Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the start 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 Harold 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 Harry Stone, KAREN AUSTIN as Lana Wagner, JOHN LARROQUETTE as Dan Fielding, RICHARD MOLL as Bull Shannon, PAULA KELLY as Liz Williams, and SELMA DIAMOND as Selma Hacker.
In critical commentary, Night Court is often discussed as three separate entities: the early years, the middle years, and the later years. The middle three seasons are considered to be the show’s golden era, with sharp writing and the strongest collective cast, while the last three seasons are said to illustrate a gradual downhill trajectory, as the scripts forsake character and common sense for cheap laughs and easy story. In contrast to each of the above, the early seasons are mostly defined by both the unstable core cast, which changes by the year, and the grittier, less quirky tone, which seems to belong to the sitcoms of the previous decade rather than those of Night Court‘s actual era. My opinions about the show are generally in keeping with the consensus, because my sensibilities regarding sitcoms of this time (and, really, every time) are contingent on the balance of laughs and logic; this show begins with more logic than laughs and ends with more laughs (or attempts at laughs) than logic, meaning that there’s a very limited “sweet spot” where that much desired equity between the two is achieved. But that’s precisely what’s going to make the show so interesting to discuss over the next few months…
When thinking about this first season, which premiered in January 1984 as a midseason replacement for The Rousters, one of the seminal issues to address, especially in the context of the entire series’ arc, is whether you’d rather the show be smart and mildly amusing or stupid and capable of occasional big laughs. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, I think it will come as no surprise that I prefer logic, as I believe this must be the basis for any worthwhile comedy. Happily, logic is one of the things uniquely offered by this first season, which only goes off the common sense rails for one of these 13 episodes (“Wonder Drugs,” which as a result, doesn’t work), and keeps things in a style similar to the smart, unglamorous ensemble comedies of the 1970s, particularly Barney Miller. Comparisons to that long-running ABC comedy, which ended a year-and-half before the debut of Night Court, are easy and fairly obvious, especially with the knowledge that creator Reinhold Weege was one of Barney Miller‘s most prolific writers in its second through fifth seasons. Like Barney Miller, the first year of Night Court is physically contained, slower-paced, exceedingly urban, not governed by easy laughs, and most noticeably, committed to tackling social issues. Many of these traits will persist throughout the run, but it’ll soon become clear that Night Court is NOT Barney Miller, and the formation of an original identity is going to prove vital. (Of course, by the time the show really finds itself, the corruption that plagues most long-running sitcoms is preparing to make an overture.)
Yet while my preference for logic over looniness in this series is unwavering, it should also be noted that my slight favor for the troublesome early seasons — over the equally imperfect later seasons — is not unfettered from a belief that the show’s comedic quotient is still in tremendous need of bolstering. Addressing this concern will require a broadening of the stories, but as we’ll see, moderating this adjustment and setting limits is crucial, for once the show goes too far, it’s nearly impossible to recalibrate. However, Season One’s relationship with its comedy is less troublesome than its relationship with drama, as many ideas here are more rooted in story than character. Rather than being fostered by a character or a thematic element inherent within the series, these story/issue-based conflicts derive themselves from an external idea or dilemma. We see this everywhere, but it’s necessary to impress that the only way to really explore our world’s deepest truths is by examining them though the experience of the individual. Therefore, the more character-driven an idea, the more likely it will succeed in delivering potent drama, and, for that matter, comedy. The topical “issue” storytelling will become even more distracting in years ahead, but the problems with the way Night Court mines drama will be somewhat mitigated as the characters and their relationships are settled over the next few seasons.
This speaks to the biggest reason that the first season of Night Court is, in a word, mediocre: the characters aren’t well-defined yet — especially in comparison to, say, the characters from the first 13 episodes of Cheers, which was often compared to Night Court when the two were paired with each other on Thursday nights. Once we get to know our leads, and the show gets to know them, then we can have a more genuinely comedic (and dramatic) experience. Of course, we can’t ignore the impact also made by the revolving door of cast members, which makes forming relationships difficult. But even the players who stick out the entire run (Harry, Bull, and Dan) are not fully crafted in Season One, and while Harry gets the most attention — allowing us to feel like we know him best (and Anderson, who caught the network’s eye on both SNL and Cheers, is quite charming, despite seeming a little green) — a character like Dan is just a pale prototype of the bountiful comedic source he will become in years ahead. And it’s a cruel irony that the first season’s half-defined, but most reliable big laugh-getter, Selma, played by the legendary Selma Diamond, a true workhorse who was one of two women to serve as the inspiration for Sally Rogers, isn’t going to be around for much longer. (More on her next week.)
Not surprisingly, one of the most discussed elements of the first year is the other two female cast members, neither of whom returned for the second season. Replacing Gail Strickland as the pilot’s public defender, Paula Kelly appears in the year’s remaining 12 episodes as Liz Williams, the no-nonsense defender with a dry tongue and a penchant for sparring with Dan. Kelly’s a spunky presence, helping to fuel the show’s early grit, and she even earned an Emmy nomination for her work. Unfortunately I don’t think we ever get to see Kelly do enough to make a judgment that justifies either her nomination or her dismissal (which I wouldn’t be surprised to learn was a decision upon which she and the producers mutually agreed), but I might guess she was a collateral casualty of the tragedy that was Karen Austin, who played Lana Wagner, the court clerk introduced in the pilot as a romantic interest for Harry. After establishing a contentious relationship with the new judge, by the end of the premiere she’s become his fast admirer, and the show hints at her crush on him for the remainder of her tenure, which actually only lasts ten episodes. Weege and company have long claimed that Austin was let go because she wasn’t clicking with Anderson or the others, and that may be true (again, it’s so soon that we don’t get the opportunity to see if he’s right), but the real reason she was fired was a health crisis. Austin came down with Bell’s Palsy that rendered her out-of-commission for the final three offerings, after which she was permanently dropped.
