fifth, and sixth) represent the series at the peak of its powers. Watching Season Five, which competes with only one other year as being my favorite showing from the entire series (but is probably the strongest as a collective), it’s easy to see how much better the show has become — even in comparison to Season Three, a year that marked a significant and important improvement over the fascinatingly rocky second. Now, the reasons for the show’s growing, and perhaps peaked, potency in Season Five have essentially been said already as we’ve followed the show’s continued growth — but I’ll repeat them, because, after all, we’ve yet to see the show as good as it is here.
As always, the increased familiarity with the characters allows greater license to present them comedically — and requires less contrived efforts to do so. For example, a story about Dan’s impotence is able to wring laughs from an idea that not only works because we know how virile he usually presents himself in a typical episode, but also because it doesn’t need to rely on jokes or out-of-character maneuverings to find laughs; the comedy comes from Dan being put in a situation that we know, based on what we’ve seen, is a painful one for him. The comedy ensues when it yields (and Larroquette, recipient of a fourth consecutive Emmy for his work here, delivers) what we’re anticipating, all the while keeping Dan in character and finding moments to subvert our expectations with logic. This is something only a long running series can claim to do effectively, because it generally takes more than two years, from my personal study, for an audience to get to know the characters so well that responses can be anticipated and therefore played upon . As a result, the laughs are bigger and better than ever — and, for now, they’re seldom (if ever) at the expense of character integrity. However, this show has never had character problems (casting problems, sure, but no real issues with the established players) yet…
The prime issue has always been with the storytelling itself and the style of humor with which the show wants to identify. In other words, is it going to be grounded and hard-hitting, like creator Reinhold Weege’s oft-referenced work on Barney Miller, or is it going to be broad and farcical, like (for lack of a better example) the show we just finished covering last month, Mama’s Family, where laughs are giant, but brains are only used as the minuscule foundation? In the early seasons, Night Court was positioned more towards the former, but in the quest for stories (and the accompanying ability to write the characters more comedically, as discussed above), sillier situations become more frequent by Season Five, mixing in regularity with those weightier plots — although, rarely within the same episode. This can be frustrating, for my sentiment has always been that the show works best when calibrated between the two styles, and when it can employ both of them simultaneously, real situation comedy occurs. That’s not been a common phenomenon on this series, but Season Five does the best job we’ve seen yet of balancing the two, and keeping as much of the drama character-related instead of issue-related. As a result, fewer — not none, but fewer — stories fail. (There’ll be even more on why Season Five is so strong next week, when it’s discussed in relation to Six. Stay tuned… )
Does anything else need to be discussed? Oh, yes — two more points. First, the show recognizes how little development it gave to Roz in Season Four, but the attempts to rectify the situation here lead to some unwieldy, unfunny scripts. I appreciate the show’s recognition of how thin her presentation was in Season Four, but I wish they could have deepened her with more laughs in support. The second thing that must be discussed is the relationship (or lack thereof) between Harry and Christine, which was introduced as a possibility last year. At the conclusion of that largely unnecessary four-part “Harry loses his job” arc, the series reinforces the excuse for keeping them apart, which was mentioned at the end of Season Four: they can’t be in a romantic relationship given their working relationship. It’s an obstacle that actually proves itself to be too valid, for while we anticipate at the start of the season that this line of reasoning will be abandoned by the time the year ends (after an arc that could likely resemble the first coming together of Sam and Diane), the show never overcomes the established hurdle because the very concept of Night Court has all of these characters working in the same courtroom; this can’t change. So the excuse that seems only temporary actually reveals itself permanent, as the show puts itself into a box out of which it can’t escape. This begs the question — did the show ever really want to put them together? (More on them, you guessed it, next week…) In the meantime, 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 Five. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that 17 of the 22 installments this year are directed by Jeff Melman. Any of the highlighted offerings that aren’t directed by Melman will be noted below.
01) Episode 82: “Death Of A Bailiff” (Aired: 10/15/87)
Bull gets an order from God after being struck by lightning.
Written by Bob Underwood
If you’ve been following our Night Court coverage on this blog over the past five weeks, you’ll notice that there’s been a scarcity of Bull-anchored installments highlighted here. It may seem odd, because he’s one of the most consistent getters of laughs in the series, but the truth is that the stories thrown to him rarely work because they seem to mirror the intelligence of the character (an easy trap into which to fall). Also, many Bull episodes begin strong and then take us out of our usual environments for what inevitably becomes a let-down (in fact, I already know there’ll be more on this next week), so one of the reasons that this particular episode works, aside from using a Barney Miller-ish story around a character who’s comedically broad (allowing for that balance), is that we don’t have to leave the courthouse for some unfortunate second act shtick. As a result, it’s one of Bull’s best outings — and that’s definitely worth noting.
