Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the conclusion 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.
I go back and forth over whether or not this season is worse than the eighth. Let me try to deconstruct why. While new showrunners Cluess and Kreisman made it a point in Season Eight to imbue the show with what they felt were substantive, more grounded stories (a.k.a. unfunny, misguided scripts), their mission in Season Nine was to embrace the silliness to which the show had been building before their 1990 return. In other words, with Season Eight having been viewed as a comparable success (a line of thinking with which I would personally not agree), they felt freer in Season Nine to embrace the show’s natural comedic capabilities. Theoretically, I’d be on board. But, as we’ve often seen here before on Sitcom Tuesdays, in the quest for bolder comedy comes, regrettably, breeches in logic that cannot be condoned. It is for this reason that I tend to prefer the disappointing early seasons (one and two) over the disappointing later seasons (eight and nine), for the former had a healthier relationship with common sense, even if the laughs weren’t of the level I typically require. In contrast, the much worse alternative occurs when common sense evaporates, as it does at the end of Night Court, and we’re left only with derisive laughs — the kind that come from a disbelief in the sheer audacity behind the show’s apparent lack of brains. That’s Season Nine. And that’s why I also can’t say — even though I personally can find more moments of comedy here — that it’s better than the otherwise rotten, but for different reasons, Season Eight.
Anyway, let’s discuss the final season itself. The writers resolve the Harry/Christine cliffhanger by having them both quickly decide to remain friends. Okay, whatever. Sometimes when a series positions towards a grand development and then reverses course (usually after a hiatus), it’s a disappointment. But I generally enjoy when a show is ballsy enough to break with tradition — as long as it makes sense and works for the characters, which it does here — because at this point in the run, Harry and Christine really have no reason no want one another, especially because all of Season Seven (and the majority of Season Eight) were spent with nary a mention of their feelings for one another or the previous tension, if you could call it that, that existed between the two. They’ve even become better friends in the time since, and as I’ve expressed before, it’s too late to do anything romantically with them, so it’s neither a surprise nor a loss when at the end of the series they don’t get together in the final scenes (although I know many, like Kenneth from 30 Rock, would disagree). Truthfully, they never seemed like a terrifically matched pair, but because the series never let itself explore the possibility, I can’t be sure. And, anyway, that disappointment is not unique to, and cannot be blamed on, Season Nine.
Meanwhile, Season Nine also has the good sense to restore Dan back to his sleazy lecherous origins. Of course, you can never go home again, and it’s impossible to fully recapture the character that once existed — and even if they’d managed to do just that, it wouldn’t have been believable anymore. As a character, Dan Fielding was boxed into a corner last year, and although he’s getting more laughs in Season Nine than in Eight, he’s still a shell of his former self. Yet in contrast to Dan Fielding’s emptiness, we also have Roz’s beautiful expansion, as Warfield remains one of the most consistently enjoyable presences on the series, anchoring some of the year’s more memorable moments. Also, I have to give credit to the series for wrapping up everyone’s stories in logical ways. I like that Christine runs for public office, Harry begins teaching law, Mac cultivates a passion for film (mirroring Robinson’s own), and that Bull gets married (although I’m not fond of the alien storyline in the finale — it ruins the otherwise grounded outing). Their developments are smart, sensical, and there’s closure without it being too over-indulgent. So… now that I’ve managed to compliment the rocky season, let’s get to the list. 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 Nine. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that 18 of the 22 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 175: “Puppy Love” (Aired: 10/09/91)
The gang is surprised when Roz’s husband shows up looking for a divorce.
Written by Kevin Kelton
A wonderful Roz centered story by the year’s best writer, Kelton, this offering also extends worthwhile moments between Roz and Christine, one of the great relationships cultivated during the latter half of the series. I also appreciate that the show is able, at this point in its tired existence, to reveal a major surprise about a main character and for us to willingly go along with it in exchange for what follows. Surprisingly, Roz has remained intact over the course of the run, and with the right story, she is easily able to thrive. So for Season Nine, this is a good one.
02) Episode 180: “The System Works” (Aired: 11/17/91)
Harry agrees to teach a law course and Christine tries to write a children’s book.
Written by Lee Madux
This episode begins the arc of Harry’s teaching a group of hapless law students, a career change that he considers pursuing during the finale (well, the intended finale). It’s a decent story for his character, but it’s not very funny. Rather, this episode is here because of the hilarious subplot in which Christine tries to write a children’s book, with the court artist doing the illustrations. But when Dan convinces the artist to draw naughty pictures of Christine for him, the drawings get mixed up with the ones Christine has taken to her big meeting! My choice for the year’s MVE.
03) Episode 181: “Get Me To The Roof On Time” (Aired: 11/20/91)
The courthouse is all a bustle as Bull prepares to get married.
