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, MARSHA WARFIELD as Roz Russell, and JOLEEN LUTZ as Lisette Hocheiser.
Oh, boy. This post and next week’s are both rough, and the material being discussed is truthfully not-so-worthy of standing alongside the stuff we usually cover here on Sitcom Tuesdays — but I’m both a completist and a masochist (and when it comes to TV, very loyal), so I’m here to discuss all of Night Court: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Where do we begin with Season Eight, a year for which I, in a few words, have no compliments? Well, let’s start with the fact that Season Seven was viewed by everyone involved as a complete disaster — the show had creatively stagnated and the viewers were tuning out in droves. A change was in order. The network’s intention was to give Night Court one final season, and they hired the team of Chris Cluess and Stu Kreisman, SCTV vets who had been on Night Court‘s staff during the first two seasons but left after creative differences with creator Reinhold Weege, to come aboard as the new showrunners for this one final hurrah. The pair initially had no idea how to completely revamp this former hit that NBC had moved to Friday evenings (to die), but the duo quickly came up with a few ideas designed to fix the aging series and, hopefully, let it go out in style. The result: increased critical attention, a move back to Wednesday nights, and a surprise renewal. So was Night Court experiencing a creative renaissance? Uh… no.
You see, the reason Cluess and Kreisman left the show in 1985 — after that misguided second season — was because they had a different vision for the show than Weege, who wanted to broaden the characters to bolster the humor. This pair, on the other hand, wanted to focus the characters to deepen the narrative. In other words, Weege was moving the show in a more comedically heightened direction, where laughs were most prized, while Cluess and Kreisman wanted to keep the show more grounded, hard-hitting, and seemingly truer to its Barney Miller aesthetics, where drama (in the narrative sense of the word) was most prized. I’m sure you can all guess how I feel about this duo’s aesthetic — not only do I feel the show creatively expanded after they left, but I also think the introduction of the bolder comedy they wanted to avoid was necessary to Night Court‘s viability. Of course, the show’s problem has always been the balance in styles, and that’s precisely why even though the re-introduction of “substance” to a series that had grown off-puttingly loony over its past year (or so) seems like an incredibly astute idea, the duo’s own inability to weigh their dramatic aims alongside the show’s natural and established comedic properties proves even more disastrous — for now the show is going against its natural momentum. This is fundamentally the issue with these last two years and why they, if you’ll pardon the expression, SUCK. (Although, as you’ll see next week, Season Nine is an entirely different “animal” than Eight…)
So it should be no surprise that everything the new leaders try to do doesn’t work, or, at least, doesn’t work as well as it should. But let’s discuss what they actually did and how their sensibilities impact this season. First, they have to deal with the residue of last year — namely Christine, her baby, and her baby daddy. Thankfully, the baby is a non-entity for the rest of the series (thank the lord for babysitters), but Tony has to be addressed. The writers decide to split the couple within the first third of the season, perhaps a wise choice given how little the audience came to care about him in the year prior. But there’s really no easy way out from this situation, because while the story never worked or was a good decision, moving on so quickly and pretending like it never happened essentially negates everything that previously transpired and further illustrates how impossible it is to restore something that has already been altered forever. (You can’t go home again, right?) Meanwhile, Christine’s arc in Season Eight is not entirely independent of Harry’s, as the magician-cum-judge gets his first and only multi-episode love interest in the form of Mary Cadorette (who played Jack’s love interest on the ill-fated Three’s A Crowd). Unfortunately, the appearances Cadorette makes here are awkward and uncomfortable — with the character lacking definition and the players lacking heat. She’s written out during the middle of the season in a big dramatic way (she’s joining the witness protection program — isn’t that comedic?), but we can only breathe a sigh of relief.
