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Over its nine-season, 193-episode run, NBC’s Night Court had many things going for it. The Manhattan courtroom setting presented an array of cases that let the show shift from the outlandish to the topical, the ridiculous to the borderline sincere. The workplace ensemble was generally solid and, in the case of four-time Emmy winner John Larroquette, occasionally spectacular.
One thing it didn’t have going for it was consistency. The broad humor could veer into hackiness, the attempts at candor could stray into mawkishness. Shifts within the supporting cast meant that the writers were constantly trying, not always successfully, to tailor new parts to new actors, knowing that they would always be behind Larroquette in punchlines and Harry Anderson in screen time. This inconsistency was especially pronounced if you experienced Night Court, as so many viewers did, primarily in syndication; one episode would lead you to think this was one of the best shows of its era and the next would be pure drivel.
Audiences can look forward to experiencing the inconsistencies of Night Court anew with NBC’s reboot, which hearkens back to the original with some frequency and, through its first six episodes, swings back and forth between somewhat promising and thoroughly embalmed. It’s a still-fruitful setting too often wasted by writers who aren’t quite sure how they want to adapt the format to a very different era of television. At least the new creative team has Larroquette back in tow, ever a master of the multicam.
Like the original, this Night Court — the late Reinhold Weege remains credited as creator, with Dan Rubin as developer of this update — starts with a young judge taking over the night shift at arraignment court. Judge Abby Stone (Melissa Rauch) is quickly established as the daughter of Harry Stone (Anderson) and, like her late father, brings a progressive philosophy and quirky personality to the bench. She wants to see the best in everybody, which may explain why, in need of a new public defender capable of competing with ambitious assistant district attorney Olivia (India de Beaufort), she recruits a down-on-his-luck Dan Fielding (Larroquette) to try things on the other side of the aisle. Managing Abby’s docket is clerk Neil (Kapil Talwalkar), while order is maintained by enthusiastically intimidating bailiff Donna “Gurgs” Gurganous (Lacretta).
It’s part of the joke that Abby has taken up residence in a facility that hasn’t been renovated in decades, which lets her occupy what is basically her father’s old office and preside over what is basically her father’s old courtroom, producing all sorts of visual references to the original series for a fittingly nostalgic blandness. While it isn’t obvious if every case Dan references from his past with Harry was an episodic plot from the original series, they all might as well be.
The writers have generally picked new cases that would fit in with the old, like the woman who insists she’s a werewolf, but more frequently the cases here are used to make character-driven points, like various times Abby temporarily worries she might be too soft or sentimental, only to be reminded that sentiment is her family’s core judicial superpower. There’s an ideology there, of course, but Night Court hasn’t suddenly decided to be a show that aggressively comments on three decades of changes in the judicial system. Was there room for it to do so? Absolutely. Will most established Night Court fans be tuning in hoping it does? Probably not. Are those fans forgetting that, at certain moments, the original series offered those critiques? Probably. But I’ve only seen the first six episodes, and going character-first isn’t a bad plan.
The character development is a work in progress in these early episodes. Abby is a slightly tamped-down version of Rauch’s Bernadette from Big Bang Theory: easy to overlook because of her helium voice and youthful enthusiasm, but exceptionally brainy when the situation calls for it. Rauch has precision comic timing and, given her diminutive stature, pairing her opposite the towering Larroquette will always be a workable sight gag. But attempts to give Abby a serious backstory fall flat due to piecemeal writing, not performance.
Talwalkar and Lacretta face opposite challenges. Nobody’s figured out what Neil’s personality is, so they barely attempt to give him punchlines, while they’ve decided Gurgs is a nonstop punchline machine, so she’s stuck shouting on-the-nose dialogue that never gels into making Gurgs feel like an actual human.
By virtue of a clearly defined role — striving, officious and eager to get away from night court — de Beaufort is the most instantly comfortable of the new actors, and the effort to explore how Olivia’s superficial control is masking real insecurities is already paying comic dividends.
Really, though, fans will be interested to return to Night Court for Larroquette, and he is predictably the standout here. It isn’t exactly that Dan has evolved in the 30 years since we saw him last. He’s been written essentially as a new character with reminders of Dan’s defining traits, from his narcissism to his various sexual proclivities. The Dan Fielding we knew in the ’80s couldn’t believably exist in 2023, nor at Larroquette’s current age, and there’s real humor in those traits popping up in a man who’s now professionally forced to do altruistic things.
As with the original series, some episodes are built heavily around what’s happening in the courtroom and others are more about letting the characters interact, some build to silliness and others to borderline dramatic beats, and there’s no real logic as to which version is actually working best here. The third episode, featuring Wendie Malick as a potential love interest for Dan, barely sets foot in the courtroom, but boasts some sharp writing and the undeniable pleasure of watching Malick and Larroquette sparring in this traditional format. Another sitcom vet, Murphy Brown favorite Faith Ford, has a good episode as Abby’s mother, but all of the secondary storylines in that half-hour fall flat.
Offering a concerning hint about the show’s momentum, the last episode sent to critics, featuring a visibly uncomfortable and confusingly written Pete Holmes as Abby’s out-of-town boyfriend, is one cringe-worthy exchange after another.
So far, it all works less than half of the time, but at least it occasionally works. So watch NBC’s Night Court for Larroquette and brace for the inconsistency. Some things remain unchanged.
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