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.
Last week I wrote that there was only one other season in contest with the fifth for my selection as the series’ best. That season is the one we’re discussing today, the sixth, the show’s first year outside of its regular cushy Thursday lineup since Season One and the last executive produced by series creator Reinhold Weege (a fact that will be more important in discussions ahead). With the 1988 Writer’s Strike delaying production on every scripted series by over three months, the extra time off to refocus, along with the increased adrenaline to get episodes in the “can” once production resumed, seems to have resulted in a boost to both the show’s creativity and in the quality of its output. (We saw the same thing happen during the ’88-’89 season of Cheers, which came back after a rocky sixth season with renewed and perhaps show-saving vigor.) As a result, the nine episodes that hurriedly made it to air in the fall of 1988 are — save the messily dramatic two-part premiere — unanimously stellar, representing a string of highlights that is probably unmatched by Night Court. That’s not to say that all the Fall ’88 episodes are classics, because they aren’t. But there’s a fluidity of energy and an aura of excellence that I think represents Night Court at its highest. As was the case with Season Five, some of my favorite episodes from this show’s entire run come from this era.
The problem with Season Six is that this excellence is not maintained, particularly in the latter half of the year. Now, every season of Night Court has its duds (even the stronger years, as is the case here), but there seem to be more turkeys in Season Six than there are in Season Five, or they’re at least more pronounced than their predecessors. Furthermore, Season Six has several different types of duds. We have the boring ones (like “This Old Man,” which goes through the Harry/Christine motions, but very half-heartedly), we have the unnecessary ones (like both parts of “Clip Show,” which was a necessity for production, but makes for truly wasteful viewing), and the flat-out failures (like both parts of the overly dramatic “From Snoop To Nuts” — yuck). Therefore, Season Six’s inability to raise its base level of quality alongside the individual heights that are being reached within its classics proves to be a significant detriment to the year’s standing, making Season Five, which is slightly more consistent and contains plenty of fantastic episodes, appear stronger and, creatively, the most successful. However, for simple heights reached, Season Six is a tough one to beat, earning its place as one of the best years in Night Court‘s entire, somewhat-tortured, run.
Three other points worth mentioning. First, as usual, I feel it my weekly duty to report on the Harry/Christine relationship, or more accurately, the series’ continued refusal to explore that opportunity. (Perhaps Weege was right in doing so, but because he didn’t, we’ll never know for sure, will we? Funny how that works.) While last season seemed poised for some kind of development to occur over the course of the year, Season Six quickly gives up teasing this possibility (a notable exception is highlighted below) — sure, there are a few moments between the two where they address their lingering feelings, but it comes across more perfunctory than organic, like in the aforementioned “This Old Man.” The show is now using their dynamic only as a tool for easy pathos — nothing serious or predicative of a larger arc. Frankly, Night Court simply waited too long to explore Harry/Christine. Last year was the season where if it was going to happen, it should have; but because it didn’t, we’re left with two probable conclusions. Either the series only sought the benefit of their sexual tension without ever wanting the narrative responsibility of having to follow through (most likely), or it was erroneously thought that their chemistry had more sustainability than it did — leading to the “throwing in” of the figurative towel, here, in Season Six, after a waning of creative interest. And while the idea of the two being paired romantically won’t ever go away, this is the year where it feels, for the first time since she joined the cast, more improbable than probable.
Another thing I want to point out is that the series is trying harder than ever to give Dan more emotional depth. While I won’t ever fault the reasons for wanting to expand the characterization in the hopes of both making him more believable and allowing him growth, I don’t think Night Court is ever able to purposely multi-dimensionalize its characters while remaining comedically rewarding, for that oft-discussed relationship between comedy and drama is so inartfully calibrated. All of the show’s “growth” tactics seem so calculated, and because the results don’t end up satisfying, we as the audience become unfortunately more cognizant of the writing’s machinations and its failings. With Dan, in particular, the loss of his humor as a function of “emotional substance” is a major blow to the series’ potency, for he is among the most reliable sources of laughs. Fortunately, he still is able to get laughs in Season Six — but only when the series lets him. (There’ll be more on Dan’s growth in weeks ahead; stay tuned…) The last point to be raised about this season was mentioned above — the show no longer aired on Thursday nights next to Cheers, and the ratings suffered as a result. I would posit that Night Court has always been a show that needs a rising tide (a.k.a. a killer lineup) to raise its figurative boat. Take that as you will… In the meantime, despite all of the qualms I’ve expressed above, this actually was one of the more pleasurable lists to make for Night Court, and I have picked ten episodes that I think collectively exemplify this year’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 Six. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that 18 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 104: “Fire” (Aired: 11/02/88)
An upstairs fire traps the gang in the morgue, while Dan runs for city assembly.