So both Harry and Christine wind up single in the last part of the season, intentionally, for one of the ideas proposed by the new showrunners when they came aboard was officially uniting Night Court‘s not-so-star-crossed lovers (allegedly in marriage). But when the show began gaining critical momentum in fall 1990, and actually got better viewership than anticipated in its rotten Friday position, NBC brought the show back to its Wednesday timeslot in January 1991 and started floating the idea of pre-empting its imminent cancellation. So with the series’ once guaranteed death now unsure, these veteran writers — still believing that this could still very well be the end — made the decision to rekindle the idea of this tragically no-go couple’s possible coming together, but without making any serious commitments (just in case…) The finale sees Tony’s return and Harry’s realization that he still loves Christine, climaxing in a Anderson/Post lip-lock. It’s a triumphant moment for fans of these characters, but it’s hard to enjoy with abandon because, frankly, this should have happened in 1988, and by now, we’re quite accustomed to the show’s faulty handling of this duo. After all, fool us once…
But Harry and Christine aren’t the only ones whose love life is worth mentioning. With an eye towards winding down the series and these characters’ arcs, Bull gets another sturdy love interest, who’ll prove to be his future wife. There’s really nothing much to discuss here — his is a character who’s better left as a button provider (that is, getting the last laugh in a scene and serving as the ideal transition from one moment to the next) — and his love interest, another figure in need of a personality, makes no impression. Speaking of which, a big change you’ll notice here in Season Eight is is the addition of Joleen Lutz as bubbly court stenographer Lisette, who appears in almost every episode from here until the end of the series. The show desperately wants her to be a jovially fresh presence, á la Georgette Baxter, but Lutz isn’t nearly endearing enough to be shoehorned into a series this late in the game, especially when she’s playing a character who’s crafted only around the kind of humor she’ll bring (quirky naiveté a.k.a. dumbness) instead of anything well-built or honest. Ultimately, she does nothing for the show other than distracting from the more atrocious storytelling that’s going on…
That’s right. I’m speaking of the storyline in which Dan learns that his homeless lackey, Phil (William Utay), is a wealthy tycoon, and once Phil dies in a freak accident, Dan is chosen to oversee the late gent’s charitable foundation. It’s a melodramatic arc, and one that sets out to make Dan a better person. This was clearly its aim — the only reason for its inclusion — and the show fully commits to exploring this stark change in Dan as a result of his grief and duty, hoping to expand his character in the process. But there are two big problems. One, this isn’t funny at all. We want Dan rotten to the core. That’s how he was designed. That’s how he works best — both individually in stories and comedically for the show as a whole. And two, Dan’s softening has been an evolving phenomenon since, at least, Season Six, so the turnaround loses its bite, instead existing solely as a flawed arc by seemingly clueless writers. In fact, that’s how I would describe Season Eight as a whole: flawed and clueless. But NBC nevertheless opted to renew; they believed the year was an improvement over the seventh, and because the show was still relatively cheap to produce, they picked it up for another season — a travesty which we’ll be discussing next week. In the meantime, I have picked seven 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 seven best episodes of Season Eight. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that 18 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 151: “Can’t Buy Me Love” (Aired: 10/19/90)
Dan regrets his decision to be a prize at a bachelor auction.
Written by Elaine Aronson
A triumph in premise (which, by the way, isn’t totally creative), there’s enough humor within the story itself that all the episode has to do to stand out as a worthwhile entry is not be as dire as its peers. There are some laughs (a must for any episode that’s going to get highlighted here, aside from a few unique exceptions), but the primary reason it’s worth singling out is that every episode in which Dan is despicable this season should be savored, because his character is going to be officially neutered before you know what’s happened. But to put it all in perspective, this isn’t a great Night Court episode; yet it’s a great episode for the condescended Season Eight.
02) Episode 152: “Death Takes A Halloween” (Aired: 10/26/90)
Harry locks up Death on Halloween and people stop dying.
Written by Harry Anderson
You know a season of Night Court isn’t up to par when I highlight the annual Halloween outing, which I can collectively decry as never being as fun or as funny as holiday shows needs to be to rise above the tropes. At the risk of repeating myself, the standards set for this season are lower (even with only seven episodes making today’s cut), so this decent outing, which skates by due to a unique premise and a genuine commitment by all involved (particularlyguest Stephen Root and Harry, who wrote it), is able to make the cut. In general, I don’t like when the series explores the supernatural, but that isn’t new to this year, so it’s at least stylistically pure.