Written by Jim Pond & Bill Fuller
Bull marries Wanda, the woman he met last season when he requested her services as a matchmaker, in this functional episode that, despite its narrative necessities, actually manages cute (and this time I don’t mean it as a complaint) moments for each member of the ensemble. The rooftop wedding scene, with the Del Rubio triplets (you’ll know ’em when you see ’em) providing the music, is romantic and bizarre — perfect for Bull — and more than makes up for some of the unnecessary schmaltz. I do like the one — surprisingly — and find it well-done.
04) Episode 183: “Shave And A Haircut” (Aired: 01/08/92)
Harry unknowingly leads Mel Tormé into the middle of a prank.
Written by Kevin Kelton | Directed by Jim Drake
Mel Tormé shows up more times this season than in any other, but this is the most substantial of his appearances and it’s actually one of his more enjoyable — as of late — showings. Again, I need to credit Kelton’s script for injecting humor in an episode with a premise that doesn’t really invite anything aside from cheap story gags. Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t even close to being the best episode of the seven highlighted here in this post, but once again, for Season Nine standards, this is a stronger effort, and in that frame of mind, it plays quite well.
05) Episode 186: “Poker? I Hardly Know Her” (Aired: 02/05/92)
Roz hosts a makeup party for the women of the courtroom and Quon Le.
Written by Nancylee Myatt
Although I don’t think this episode manages to rise above clichés that in other shows (and better years) I would often be unable to excuse, in the search for quality within Season Nine, I am willing to overlook and forgive. The strength of this outing is in putting Christine, Roz (the show’s current Laugh Queen, and whose apartment we finally get to see here), Lisette, and Quon Le all together for extended scenes in which they must bounce off one another. Quon Le does tend to disappoint, as does Lisette, but their material is more character-driven than usual.
06) Episode 188: “Party Girl (II)” (Aired: 02/12/92)
Christine continues her campaign and Mac’s film is shown in theaters.
Written by Alison Rosenfeld-Desmarais
As the second half of a two-parter, should you decide to watch this entry, I’d naturally advise watching the first part as well. This is the outing that introduces Christine’s run for Congress, against the incumbent played beautifully by Nancy Marchand. She and Post share a wonderful scene, just before her character has an unexpected heart attack and dies. But I’m more fond of the subplot, in which Mac’s artsy 90-minute film of Bull’s wedding is shown in theaters and develops a cult following, with people dressing up as the regulars of the night court. Funny!
07) Episode 190: “P.S. Do I Know You?” (Aired: 03/04/92)
Roz is worried about meeting a pen pal to whom she’s lied about herself.
Written by Nancylee Myatt & Karen Heckler
Another strong episode for the Roz character, this is yet another entry that sort of wrestles with a “typical sitcom” story and survives only because it makes adequate uses of the characters and manages not to insult anyone’s intelligence too explicitly. Also, this is a good place to mention the show’s ability to make use of the friendship it attempted to forge between Roz and Lisette, who poses as Roz on the big date with her pen pal — who, in a wonderfully TV-perfect turn of events, has actually secured a friend to pose for him on the date too. Watch this one for Roz.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Teacher’s Pet,” in which Christine is insulted by a former professor and Bull has a bizarre ceremony to restore his virginity (that’s actually the funniest, but MOST ABSURD part of the episode — and probably the season), “A New York Story,” which is mostly amusing for the subplot of Dan judging a beauty contest and sleeping with all the contestants, and “The 1992 Boat Show,” the final aired installment, in which Roz becomes a hit within the jet-setting crowd and Lisette has naughty dreams about Harry. Each of these have elements just as worthwhile as those in the episodes highlighted above, but also contain perhaps greater detractions.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Nine of Night Court goes to…..
“The System Works”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the first season of The Cosby Show! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!
Your reviewing has gotten better. Can’t wait until The Cosby Show
Hi, Track! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I noted this last year, but covering CHEERS elevated the quality of my output. I now put more commentary in the seasonal introductions than I had before, making my thoughts on the shows themselves more comprehensive and a further complement to my notes on the individual highlighted episodes.
However, I still struggle with length; I fundamentally feel that less is more, particularly on a blog that’s designed primarily for browsing, but any cutting back in these posts now would have to be justified by the demands of the commentary itself, as my pedantic tendencies are also married to a belief that in shrinking the discussion, I would also be falling from a peak instead of maintaining, or better yet, gaining on a style that had already been established. However, some shows — and seasons — just warrant more (or less) discussion than others, and right now I try to let this truth naturally dictate these posts and how they’re structured.
