Review by C.J. Bunce
Three months ago it looked like it was going to be a surprise hit. With its sixteenth episode this week–its first season finale–the new season of Night Court sealed the deal. Call it the tenth season or a revival, the season was every bit as laugh-out-loud funny as the original, with the same heart and quirky spirit, with some episodes even better than the original 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 dingy 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, with John Larroquette providing half the connection with the original, back as attorney Dan Fielding, and the other half from new series lead Melissa Rauch as Judge Abby Stone, daughter of the late Harry Anderson’s Judge Harry T. Stone (Anderson died in 2018. The transition after a 30-year hiatus was surprisingly seamless. The TV Gods finally got one right, and instead of another cancellation of a great show, the second season is being readied for NBC’s fall Prime Time line-up. But this season wound down with three key characters leaving New York City. What will that mean for the show?
In the final two episodes Larroquette’s defense attorney Fielding reveals he is leaving to take a job as a judge back home in Louisiana. It only took a few episodes to see the cast gel, but could the series work without Larroquette? Sure, but it won’t need to, at least for too long. Marsha Warfield, who makes a surprise showing in the season finale, has publicly mentioned filming “those special episodes”–plural–which means that we’ll get to see more Judge Fielding, for at least a while. But the writers have plenty of options–a parallel format, for one, with some glimpses at Fielding’s success or failure away as a judge.
Judge Stone finally split with fiancé Rand, played by John Ritter ringer Pete Holmes. Rand was always written like he was there to be able to both ease the Judge’s transition to NYC while facilitating her separation from her rural, small town past.
Rauch didn’t change her focus all season, playing 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 created all the room the writers needed to set up a new decade of stories. They (lightly) broached “serious” issues, while keeping the series lighthearted and not an “issues” show. Too many comedies try too hard to make the humor about character relationships–this series puts the characters in their places and lets the writers come up with the best jokes they can in their confined spaces. And they more than succeeded.
Comedienne and singer Lacretta counterbalanced Rauch’s dose of heart with an equal but different dose of heart, as the new bailiff, Donna “Gurgs” Gurganous. Her easy-going, generous, and just plain normal character was unique in the show’s history, but the quirks came to light as she brushed up against the new prosecutor, India de Beaufort’s assistant district attorney Olivia. Of all the characters, Olivia got the biggest work-out, questioning her own place in the world, her career choices, her friends, her enemies, and her relationships with the Judge and Gurgs. But Gurgs also announced she is leaving New York in the final two episodes, heading for a position across the pond at Scotland Yard. These decisions don’t seem like the stuff of a series not knowing it was getting another season, but these shows are also known for their cliffhangers.
Rounding out the cast of five leads this year was court clerk Neil, played by Kapil Talwalker. Neil was the least tapped of the key cast, and has the most opportunity for growth in Season 2. His biggest plot thread was falling for Judge Stone. With Stone now single, will this return? It seems too easy and unlikely. These writers seem to keep their eyes on steering clear of the mundane.
Where will this series fare at awards time? John Larroquette stepped back into the role of Dan Fielding like he never left, but getting a necessary, serious upgrade for this century. Every scene with Larroquette is pure gold, so it’s really about how good the jokes can get before the actor gets bored and calls it quits. Larroquette won Emmys for the series, all four years in 1985-1988, requesting his name be pulled from future voting. Surely that won’t still apply. Rauch is much younger but already familiar from her past TV roles. Either actor could get notice come Emmy season. But it’s the writing team that did the heavy lifting for this show, taking a beloved classic and getting in exactly right.
Should the series rev up the guest stars for Season 2? Barney Miller comedy writer Reinhold Weege was 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 where the face of Star Trek’s Data became recognizable nationwide as a frequent down-and-out defendant). This season followed the same formula–skip big name guest stars and stick to familiar character actors from classic TV, and maybe some future stars will surface from this season. Psych’s Kurt Fuller was the season’s big recurring guest, with Just Shoot Me!’s Wendie Malick, Murphy Brown’s Faith Ford, and that surprise visit by Marsha Warfield as Roz, the last of the original run’s bailiffs.
Same court. Same judge’s chambers. Same cafeteria. Same hallway. With a good cast in place, the show really is all about the writing. Writing team Dan Rubin, Lon Zimmet, Azie Dungey, and Leila Strachan, Mathew Harawitz, and a small writers room brought out all the funny.
It’s nostalgic for the characters, the set-up, its 1980s brand of humor, the positivity, even the logo card, and it’s funny–the show to look forward to all week long.
Look for all sixteen new episodes of Night Court now streaming on Peacock, where you also can catch up on the season’s past episodes. Night Court returns this Fall to NBC and Peacock.