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.
With creator Reinhold Weege no longer producing the series and handling the day-to-day creative decision-making (following his abrupt decision to quit when NBC opted not to order any episodes of his new series Nikki And Alexander), Night Court enters the final third of its lengthy run with an obvious fall in its quality (not to mention its ratings). Even with the hit-and-miss nature of the sixth season, which boasted both fabulous highs alongside shocking lows, as the closest means of comparison, Season Seven disappoints. In fact, what Season Three was to the series’ forward momentum, Season Seven is to the series’ unstoppable devolution. As a result, I view this season — within the context of the entire series — as the transitional year where Night Court, which seems to have only just become a great show, once again flirts regularly with mediocrity. But while the early seasons could blame many of their issues on casting drama and the rotating door of regulars, these later seasons, and Season Seven in particular, has no scapegoat other than the material itself. What exactly are the problems?
Well, the lack of fresh ideas, something with which this series has had to deal even during its most glorious of years, has become unavoidably apparent. While I think the show always made it a habit to utilize stories or set-ups that I frequently label here as “gimmicky” (read: clichéd, more construct-than-character, easy sources of comedy), they’ve always been excused within the show’s timbre and, more specifically, by the style that’s recognizably Weege’s. But when these gimmicks are deprived of the writer who (often times) legitimizes their function and actually manages to make them work, the ridiculous and contrived storytelling is no longer excusable — especially because the means are no longer justifying the end product. New show-runners Larry Strawther and Gary Murphy, who both began writing for the show in Season Five, simply aren’t of Weege’s caliber. Even worse, the broad humor with which the show had been engaging more-and-more in each passing season, is now reaching the verge of impasse, creating a gulf in common sense that simply cannot be crossed. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen yet from Night Court, and I wish I could tell you that it’s not going to get any worse, but it will…
After unloading some serious complaints with this collection of episodes, I’d like to counter with some positive words. But those will have to come in the following paragraph, because there’s another element that plagues Season Seven, and this is specifically unique to this year — Markie Post’s pregnancy. Okay. Regular readers of this blog know exactly how I feel about babies in situation comedy and my sentiments regarding all the disastrous story machinations that usually accompany these developments. I, for one, would not have made Christine pregnant, for I believe the audience is capable of compartmentalizing knowledge of a performer’s pregnancy and separating the player’s life from the character’s. However, what’s done is done. The show decided to write in Post’s blessed event (rather late, actually) and because they wouldn’t dare have Christine be an unwed mother, they scramble to marry her off to a character that’s interestingly designed — her exact opposite — but with whom she shares little chemistry. Well, they kind of marry her off. They have the ceremony, but the license isn’t filed. With this matter of Chrisitne’s technical morality settled, the show speeds up its timeline for a requisite May sweeps birth. (Yuck!)
Now, while I don’t have anything nice to say about the story, I do think the show fares better when it allows itself to engage with the premise, because this allows a focus that is SORELY lacking in light of Weege’s absence. That’s why you’ll see several Tony episodes in today’s list; the scripts are generally given a higher priority, and aside from the pure story offerings (the two-part wedding and the finale birth), the writing here is itself better than in a lot of the other standalone installments. But I can’t be completely nasty about Season Seven, because there are obviously ten episodes that I want to discuss here today, and it’s because there are still worthwhile moments. Sure, rarely is an entire episode superb from start to finish, but there exists a clear hierarchy of quality, based on the percentage of which an individual episode works. I’m interested in pointing out the ones that succeed the most, so, 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 Seven. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that 17 of the 24 installments this year are directed by Jim Drake. Any of the highlighted offerings that aren’t directed by Drake will be noted below.
01) Episode 126: “The Cop And The Lady” (Aired: 10/18/89)
Christine argues with the undercover cop hired to protect Dan from a former defendant.