Written by Bob Underwood
“Fire” is actually an episode that’s grown on me with repeated viewings. At first, I considered it merely another entry in the old “here we have some natural disaster” formula coupled with more dashed political aspirations on behalf of Dan. All stuff we’ve seen before, right? But then I began to appreciate the way this episode differentiates itself from similar entries. For instance, we’re not trapped in the courtroom this time (or an elevator, as was the case TWICE for Dan), but we’re stuck in the morgue, a place we’ve never been, and this opens the show up for a lot of new and fresh humor. Also, this installment operates with a great battle of the sexes subplot for Harry and Christine, making perhaps the closest they get (the whole series, let alone this season) to evoking the kind of combative sexual tension that existed between NBC Thursday’s most iconic star-crossed pair. In fact, this is the installment I referenced in my introduction to the season — the only one that actually presents Harry and Christine as in possession of a chemistry that the series intends to explore. After this, it’s pretty much downhill for them. And, as always, this is a good script with fine laughs, making it a more obvious choice for MVE.
02) Episode 105: “Harry And The Tramp” (Aired: 11/09/88)
Harry unknowingly invites a porno star to join him at an important function.
Written by Nancy Steen & Neil Thompson
Because of the setting, this series sees its fair share of promiscuous folk (shall we say) coming before the bench. (And whenever an episode is hovering near mediocrity, all the script needs to do is throw in a hooker for some quick jokes and the proceedings are immediately elevated.) But we’re not dealing with hookers here — we’re dealing with a porno star, played with sensitivity by Wendy Schaal. This is actually one of those episodes with a very funny first act and a quieter dramatic second, but because the premise feels more like a character exploration of Harry than a social commentary on porn stars, the later scenes play better than you’d first expect. So even though it’s not, by design, a classic, it’s Night Court otherwise in top form.
03) Episode 106: “Educating Rhoda” (Aired: 11/16/88)
Thanks to a bailiff trainee, Dan is held hostage by an attractive, but deranged, movie lover.
Written by Harold Kimmel
Again, given the setting of the night court, this series gets its fair share of individuals who would be clinically classified as in possession of a mental illness. Such is the case in this episode, as Dan unknowingly goes out with a woman who is obsessed with the movies (quoting lines from all the classics) and attempts to kill him (a la Psycho, etc.). It’s a pretty absurd premise but at this point in the series we’re accustomed to this broader kind of storytelling, and because the results are comedically rewarding (and, not to mention, something we don’t see often), we’re able to just enjoy the hijinks as they ensue. I wouldn’t call this episode a favorite, but it’s absolutely entertaining and an offering that’s highly rewatchable. Lots of easy, simple fun.
04) Episode 107: “The Last Temptation Of Mac” (Aired: 11/23/88)
Mac is seduced by an attractive classmate while Christine cooks Thanksgiving dinner.
Written by Tom Reeder
After really enjoying the two episodes that introduce and feature Quon Le during the second season, these past few years we’ve covered have really underwhelmed with regard to the potential that seemed to exist in her beginning. This is the first episode, since Quon Le’s introduction, where I find her actually a comedic presence. The reason for this is simple: she gets to behave in a way we’ve never seen her behave before, as her jealousy kicks into overdrive when she sees Mac kissing a hot young fellow classmate (Renee Jones). As expressed last week, I appreciate when Mac is thrown a solid story (because while comical, he’s one of the most realistic and grounded presences on the series) and this is among his best showcases. Also, there’s a very funny Thanksgiving subplot in support. One of my favorites.
05) Episode 109: “Night Court Of The Living Dead” (Aired: 12/14/88)
A computer declares Christine dead, and two strange cases appear before the bench.
Written by Paul J. Raley | Directed by Tim Steele
Sometimes a lot of action is disqualifying because it tends to distract from the more character oriented comedy I prefer. But Night Court does this type of show better than most because it’s generally pretty good about keeping all of the action contained on a few sets, meaning that we don’t have to cut back and forth to view the narrative shenanigans. Also, this episode, which features both a man who’s woken up from a 20-year-coma and an inventor (with a robot) who is about to be sent to a mental institution, is well-written and features superlative comedy. Meanwhile, the other plot, of a computer falsely declaring Christine dead, while not something that’s completely fresh, also yields amusing moments and ties in nicely to the robot story.