02) Episode 83: “Ladies Night” (Aired: 10/22/87)
Christine tries to bond with Roz by joining her at a strip club.
Written by Paul J. Raley
We swing broad (no pun intended) for this installment, although the story begins fairly reasonably: Christine recognizes how little they know about Roz and in an attempt to bond with her, decides to tag along for a night on the town. It’s a sensible premise, echoing our own feelings about Roz. (And in some ways, theirs mirrors the early dynamic between Diane and Carla, when the former was desperately trying to become friends with the latter. Christine has better luck with Roz, obviously.) But then the show becomes a cartoon, as Roz takes Christine to a male strip joint where Christine, in a beat that is supposed to be a hilarious turnaround but only seems contrived (maybe it’s the playing), becomes wild. Are there laughs in aid of the beats that don’t work? Yes, and the end justifies the means. But note that it’s far from a perfect outing.
03) Episode 85: “Mac’s Dilemma” (Aired: 11/12/87)
A friend to whom Mac is deeply indebted asks for a serious favor.
Written by Gary Murphy & Larry Strawther
I think dead bodies, in a comedy, are often a great jumping off point for outrageous hijinks, so whenever I see an episode that decides to engage with a premise involving a corpse, I pay a little more attention. Fortunately, I’m not disappointed by this episode, which features a strong script that supports the premise beautifully. But that’s actually the secondary plot. The main attraction of this installment is thrown to Mac, another character who, perhaps as a result of the strength of the other members of the ensemble, is sometimes lost in the shuffle (at least, when it comes to good juicy episodes), and is therefore often defined mostly through the charm of his performer. In other words, his is an easy going presence that’s never defined in broad strokes (like Dan or Bull), so it’s always nice to see him get a meaty story, as he does in this entry.
04) Episode 86: “Who Was That Mashed Man?” (Aired: 11/19/87)
Dan’s boss asks him to look after a hot niece while Harry tries to stop a TV superhero from killing himself.
Story by Tom Straw & R.J. Colleary | Teleplay by Tom Straw
Teri Hatcher guest stars in this episode as the horny niece that Dan’s sadistic boss (played deliciously by the wicked Daniel Frishman) asks him to keep an eye on during session. As you can imagine, it’s a fun story for Dan, and Larroquette secures all the laughs he can. Once again, however, that’s the subplot. The primary story in this excursion involves a former TV superhero (shades of Season Three’s entry with the former TV magician that Harry loves), the Red Ranger, who threatens to kill himself. Okay, in print it seems like an overwrought self-important story (because, frankly, I’ve never seen a story about suicide manage to be comedic in and of itself), but the script navigates these difficult waters by keeping the laughs flowing and by actually not making it seem like there’s a possibility the sucide will go through. In a drama, the lack of stakes would be devastating; here, it’s episode-saving. Popular, very solid entry.
05) Episode 87: “No Hard Feelings” (Aired: 11/29/87)
Harry hires a blind assistant and Dan faces impotence.
Written by Tom Straw
This installment was referenced above in my introductory comments for the season, for the subplot, in which Dan struggles with impotence, is very funny and derives most of its humor from our established understanding of the character. This story is quite satisfying too, and it represents precisely what quality sitcom writing should entail. The main plot, however, wants to be a little darker, and Straw’s script does a fairly good job of maintaining an atmosphere that allows some of the more dramatic story elements to exist, mostly subliminally, through an otherwise jokey and lighthearted script. Now, if there’s anything that keeps this installment from reaching a place proximal to perfection, it’s the performance of standup comic Elayne Boosler, whose odd energy muddies her character’s possibilities. (She only appeared once more.)
06) Episode 90: “Let It Snow” (Aired: 12/17/87)
Everyone’s trapped in the courthouse during another blizzard.
Written by Tom Reeder
Ah, our annual natural disaster show (if you’ve noticed, every season between the second through sixth has featured an installment that traps all the regulars inside the courthouse — and twice, Dan has been stuck in an elevator); fortunately, each one is different. As is usually the case with installments that find a way to bring all members of the ensemble into the same place at the same time, we become less concerned about the means that get them there (and let’s be honest, a natural disaster is about as external and unmotivated as any), because the results that stem from having our favorite players all together and interacting off one another is too delightful to really nitpick. That’s basically the case in this particularl outing, and Reeder’s script (he’s a hit-and-miss scribe for Night Court) is logical and comedic. Enjoyable outing.
