Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sunday Best: TV Sitcoms of All Time #25 - Night Court

9 Seasons (1984-1992)

I remember this show with great fondness.  I think when most people think of Night Court, they think of the off-the-wall zany antics of Judge Harold T. Stone (Harry Anderson) and his legal cohorts.

What they may not remember is that the show was not that zany to start.  In fact, Night Court was meant to be a more grounded show where real legal and social issues could be addressed in a humorous light.

The premise of the show was that Harry Stone was a young, unorthodox judge who brought humor and wisdom to his court.  He was supposed to be the madcap figure surrounded by straighten.  Over the course of time, the supporting cast began to take shape.  John Laroquette had an award-winning turn as ADA Dan Fielding.  But it took several seasons before his character found his voice.  Notice in the pilot how he comes off as an intellectual snob.  But by the 3rd season his is painted as an amoral lothario.

But for me, it was always about Harry.  I loved his sense of humor, his Peter Pan personality but with wit beneath the surface.  I even ended up buying his book on how to con people (which almost got be beat up at a Church carnival, but that's another story).

The setting allowed for a constant parade of interesting people and cases to be brought before the characters.  I particularly am fond of the episodes where they have to get through a certain number of cases before the night is over.


The show reached its threshold in the 4th season with the episode "Give Thanks" (4x02).  By this time only Anderson, Laroquette, and Richard Moll (Baliff Bull Shannon) remained from the original cast.  They were complimented by the actors who would continue on with the show until the end of its run: Charles Robinson as the witty Mac, Marsha Warfield as the stoic Bailiff Roz, and Markie Post as the Sandra-Dee-like Christine Sullivan the public defender.  The chemistry of the cast was phenomenal.

In this particular episode, the lustful Dan saves Christine's life.  She asks how she can repay him and he wants her virginity.  At first she balks at this ugly request, but then caves to guilt.  The result is a hotel room scene that keeps adding more and more people like something out of A Night at the Opera, where the rest of the court comes and tries to prevent this disgusting transaction from occurring.  Not only is this episode full of laughs (especially with the suicidal guy on the ledge), but it ends with an understanding of how respect and objectification are incompatible.  It also displayed the fantastic group dynamic that would carry the show throughout the rest of its seasons.


For me the best part of the show was the romantic tension between Harry and Christine.  Because of their professional positions, they could never have a relationship beyond friendship.  And yet it was so clear that they were in love.  In the the 3-part episode "Her Honor," (4x21-5x01) Christine gets promoted to judge and Harry gets fired.  Not only does this lead to some of the show's most heartfelt moments but also some of Harry's most insane antics (I particularly enjoy his planned publicity stunt revealed at the very end of the episodes).  But when Harry and Christine declare their affections, it is with a note of sadness and the realization that being together means that they won't be able to fulfill their vocations.  I remember being a kid and watching this episode over and over again.  It made me realize good writing involves real emotional conflict.


The show took its downturn in quality with "Wedding Blues" (7x15-16).

Most sitcoms from the 80's kept their main romantic leads apart because bringing them together let a lot of the excitement die (see Moonlighting).  The same was true of Night Court.  In this episode, Christine impulsively married a man and became pregnant with his baby.

What changed about the show was that they could never capture the romantic spark between Harry and Christine again.  Both characters would have relationships with other people, but it always rang hollow and felt like pointless filler.  But even after this, it took all the wind out of the sails of this relationship.

Of course the series was not focused only on them.  The other characters had wonderfully fun story arcs.  And by the middle of the series, Night Court found a fantastic balance between the silly and the sappy.  But from this episode on, the humor continued to broaden and make further and further breaks from reality.  The story lines became more nonsensical.

This can especially be seen in the final season, which was tacked on at the last second instead of cancellation.  What had been zany wit devolved into bland mugging for the camera.


Night Court was an oasis of silly fun at a time when comedies were becoming more and more cynical.  Yes, as a Catholic I was not impressed with a lot of the loose sexual humor, but it is nothing compared to what is on today.  And, as in the case of Dan, it was clear that he was only really happy when he could find someone to love and share his life with, not just his body.

So if your tastes run something towards the wacky, give this series another look.

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