Written by Nancy Steen & Neil Thompson
My choice for the season’s MVE, this is one of the few scripts I believe was developed before Weege’s hasty departure. This is the installment that introduces Ray Abruzzo as Tony Giuliano, an undercover cop who is hired to protect Dan after the sleazy prosecutor is hounded with death threats from a former defendant. But this story isn’t really about Dan — it’s about Christine, whose immediate antagonism towards Tony naturally belies a lust that finally combusts when the criminal ties them up and locks them in a room together. As mentioned above, I don’t think the two performers share a great chemistry, but the script (Steen and Thompson do some of this year’s finest work) operates on an elevated level, for the very idea of cloistered Christine cowering to her baser instincts is intrinsically worthwhile for exploration. Also, mention must be made of the terrific scene where Dan, disguised as a nun, comes on to Christine, who is trying to confess what she’s just done with Tony. Hilarious! Although the first beat in a misguided arc, this is the best episode of the season and the one I watch most often.
02) Episode 128: “Blue Suede Bull” (Aired: 11/01/89)
Bull has troubles with Rhoda and Harry embarrasses Christine with a handcuff trick.
Written by Bill Bryan
Rhoda, the cute former wannabe-bailiff whom we met in last season’s “Educating Rhoda” when she developed a relationship with Bull, returns in this installment, which is one of the busiest scripts of the year. The story about Bull and Rhoda converges with a story in which Dan owes Bull a favor and thus reluctantly agrees to take the bailiff to a singles bar for a night on the town. These two are the broadest characters on the series so this premise naturally yields laughs. But I’m just as interested in the other plot (which gets about the same amount of attention), in which a feminist mentor of Christine’s mistakes Harry’s faulty handcuff trick (he and Christine are each separately cuffed, with their arms linked), as sexual harassment. Consistent laughs.
03) Episode 130: “Auntie Maim” (Aired: 11/15/89)
Roz gets a visit from her aunt, who is determined to see her niece married off.
Written by Bob Underwood
A good-but-not-great installment, this offering gains distinction simply by being memorable. (Remember, dullness, and by proxy, forgetability, is the cardinal sin in a situation comedy.) Della Reese elevates the proceedings with her turn as Roz’s pushy aunt, who comes to town and hounds the unusually amiable bailiff with questions about settling down. In a moment of desperation, Roz tries to pass of Mac as her boyfriend. It’s an easy sitcom trick, but, hey, the laughs are there, so I won’t quibble. Meanwhile, Dan and the others are saddled in an amusing B-story involving a wealthy widow whose diamond necklace has been swallowed by another defendant’s dog. She’s a lusty Zsa-Zsa type: broad and cartoony, but not completely alienating.
04) Episode 134: “Passion Plundered” (Aired: 12/20/89)
Christine uncovers two secrets about a female reporter doing a story on Harry.
Written by Gail Rock
To this writer’s credit, the episode ends up avoiding expectation, for it initially seems like it’ll be a retread of another ‘Dan vs. Harry for the affections of a female guest’ story, only to develop into something entirely different. Rather, this episode is built on a misunderstanding. The script dashes Dan’s play for the woman by introducing a tape recorder where she seemingly voices her desire for Harry. Of course, this isn’t what it seems: the journalist is a secret romance novelist and was only doing dictation for her latest book. She also has another secret — she’s a lesbian. I’m not crazy about this part of the story, for it doesn’t add much to the established comedic beats other than serve as another source of easy jokes. But this is Season Seven.
05) Episode 135: “Amore Or Less” (Aired: 01/03/90)
Christine seeks relationship guidance from two advice columnists.
Written by Fred Rubin
With the series gearing up for the big pregnancy reveal, and the quick marriage that must come precisely before, Tony returns — making him more than the one-episode-wonder like which he was starting to seem. This script is by new producer Fred Rubin, who joined at the start of the season and lasted through the end of the next. He has a long list of credits to his name; the most recent thing we’ve covered on which he worked is Mama’s Family. That’s more his style, and the gaggier motifs, while not evident in the story itself, are certainly present throughout his script, particularly in the caricature-y depictions of the two competing sister advice columnists, who lisp like crazy. It’s overly schticky, but what else can be said? It’s Season Seven.
06) Episode 140: “Talk Show” (Aired: 02/21/90)
Dan finds success as the host of a volatile TV talk show.