As always, I’m really excited for the start of a new series here, but after a few weeks, I’ll be ready to move on to the next one — irrespective of seasonal quality. NIGHT COURT was no exception, and neither was THE COSBY SHOW. In fact, I can tell you now that THE COSBY SHOW, like NIGHT COURT, wasn’t always a fun show to cover — then again, it’s not always a fun show to watch either — but I do hope that my commentary is, at least, more consistently interesting than the seasons themselves. After all, it’s the gradations in quality that have ultimately made discussing the series a possibility. Stay tuned…
I got a feeling that you would highlight Cosby comedy as well as the consistency of Rashads acting. But out of all the cast members the people whom I think can play off Cosby well is Malcolm Jamal Warner and the bald next door neighbor
Perhaps! Stay tuned…
Great job on this series, Jackson! Some of these last seasons are admittedly rough but it’s still a fun series. Looking forward to THE COSBY SHOW and even more to THE GOLDEN GIRLS!
Hi, Elaine! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I’m looking forward to both of those shows as well, particularly THE GOLDEN GIRLS, my second favorite sitcom of the ’80s! Stay tuned…
Before you leave NIGHT COURT, here’s a long-forgotten Reinhold Weege sitcom with similar-sounding plots – and Florence Stanley playing the same role she played on NC:
Hi, Jake! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Yes, I looked into that series, which was paired with the retched CHECKING IN, and was unable to locate any episodes.
The other short-lived sitcom connected to NIGHT COURT’s history that I hoped to do something with was SIROTA’S COURT, which had nothing to do with Weege but featured a VERY similar premise. Oh, well — maybe one day; if GRADY can get a release, anything’s possible! (Hopefully SANFORD follows soon. Although I already have the series, an official release might make me re-consider covering it in full, but I digress…)
Are you still considering reviewing Dear John
Hi, R! Thanks for reading and commenting.
No, I decided to pass on DEAR JOHN months ago. MURPHY BROWN, however, will be seen here.
Indeed — stay tuned for that next year!
Night Court Season 9 is just weird… and sad. Virtually any traces of the show actually feeling like Night Court are gone, and it just has an odd not-quite-right vibe about it. Thankfully, Dan is back being a sleaze (with newly-darkened hair for some reason), but Harry’s characterization I think is one of biggest problems in this season. Sad to say this, since I’m a big Harry fan.
I don’t know if Harry Anderson is to blame, or if it was a decision of the producers/ writers, or a combination of all of this… but his character has become so incredibly bland and unfunny in this season, it might as well be a different character entirely than the Harry Stone we came to know and love years earlier. I suppose it is reminiscent of watching Elizabeth Montgomery acting in the final (eighth) season of Bewitched, where it *really* showed that she was just going through the motions.
I attended audience tapings of two episodes of Night Court Season 9… the final two episodes of the series. When I arrived for the taping of the first of the two episodes, Opportunity Knock Knocks: Part 1, I had no idea of two things: that Season 9 was going to be the final season of the show (this fact, though it must have seemed obvious that the show was nearing its conclusion at the time, did not dawn on me at age 13)… or that the particular taping I found myself at was going to be part 1 of the two-part series conclusion. But when the taping of Part 1 ended, the audience warm-up person informed the audience that this was going to be a two-part episode, and that Part 2 was going to be taped the following week.
Naturally, I begged my mom for us to get tickets to be able to return for Part 2, which we did. Since we didn’t know we were going to attend the final episode, it was just good luck that a big Night Court fan like myself would get to be there for the series finale.
As memory serves, at the Part 1 taping, the audience was never told that next week’s taping was going to be for the series finale… and years later, having heard Harry Anderson’s recollections (on the Night Court TV Tales E! Special) of the cast finding out that Part 2 of this episode was going to be the series finale only on the Part 2 taping day, this confirms that nobody was really in the know. But once I arrived at the taping of Part 2, everything changed, and it was certainly obvious, and emotions were charged.
It’s pretty fascinating to think about how far Night Court had fallen in terms of popularity that getting tickets for the final episode was not difficult whatsoever (I would imagine that today, any long-running series that ran 9 seasons – even with diminished popularity in its final years – would still be tough to finagle getting tickets for the series finale. Again, this may all be because even the cast members didn’t know for sure until the day of.
At some point during the Part 2 taping, I think the audience was told that this was going to be the last episode of the series. It was a sight to see (and hear) all of the many, many female extras piling into the courtroom for Dan’s nightmarish dream sequence. Another memory is that the brief Mel Torme sequence (where he appears in Harry’s chambers, during the final scene in the entire series) was not filmed in front of the audience. That short bit was pre-taped (maybe to make things easier on Mel’s schedule?) at an earlier time, and the audience watched this segment on the TV monitors, with our laughter being taped and audibly blended into the final product.
The one big, poignant memory I have is of seeing Marsha Warfield getting emotional at the end of the night. I think this was either right before, or right after the last scene was filmed. She said something to the audience thanking us, and the finality of it all must have just hit her hard. Amazing how disrespectful it must have been to have found out that a show of that longevity would be ending – and finding out that night on taping night. When the finale eventually aired, it was extra sad, because on the local news later that night, the news broke that Robert Reed (Mike Brady from the Brady Bunch) had passed away.
