“Night Court” is one of those series which is fondly remembered as a sitcom staple of the ‘80s, but as much as I watched it during the course of that decade, it’s one which has always left me looking back and wondering, “Did I only like it because I was a goofy kid?”
My predominant recollections of the show always seemed to involve Judge Harry Stone (Harry Anderson) making bad jokes and pulling wacky faces afterwards or Bailiff Bull Shannon (Richard Moll) being a loveable dimbulb as he stared blankly at the bizarre events unfolding around him, saying only, “Ooooooookay.” Obviously, I remembered lascivious prosecutor Dan Fielding (John Larroquette) and his never-ending stream of come-ons, but was it possible that they were merely a sporadic oasis of legitimate humor in the midst of a whole lot of silliness? In short, what if – God forbid – “Night Court” had aged poorly and wasn’t nearly as funny as I’d remembered it?
It’s worth mentioning up front that “Night Court: The Complete Third Season” isn’t necessarily the period by which one should judge the overall quality of the series. It’s close, mind you, but it’s not quite there. Those who watched the show during its original run will recall that “Night Court” had to battle through quite a few cast changes – some by choice, some not – during the course of its first few years. Trying to find the right actress to play the courtroom’s resident public defender proved challenging, but after blowing through three different characters from the pilot episode through the end of the second season, Season Three did at least bring the arrival of Markie Post as the loveably naïve Christine Sullivan. Despite the sort of hairstyle that no doubt makes her cringe when she looks back at her clip reel, Post offered up a blend of cute and professional that translated pretty easily into full-fledged sexiness, and her comedic timing was a damned sight better than her predecessors, particularly when staving off Dan’s advances and sneering at his double entendres.
Finding someone to play the series’ other bailiff, however, seemed to involve betting against the grim reaper and just hoping for the best: Selma Diamond, the raspy-voiced actress who played the appropriately-named Selma Hacker, died prior to the beginning of the show’s third season and was replaced by Florence Halop, who proceeded to die not long after the completion of Season Three. It wouldn’t be until Marcia Warfield joined the ranks in Season Four that the cast of “Night Court” would finally stop fluctuating, but then, we’re not talking about Season Four, are we? Looking back at Season Three, the addition of Bailiff Florence Kleiner to the cast feels like a rather dodgy move. Halop, God rest her soul, was no Selma Diamond, and while the idea of taking the character of Selma and swapping her out for the almost identical character of Florence was probably well intentioned, it feels now more like an attempt at a quick and easy transition. With that said, however, there is a very sweet episode which gives Bull the opportunity to both mourn Selma and accept Florence.
One man’s sweet, however, is another man’s schmaltz, and one thing that I’d forgotten about “Night Court” is just how heavy handed it used to be when delivering its emotional punches. In the show’s annual Halloween episode, Harry falls for a woman who turns out to be a witch, and the scene between the couple as they realize that they’ll never be together, no matter how they feel about each other, is positively painful to watch. In “Up on the Roof,” the plot of which is clearly inspired by the Brian Wilson / Eugene Landy relationship, you’ll cringe when Harry delivers his lesson to rock star Eddie Devon about how the rocker has to live his own life and not be controlled by his psychiatrist. This sort of thing happens a lot during the course of these 22 episodes, and after you’ve endured a few such incidents, you start to brace yourself for their inevitable appearance.
Fortunately, there are still a lot of things about “Night Court” that have aged far better. Larroquette’s work on the show remains hilarious, of course, but you may have forgotten just how funny Charles Robinson is when he’s delivering straight lines as court clerk Mac Robinson. Harry’s obsession with Mel Torme is still a brilliant character quirk, and although Bull was often a one-note character, you can’t say Richard Moll didn’t find a way to eke as many laughs as possible out of that note. There are still plenty of great sight gags and one liners. Amongst the various guest stars, you’ll want to pay particular attention to the recurring characters known as the Wheeler family (their patriarch, Bob Wheeler, was played by a pre-Data Brent Spiner), but other recognizable faces include Anne Ramsey (“Throw Mama from the Train”), Robert Englund (“Nightmare on Elm Street”), Keye Luke (“Kung Fu”), Pam Grier (“Jackie Brown”), and Estelle Harris – otherwise known as George Costanza’s mother on “Seinfeld” – as an aging prostitute, of all things. Lest we forget, Mr. Torme himself also makes an appearance in Season Three, the first of what would prove to be several.
So to answer my earlier concerns, yes, “Night Court” is still funny. It’s not necessarily as funny now as it was when I was a teenager, but it’s still funny enough that old-school fans will want to pick up “The Complete Third Season.”