NBC’s reboot marries old-school multi-cam gags to new-school melancholy with uneven results.
Night Court’s first time on the television dial ran nine seasons from 1984 to 1992. Throughout its run, NBC paired it with such sitcom titans as The Cosby Show, Cheers, and Family Ties. Far and away the oddest of the quartet, it never caught fire critically or creatively in the same way. Nonetheless, its off-center charms worked their magic on enough people to make it a syndicated favorite and to get referenced by the likes of 30 Rock.
That makes it a strange, but not inexplicable, choice for reboot now. Sure, it did literally devolve into a cartoon–a final season episode featured a scene in which Judge Harry Stone (Harry Anderson) heard a case from Prosecutor Dan Fielding (John Larroquette) and Public Defender Christine Sullivan (Markie Post) about Wile E. Coyote. But time tends to erase the extremes and just leave the warm feelings.
That’s what makes the direction the reboot goes feel odd. While still silly, the show has a persistent vein of melancholy that it can’t suppress. It attempts to marry the new sincerity of sitcoms like Ted Lasso or The Good Place with the classic setup, punchline, repeat style of the late 80s/early 90s multi-cam and laugh track shows. Unfortunately, the approaches frequently clash awkwardly. It also leads Night Court to be less like a successor and more like an awkward cousin the family generally didn’t discuss.
One character is revealed to be in recovery and regretful about the time lost. Another discusses the death of their spouse with stone-faced sincerity. The original Night Court was not a series without occasional serious moments, but it was far likelier to reach for a joke. It once killed off a recurring guest star, an unhoused man no less, with a falling piano gag. Fielding the character closest to him, was far more broken up about the prospect of doing charitable acts on this man’s behalf than he was about the death. It’s impossible to imagine the new version of the series, judging by the first six episodes provided to critics, reaching for jokes so silly, irreverent, and dark.
Perhaps some of this is for the best. How many jokes does society need about tragedies involving the unhoused, after all? However, it also alters the DNA of the one returning character, Larroquette’s Fielding. In the original, he was a lascivious jerk, always on the edge of some dignity-shredding sight gag or explosion of unrestrained horniness. Now, he’s still good with a one-liner. He’s Larroquette. Of course, he can still deliver.
Six episodes in, the series is still struggling to figure itself out.
But the character is sadder, smaller, less colorful. Characters have the right to grow, yes, but all Fielding’s growth happened while we were gone from each others’ lives. The experience of his return is, thus, less “hey Fun Dan!” and more akin to running into the class clown at a high school reunion only to learn he’s a widower who hasn’t smiled, nevermind laughed, in six years. He might still have the chops, but he’s not the man you knew.
That’s not to suggest the show is just a dire affair. On the contrary, it has jokes and moments of silliness. As Judge Abigail Stone, daughter of the deceased Harry, Melissa Rauch is an effervescent presence. She often overcomes some of the show’s weaker writing with pure force of sweet giddiness. Bailiff Donna Gurgs (Lacretta) is appealingly wacky. The prosecutor Olivia (India de Beaufort) gets better the more the series lets her dig into the character’s inferiority complex and her apparently deeply unhealthy childhood.
Unfortunately, the discordant beats keep coming up, especially when it comes to guest stars. Faith Ford pops up as Abigail’s mom and largely kills it as you’d expect. However, there is one joke in which she brings up something that would be deeply hurtful and mean-spirited to her daughter. Neither the show nor the characters clock it, though, suggesting they forgot this important part of the Judge’s backstory.
Pete Holmes, as Abigail’s surprisingly tan despite being from Upstate New York fiancé, gets it worse. He fully feels like he’d slot perfectly into a season 4 episode of the original. Here, however, he sticks out like a sore thumb. Everything about him and the character feels collaborated for the kind of reboot everyone expected, but this new Night Court isn’t that kind of show.
Six episodes in, the series is still struggling to figure itself out. When they manage to find their groove, it definitely can be fun. A recurring bit in one episode echoes a joke 30 Rock made about the show, but they play it nearly perfectly. Throughout the episode, they manage the silliness and the sincerity. It’s only the final denouement where they lose the thread, tipping into Night Court’s past rather than staying in its present. Too often, that’s the story of this new Night Court. It’s too silly to fit the mold of the new “humane” sitcom model but too melancholy to fully function as a flashback to the multi-cam heyday.
All rise for Night Court beginning January 17 on NBC.