Review by C.J. Bunce
A new bailiff really sums up the aura of the New York City of Night Court in the seventh episode of this year’s new season: “All your life you hear how magical New York is and then you get here it’s all scaffolding and weird puddles.” For many Americans–most who never get to the city that never sleeps–New York City has been defined for decades by series like Night Court, which first aired from 1984-1992. The spiritual successor to shows like Barney Miller and Welcome Back, Kotter, Night Court dabbled in the truth of life in the Big Apple’s corners the early morning shows tend to hide, using humor to buff its dull reality. This year NBC returned the original series to Prime Time with a show that is a worthy sequel. John Larroquette provides half the connection with the original, back as attorney Dan Fielding, and the other half comes from series lead Melissa Rauch as Judge Abby Stone, daughter of the late Harry Anderson’s Judge Harry T. Stone. The transition after a 30-year hiatus was surprisingly seamless. NBC greenlit a second season, so catch up with it now, airing new episodes weekly on NBC and streaming on Peacock.
Wait, you say–magician-turned-actor Harry Anderson was one of a kind! You can’t remake that show! To the naysayers I’d say, just watch it. Rauch plays Judge Harry Stone’s daughter as a sweet, adorable newbie to the big city, and like the elder Stone, she doesn’t have a bad bone in her body. She’s also fiercely all about the noble role she serves, “unapologetically optimistic,” which creates all the room the writers need to set up a new decade of stories. They (lightly) take on the inequality and unfairness of class in the sixth episode, “Justice Buddies,” when a group of kids visits the court on the night a popular art activist is on trial for graffiti, and the bailiff crosses the battle line to join their protest. But this isn’t an “issues” show. It’s an avenue for throwing out some good jokes and watching what unthinkable situation the next defendant is going to bring to the court. It also embraces and masters that idea every reboot from Star Wars to Indiana Jones to Law & Order keeps failing at–passing the baton to the next generation. Night Court, especially with the help of John Larroquette, shows how it’s done.
Comedienne and singer Lacretta plays the new bailiff, Donna “Gurgs” Gurganous, who is easy-going, generous, and just plain normal, especially compared to those she replaces from the show’s original run: Richard Moll’s Bull Shannon, Selma Diamond’s Selma Hacker, Florence Halop’s Flo Kleiner, and Marsha Warfield’s Roz Russell. Rounding out the cast of five leads is court clerk Neil, played by Kapil Talwalker Neil is awkward and shy, afraid of everything.
India de Beaufort plays new assistant district attorney Olivia as a real lawyer, struggling to find the balance between the realities of working every day where she must ride a grimy subway to and from work and spend her workday–her work night–among criminals. Who wouldn’t ask themselves where they went wrong, and long for a more glamorous life, especially with $50,000 to $75,000 or more in law school debt? In the first episodes she is standoffish and solitary, but once stress causes her to blow her top, viewers see everyman and everywoman, exasperated with the mundane and the weird of life, with piercing humor to deflect it. She probably has the most difficult role on the show–a lot like the late Markie Post in the original.
John Larroquette steps back into the role of Dan Fielding like he never left. The visual difference is the age and the beard and the hair color. But Dan has grown. The original Dan was pretty smarmy and leaned into his sleazy side. In the first episode viewers learn he is a widower now, in no hurry to do much of anything, so when the new Judge Stone needs a public defender, it’s a win-win. Fielding can get back to the land of the living, and maybe give some pointers to the brand-new judge, and brand-new New Yorker. For the story writers it also means Fielding flips from the prosecution to the defense, which provides fodder for some humorous situations.
The comparison to Barney Miller makes perfect sense, since that show’s comedy writer Reinhold Weege went on to create and serve as executive producer and showrunner of the original Night Court. The original run saw recurring appearances by Mel Tormé, John Astin, Yakov Smirnov, Gilbert Gottfried, and Brent Spiner–it’s here where the face of Star Trek’s Data became recognizable nationwide as a frequent down-and-out defendant. Recall that Larroquette was one of the first modern Klingons in the Star Trek franchise, playing opposite William Shatner in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
Same court. Same judge’s chambers. Same cafeteria. Same hallway. With a good cast in place, the show really is all about the writing. That puts the pressure on Dan Rubin, Lon Zimmet, Azie Dungey, and Leila Strachan from The Michael J. Fox Show and Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt, Mathew Harawitz (Angie Tribeca), and a small writers room to bring on all the funny. The first seven episodes not only manage to be funny, they also steer clear of anything edgy, providing viewers with a much needed breath of fresh air, an escape from everything else. It’s nostalgic for the characters, the set-up, its 1980s brand of humor, the positivity, even the logo card, and its only apparent agenda is to make you laugh. We get to see Abby screw up, find a new apartment, deal with irate New Yorkers on a stranded subway, and begin to put a team together on the job.
And don’t forget that truly iconic theme song, from the Academy Award-nominated Jack Elliott–the guy who wrote the music for the original McHale’s Navy, Barney Miller, Oh God!, The Jerk, and Charlie’s Angels. Playing the tune this time is John Larroquette’s son Benjamin, producing the music for the new show.
Look for Wendy Malick and Faith Ford as guest stars in this first season.
New episodes of Night Court air Tuesday nights on NBC, re-airing Wednesdays on Peacock, where you also can catch up on the season’s past episodes.