03) Episode 155: “Day Court” (Aired: 11/09/90)
Changes abound when the night staff temporarily covers the day shift.
Written by Kevin Kelton
My choice for the year’s best outing, the simple reason for this honor is that it’s got the highest number of (non-pity) laughs. Once again, we’re all about concept here, as the idea of switching the night court staff to the day shift allows for a lot of different gags to play — and play well. From the fancier cafeteria to the deliciously cheery presentation of Roz (the only character who actually benefits from being lightened up over the course of the series, as long as she’s spared of sappy and undeserved drama), Kelton’s script mines all of the anticipated laughter. In fact, Kelton is one of the better writers during this unfortunate period, and this installment is clearly the most entertaining entry of the year. An easy pick for MVE and one I genuinely enjoy.
04) Episode 156: “A Night Court At The Opera” (Aired: 11/16/90)
Dan attempts to steal Margaret from Harry, while Bull is worshiped as a god.
Written by Jim Pond & Bill Fuller
This is the only installment on today’s list featuring Mary Cadorette’s Margaret, a character who never worked the way she was probably intended. As with two of the three shows above, this isn’t a great episode, but there are elements worth noting. Once again, we have Dan acting in a despicable manner, and while it would have been too much in earlier, better written seasons, we’re just grateful that he’s being written comedically and true to what we know. The story itself is a broad farce, and if the A-plot disappoints, there’s a much more enjoyable (albeit just as silly) story with Bull and a group of people who think he’s a god. Eh, it’s Season Eight…
05) Episode 159: “It’s Just A Joke” (Aired: 12/14/90)
A comic’s offensive routine ignites a First Amendment debate.
Written by Lee Maddux | Directed by Howard Ritter
I wish this episode had a funnier script, but I won’t quibble too much, particularly because the story is solid and appropriate for the series without being overly dramatic. It’s usually fascinating when sitcoms make it a point to discuss comedy — what makes things funny, what’s NOT funny — for there’s a certain metatheatricality in play (without having to be flashily metatheatrical, like so many shows today). In this installment, Louis Mustillo, whom you might know from the recent Mike & Molly, plays a stand-up comic whose routine is so offensive that it elicits a protest. But doesn’t he have a right to free speech, regardless of content?
06) Episode 165: “Hey Harry, F’Crying Out Loud — It Is A Wonderful Life… Sorta” (Aired: 02/27/91)
Mel Tormé shows Harry what life would be like if Harry hadn’t been born.
Written by Chris Cluess & Stu Kreisman
In full disclosure, this episode was very close to making my list of honorable mentions, but because I was determined to highlight seven entries in today’s post, this installment got elevated. I’m opposed to the existence of this installment on principle — not only is it a gimmick, but it’s a gimmick (the It’s A Wonderful Life take-off) that’s overused and over-abused on sitcoms. But I appreciate that Night Court makes the concept its own by having Mel Tormé serve as Harry’s guardian angel — his presence, along with the perfect match between the production’s ’40s aesthetics with Harry’s own persona, allow this entry to be commendably unique.
07) Episode 167: “With A Little Help From My Friends” (Aired: 03/13/91)
Christine brings Roz along to her self-help group.
Written by Nancylee Myatt | Directed by Kevin Sullivan
As mentioned above, Roz is one of most valuable players during the end of the show’s run and the burgeoning friendship she shares with Christine is one of the better and most fruitful dynamics that the later seasons boast. Getting Roz into a self-help group (which is, as you might anticipate, quite loony) is a natural recipe for comedy, and this script, still not truly spectacular, does a capable job of living up to the concept. You’ll note that this is the best episode from the last stretch of the year to make my list; boy, the latter half of Season Eight is bad — worse than the final years of The Jeffersons. That’s saying something. Watch this one for Roz.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: both parts of “Crossroads,” a story that’s fundamentally a gimmick by conception and design, but at least makes an attempt to base its content on the characters themselves, and both parts of the season finale, “Where There’s A Will, There’s A Tony,” in which Christine’s baby daddy returns with an aim to reconcile, while Harry’s feelings for Christine resurface.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of Night Court goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the final season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!