07) Episode 93: “I’m OK, You’re Catatonic/Schizophrenic” (Aired: 01/21/88)
Dan tries to keep Mel Tormé detained while Harry deals with the return of his stepfather.
Written by Reinhold Weege
Honestly, I have a love-hate relationship with the appearances that John Astin makes on this series as Buddy, for although as a performer he’s so kookily endearing and the character crafted for him matches that persona, I often feel that the scripts come at the expense of his character, and while that ordinarily doesn’t bother me, the fact that the show is still engaging regularly with important issues (like mental illness) it makes things uncomfortable when they seek comedy that doesn’t quite deliver. (Again, it comes back to that balancing act.) However, this is actually not a problem for this installment, for while there are moments of drama, there are also moments of lunacy, mostly in the subplot with Mel Tormé (who’s making his annual appearance), and Weege’s script is so very tight. You can tell when the creator has his hands on something, because the results are usually sharp and true to character, even if the stories are only adequate.
08) Episode 95: “Another Day In The Life” (Aired: 02/18/88)
The courtroom races to finish 207 cases before the session ends.
Written by Garry Murphy & Larry Strawther
Easily the funniest offering of the season. Easily the best written offering of the season. Easily my favorite offering of the season. As the second of four episodes in the “Day In The Life” series (the first of which was highlighted here last week), this one is my personal favorite, although I’ve heard from a handful of fans who prefer the next season’s entry in the tetralogy. But I think this one is benefited from having the strongest script, which is not only uproariously funny, but features, in my opinion, the strongest framing device for giving them a reason to rush and complete all of the cases on the docket. In terms of the laughs, the sheer volume of one-off gags that walk into the courtroom (the stooges, the old lady phone sex operators, Marcia Wallace) is unbeatably hilarious, and perhaps some of the most humorously potent material that we’ve ever seen or will ever see on this series. This is every single character in his/her element, doing his/her thing. And, again, the script is divine. My favorite of the season (and maybe the entire series). If you watch only one episode of this show, I’d advise making it this one!
09) Episode 96: “Heart Of Stone” (Aired: 02/25/88)
An old flame of Harry’s tries to rekindle their relationship — but she’s married.
Written by Bob Underwood | Directed by Tim Steele
Harry Anderson isn’t a great actor, but he’s a great presence, and as the anchor of the show, whenever he’s able to get a substantial story thrown to him (and I mean comedically substantial, because he always gets his fair share of dramatic bits), I’m generally pleased. He’s actually an understated sitcom lead, mostly because there are other broader characters who often take control of their material more aggressively (like Larroquette), allowing Anderson to operate in a mode that’s more grounded. But he’s very capable doing broad stuff too (and perhaps even more comfortable doing them), for this installment, which is a bit farcical with all those slamming doors and the like, culminates with Harry and Dan, both pantsless, out on the building ledge. It’s over-the-top, it’s unique (for the series), and quite funny. Anderson’s strong.
10) Episode 99: “Top Judge” (Aired: 04/08/88)
Harry competes with a new younger judge in a war of pranks.
Written by Dennis Koenig
Speaking of Anderson as a performer, the show was wise to immediately incorporate the actor’s own magical background into the character’s, because it gives Harry Stone a nuanced sense of humor and helps to define his worldview (in the same way that his love for Mel Tormé does). So, in many ways, this is an installment that I think was a long time coming, as Harry finally gets a potential challenger to his title as the bench’s only purveyor of magic/pranks. Although this isn’t a hysterical installment, or as well-written as some of the others highlighted above in today’s post, the story itself works so well for the character that the good-but-not-great writing is elevated simply by its perfect connection to Harry, and it’s ability to keep his character in character during the length of the action. And that’s important for Night Court.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Her Honor (IV),” which proves itself better than the preceding part by amping up the farce and addressing the Harry/Christine dynamic, “Safe,” the annual Halloween offering that utilizes an enjoyable subplot involving Dan selling his soul to the devil but a horrendously unfunny primary plot about Harry trapping himself in a safe, and “Jung And The Restless,” the closest to making the above list, which has some fine material for the ensemble but is weighted down by the lofty premise and the extended sequence between Roz (whom they’re obviously trying to deepen) and a character played by a young Don Cheadle. Mention must also be made of the season premiere, “Her Honor (III),” which, despite being a not-so-good episode, has a hysterical scene involving Dan (pretending to be Harry) and Mac (pretending to be Harry’s hand).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Night Court goes to…..
“Another Day In The Life”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the sixth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!