Night Court really stinks in its 9th season, it really, really does… but I’m glad it lasted that long for the sole reason that I got to attend 3 tapings.
Hi, Ben! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I don’t share your intense disappointment with the Harry characterization — at least not as it specifically pertains to these final seasons — for I believe Anderson’s limitations as a comic actor, irrespective of his natural charisma and likability, hampered Harry Stone’s potential since the beginning. In fact, I think it was fairly early in the run (maybe even Season Three) when the show gradually stopped forcing any focused characterization outside of what Anderson was naturally supplying. This alleviated some of the initial tensions that existed in Anderson’s portrayal, but once the writing went into sharp decline post-Weege, the actor didn’t have a strong character to fall back upon for support, thus exposing a problem that had always existed. Ill-advised scripts only exacerbated the issue.
I’m so glad you shared your reminisces of those final tapings (and I’m also looking forward to reading about your experience with MARRIED… WITH CHILDREN, which begins full coverage here starting on the last Tuesday in November). Do you remember when they were shot? I ask because I question how much a surprise the cancellation announcement would have been to the cast — should it have really come during the finale week — given that the press had been reporting back in September ’91 that NIGHT COURT was indeed concluding, and that several of the actors, including Warfield and Post, already had other deals in the works for the ’92-’93 season. Perhaps the final word came down pretty late, but the show’s demise seems to have been even more of a forgone conclusion than it had been in the year prior (when its death was temporarily prolonged). Of course, the show’s ability to stave off cancellation once might have made a second time seem more achievable…
The final two tapings were in late Feb/very early March 1992. I still have an extra ticket which I’ve held onto all these years for Part 1, which is dated Friday, February 28, 1992. I didn’t recall if this ticket was from Part 1 or Part 2, but at some point I recall seeing a pic online of someone else’s Night Court ticket from very early March, which must be from Part 2. I’m sure The 1992 Boat Show episode must have been taped earlier than these episodes, but possibly pre-empted from its intended initial airing, and burned off as a “new” episode after the proper finale aired.
Here’s a pic of my ticket from Part 1 of the final episode, Opportunity Knock Knocks:
I think Harry could be really solid doing drama when he wanted to be… the scene in the 1st episode of Season 4, where he talks to Bull about Selma and Flo dying comes to mind. And I like Harry’s wacky side, where he’d just be wild and nutty, telling dorky jokes, doing magic tricks, and the like… and this side of him, as far as I recall, *completely* vanished from his character by Season 9. So it felt like a very conscious decision to make the character more “mature”, but it betrayed who the show had built Harry to be. Harry in Season 9 almost feels like a character who has just lost his entire family in a car crash, and is walking around as a depressed version of his former happier, goofier self.
One more memory regarding Night Court in its 9th Season… funny enough, being that I was such a big Night Court fan as a kid, I had the unusually good luck to meet and hang out with Richard Moll outside of the Night Court world in late 1991. My friend Robby happened to have befriended Moll (at a karate school, of all places, that they both attended)… and Richard got (and accepted) an invitation to Robby’s Bar Mitzvah party. I was seated next to Richard for the entire night (pretty sure this was not any kind of accident, as Robby knew I was a big fan), and Richard was absolutely a very nice man as I recall, and happily answered any Night Court questions I had for him. Wish I remembered more about the experience, but let’s just say that even if Richard may have possibly privately hated doing the series at that point, this never affected how he treated me as a fan who wanted to quiz him about the show.
I’m looking forward to sharing some Married…With Children memories too. Thanks for this awesome blog!
My last post, which I was unable to edit, had a typo stating I saw someone else’s Night Court ticket from very early May… that should have said very early March.
I’ve edited the comment in compliance with your intent (and made the picture viewable) — thanks for responding!
I think you make a good point about the dreariness of Harry’s characterization at the end of NIGHT COURT’s run, one of the many byproducts of Cluess and Kreisman’s unfortunate style, but again, I think his character was always thinly rendered, so my disappointment here isn’t reserved specifically for their tenure. (Interestingly, neither is my disfavor for Dan’s narrative trajectory, for although Cluess/Kreisman were much more ostentatious and story-driven in their dismantling of his comedic capabilities, I think Dan’s dilution had already begun under Weege…)
I really didn’t like the way they handled Bull’s character at the end-taking him away from Wanda? That was just really bizarre, even for him.
Hi, WVR Spence! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Yes, it’s odd — but it’s part and parcel of a series that contradicted its claimed character concerns by more regularly forsaking logic as it progressed. It’s just another example of ill-fitting, unearned absurdity.