Was Austin mistreated? Absolutely. Also, while I agree that the show needed re-designing to become a funnier entity in its second season, I can’t agree that she lacks chemistry with Anderson. In fact, there are times when they’re cute together. I think Austin herself was a capable and committed actress who got mediocre material and a character that, while decently drawn in the pilot, didn’t seem to have a set personality in her other nine appearances. (The Harry/Lana relationship would have been more interesting if Weege had decided to keep them in conflict for a longer period of time.) Nevertheless, when Austin was officially removed from the cast after the first year, Weege made the decision not to have the new court clerk once again be Harry’s love interest, necessitating that another player be dropped in order to make room. Liz was probably the least established of the remaining characters, making her the likely choice to go — thus allowing next season to have the positions switched: a public defender love interest and a black court clerk. But we’ll talk all about that soon. In the meantime, I have picked five episodes that I think exemplify this adequate 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 five best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 1: “All You Need Is Love” (Aired: 01/04/84)
Judge Harold T. Stone has his first evening on the bench.
Written by Reinhold Weege | Directed by James Burrows
The series’ pilot, produced in early 1983, is the strongest of the entire first season – even with the year’s core cast not entirely present. But Weege’s scripts are always really good at exploring character and finding focus, so the strength of this pilot comes as no surprise. In this opener, the staff is shocked at the unorthodox demeanor of Harry, their new night court judge. The containment of the action, along with the aforementioned focus, ensures that the comedy is pointed and fast, a trait one wishes would have sustained throughout the remainder of the season. Also note the initial adversarial relationship set up between Harry and Lana (an early Sam/Diane impact), which allows them to play with more tension and chemistry than in anything that develops in the more amiable dynamic that evolves. GREAT debut.
02) Episode 7: “Once In Love With Harry” (Aired: 02/22/84)
A hooker has a crush on Harry; Dan runs for city council.
Written by Reinhold Weege | Directed by Jay Sandrich
I have no actual idea why this script, which was the first written after the pilot, was held until the middle of this truncated season but my hunch is that there seems to be a bit more development between Harry and Lana, a pair who are still being poised as a potential couple at some point in the future, and the familiarity between them, along with the familiarity between Harry and the rest of the cast, plays better with a few more episodes in separation from the pilot. Another Weege script, the outing’s serious moments are balanced (unlike some of his other offerings this year) with great comedy. Also, Dan’s running for public office will prove to be a recurring theme, and the subplot of his losing a city council position to a dead man is a riot – perhaps the funniest stuff of the season – and reminds of a strong episode of The Tony Randall Show.
03) Episode 10: “Some Like It Hot” (Aired: 03/14/84)
A Russian who doesn’t speak English threatens to burn down the courtroom.
Written by Stu Kreisman & Chris Cluess | Directed by Jay Sandrich
These two authors, Kreisman and Cluess, are among the funniest script crafters from the shaky first two seasons of the series (in fact, they’ll be brought back again at the end), and the way they can layer smart comedy into character-driven material, is worthy of praise. In the case of this particular episode, I would actually classify it as having the same problem as many installments – a story that isn’t among the most enjoyable and thus, doesn’t seem itself to be conducive to big laughs (but, again, Weege is coming from an era and a show that wanted heavier moments, so this episode, like many from these early seasons, is par for his figurative course). Yet this surprise success is exactly what makes the script so entertainingly strong. No surprise: the Dan-Liz handcuff subplot is the amusing highlight!
04) Episode 11: “Harry And The Rock Star” (Aired: 03/21/84)
The courthouse is in an uproar when Harry dates a rock star.
Written by Reinhold Weege | Directed by Jay Sandrich
This well-liked offering has actually not always been one of my favorites. As with many of the episodes in the first season of Night Court, I think the story is imposed upon the characters, instead of the characters imposing upon the story. It’s a big stretch to see Harry dating a rock star (particularly given the way his character evolves) and this anachronism in comparison to the rest of the series isn’t appreciated as novelty (at least, not by moi), but rather forgiven because Weege’s script is able to imbue more humor in and around the story, almost redeeming the narrative itself for being a conceptual mistake. And to the episode’s credit, there are so many delectable moments for big laughs — almost as many as there are in the pilot — chief of which is the bet that Liz and Selma have over guessing the rocker fans’ genders. Funny!
05) Episode 13: “Hi Honey, I’m Home” (Aired: 05/31/84)
Harry must adjudicate a case involving man whose wife remarried after he was declared dead.
Written by Tom Reeder | Directed by Gary Shimokawa
The finale of the first season, this is the second episode on today’s list that’s without Karen Austin’s Lana. In her place is D.D. Howard, who makes her second of two appearances as the interim public defender. Unlike the two above episodes, which thrive on great comedy that exists in spite of a shoddy story, this installment is moderately funny, but works because of the story – in this instance, it’s an interesting case patterned off of Enoch Arden, involving the return of a man whose wife thought he was dead and has just remarried. Marcia Rodd, the original Carol Findlay, plays the woman caught between two husbands (Charles Napier and Basil Hoffman) and does a mighty good job of keeping the premise engaging. Well-written, character moments are sprinkled amidst the weekly “procedural” plot; enjoyable finish to the season.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “The Former Harry Stone,” which continues the idea of the others being unsure about this new unorthodox judge and is narratively most like the pilot (but without the prior’s strong humor), and “Quadrangle Of Love,” which does some great things for the three permanent cast members — Harry, Bull, and Dan — and illustrates why they made it past the season. Both were seriously considered.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Night Court goes to…..
“All You Need Is Love”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the second season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!