Written by Nancy Steen & Neil Thompson
At this point in the season, it seems as if the writers are scraping the bottom of that oft-referenced barrel, for you’ll notice more and more episodes that either take us away from the court and/or mess with the show’s constructs in a fundamental way. It’s truly dire, and this episode, written by the aforementioned Steen and Thompson, is one of those ideas that doesn’t really work for Night Court. That is, it’s a comedic idea, but one that could be done on almost any show, not relying on the show’s specific characteristics or characters. Oh, I suppose it’s nice to see Dan flirt with that nastier side of his characterization, which continues to get diluted with each season, but it’s not special. Once again, the higher quotient of laughs boosts its appeal.
07) Episode 141: “Melvin And Harold” (Aired: 02/28/90)
Harry is forced to put Mel Tormé in jail for an unpaid parking ticket.
Written by Bob Underwood
The Velvet Fog returns for his annual appearance, still smarting from the events of last time (when he caught Harry’s cold — an episode that I don’t think made for one of his better showings, mostly because of the dull A-plot involving Dan; I digress…) This outing is stronger, because there’s a better construction. Harry is forced to sentence his idol to jail for refusing to pay a parking ticket. It’s an interesting place to put Harry, especially because he’s desperate for Mel’s forgiveness. Also, this is a good place to note the incorporation of John Astin’s Buddy, who makes more appearances in this season than he does in any other; as discussed before, I like the character but rarely like his episodes and the way he’s used; no exception here.
08) Episode 144: “My Three Dads” (Aired: 03/28/90)
Harry, Dan, and Bull raise a ruckus at Christine’s childbirth class.
Written by Nancy Steen & Neil Thompson | Directed by Charles Robinson & Howard Ritter
Another installment that breaks with the status quo, this episode actually thrives as a result of the change in both scenery and style. In fact, this was the only other contender on today’s list for MVE, and it’s interesting, because this is another offering that relates directly to the year’s long running arc involving Christine’s impending motherhood. This episode is built upon the classic three daydreams structure, as Christine imagines each of the three men (Harry, Dan, and Bull) and the varying detrimental influences they would have on her baby’s life. Those sequences are perfectly fine, but I’m more delighted by the scenes that occur in the childbirth class, where each of the three men have tagged along and proceed to embarrass Christine and disrupt the entire class. There are a lot of big laughs here (including some racy jokes that I’m truly surprised NBC allowed to remain). One of my few genuine favorites here.
09) Episode 145: “Still Another Day In The Life” (Aired: 04/04/90)
Harry and the court race to finish their cases so a young man can reunite with his love.
Written by Bob Underwood | Directed by Tim Steele
In my introduction to the season, I mentioned that one of the problems this year has (that the final two don’t) is that it’s trying to adhere to Weege’s vision without Weege present to make it work. This installment shall serve as Exhibit A to that claim, for as the final episode in the “Day In The Life” tetralogy, this one is clearly the weakest of the bunch. And there’s no real reason as to why it’s so weak, because, actually, there are some pretty good bits (like the surprising turnarounds in the conclusion), but nevertheless, it doesn’t work as well as the three prior. The writing is less notable. There are fewer laughs, fewer standout moments for the characters, and, not surprisingly, a lack of freshness within the proceedings. It’s Season Seven in a nutshell.
10) Episode 146: “A Closer Look” (Aired: 04/11/90)
A TV reporter does a special on the night court and its employees.
Written by Bill Bryan, Fred Rubin, & Bob Underwood | Directed by Howard Ritter & Harry Anderson
And we’ll close this list with yet another break-with-the-norm offering, this time structured from start to finish as a television exposé, as a TV reporter brings a camera into the courthouse and documents the regular happenings in night court while following the staff (read: our regulars). As with “My Three Dads,” the episode is automatically boosted by its fresh look, even though I would classify it as one of those unappealing gimmicks that would certainly have worked better under Weege’s watchful eye. Yes, there are some worthwhile laughs in this episode (usually a requirement for these lists), but at this point in the season, we’re just grateful for any story that works and presents something we haven’t seen before. That’s what this offers.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Come Back To The Five And Dime, Stephen King, Stephen King,” a solidly rendered Halloween entry with a premise that, by design, avoids logic, “Attack Of The Mac Snacks,” which has an A-story that also eschews common sense, but a pretty enjoyable Dan subplot, and “Razing Bull,” which features a casting gimmick and an overblown story, but has individual moments of merit.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of Night Court goes to…..
“The Cop And The Lady”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the eighth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!