06) Episode 111: “Mental Giant” (Aired: 01/11/89)
Bull learns he has a high IQ and gets a job trying to communicate with test animals.
Written by Tom Reeder
This is the first of two Bull-centered episodes to make this week’s list. Now, as mentioned before, I typically don’t prefer Bull episodes because they operate with even less logic than he typically displays (seemingly giving credence to the false belief that stupid characters equate to stupid writing, which shouldn’t be the case). Also, Bull episodes tend to take us a way from the night court, something that always makes me hesitant. This episode, unfortunately, does play into both of the above stereotypes, and it takes a leap over traditional reason to accept the premise as believable. However, there are laughs here — good laughs — and because this season has so many duds, the very fact that this episode avoids that sad fate, is noteworthy.
07) Episode 115: “The Trouble Is Not In Your Set” (Aired: 02/01/89)
The court proceedings are broadcast on cable as a deranged TV lover comes in with a grenade.
Written by Mike Imfeld
Marion Ross, best known to TV lovers as the matriarch of the Cunningham family, appears in this episode as, you guessed it, another deranged character. In fact, this episode reminds a lot of the previously highlighted “Educating Rhoda,” for the prime subject has difficulties distinguishing between reality and entertainment (an accusation levied against me a few times, but I digress…) There’s an inherent charm that comes from casting Ross in this role, and she’s an ideal fit, managing to overcome the trite business of her holding everyone hostage with a grenade. (I’m really tired of all the hostage stuff on this series, okay?) Also I like the other element weaved into this offering, namely that the court has been broadcast on cable television for the past few weeks. There’s some worthwhile material from this idea, and it weaves well into Ross’ character’s problem. Not a phenomenal episode, but a notable one.
08) Episode 116: “The Game Show” (Aired: 02/15/89)
Bull competes on a game show, and the gang hypnotizes him to keep his nerves under control.
Written by Bob Underwood
As the other Bull episode highlighted in this list, I could almost repeat verbatim what I wrote about the other one, “Mental Giant.” The game show premise is an easy one for a lot of series, so I won’t fault Night Court for indulging the trend, especially when, obviously, it produces results. It must also be noted that this is the kind of episode that wouldn’t have worked at all had it been produced in Season One (example: the dreadful “Wonder Drugs”), but because it comes here in Season Six, when the show has cultivated its comedy, embraced the ’80s more directly, and welcomed farce, it’s now able to work with ease. Also, note the amusing crossover appearance by Florence Stanley as Judge Wilbur, her character on My Two Dads.
09) Episode 124: “Not My Type” (Aired: 04/26/89)
Christine reluctantly accepts a date with Art the handyman.
Written by James Gates | Directed by Tim Steele
Art Fensterman, the courthouse’s handyman, ably played by Mike Finneran, is probably my favorite of all of this series’ interesting recurring characters and it’s probably because he’s one of the most consistent. After several years of his being used quite frequently (Seasons Four, Five and Six), this offering is the first one that aims to explore him in a focused manner. Unfortunately, for Night Court, that also means we’re going to get some slightly sentimental drama. However, although this style isn’t my preference, I always appreciate when the series can explore character relationships (in this case, Christine’s with Art) through quieter stories, all the while writing the players with smarts and constancy. That’s what this episode offers.
10) Episode 123: “Yet Another Day In The Life” (Aired: 05/03/89)
The court tries to adjudicate all the cases on the docket before the building floods.
Written by Nancy Steen & Neil Thompson
The third of four entries in the “Day In The Life” tetralogy, I’ve heard from some fans who consider this the best of the lot. As discussed last week, I actually don’t feel that way, opining that the second offering from this foursome is the funniest (and, in fact, perhaps Night Court‘s strongest showing over all). That noted, I also hold a lot of appreciation for this one, especially when taken in the context of the sixth season, which, as you may have noted, had comedically lost its way in the latter half of the year. Seeing the show return to form with this great entry (which features some wonderful material for Larroquette’s Dan) is a wonderful thing, and the amplified comedy is a much needed way to close out the hit-and-miss season. A hit!
There was really only one episode that was also in contention for the above list: “Pen Pals,” which gives Roz a heavy, dramatic arc and isn’t as funny as it needs to be, but doesn’t make any bold mistakes and ultimately ends up being a good showing for her character. Worth mentioning, however are: “Danny Got His Gun (III),” the conclusion of an arc for which I did not care, but the installment earns distinction for the amusing funeral sequence that the gang throws for Dan, and the annual Mel Tormé installment, “Strange Bedfellows,” which could have been seen here if not for the horrendous Dan story.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Night Court goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the seventh season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!