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 surreality 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!