Monday, January 16, 2023

Night Court (2023), on NBC

Jazz fans had our special reasons to watch Rienhold Weege’s popular 1980s sitcom Night Court. Not only was Mel Torme a regular guest star, it always started with a jazzy theme song, featuring the great Ernie Watts on alto. Unlike the family comedies that preceded it on NBC’s original “Must-see” Thursday night line-up (ironically including The Cosby Show), Night Court specialized in snarkier, take-no-prisoners humor. Sadly, several stars of the original series have left us, including Harry Anderson (Judge Harry Stone) and Markie Post (the public defender), but John Larroquette, who won four Emmy Awards as Assistant DA Dan Fielding, is alive and very much part of the new Night Court revival series, which premieres tomorrow on NBC.

Sadly, Judge Harry Stone has also passed away, but his daughter, Abby Stone, has just been appointed to the bench in his old New York City Night Court. In the pilot episode, the new Judge Stone does not think much of the current public defender, so she tries to recruit her father’s old friend and colleague, Dan Fielding, to come over to the bleeding-heart side of the Force. That won’t exactly happen, but Fielding still accepts the PD position, much to his own surprise.

The pilot episode should please fans of the old show, because it makes extensive references to Judge Harry. It also catches us up quickly, making it clear widowed Fielding’s beloved wife helped moderate his extremes, but he always kept his caustic wit, which has only gotten more acidic since her untimely death.

Even though he now defends them, Fielding continues to mercilessly mock the court’s weirdos and perverts. Obviously, that is the best part of the show. Larroquette can still milk a line for laughs better than anyone in sitcoms. He also brings a surprisingly wistfulness exploring the sadness of Fiedling’s grief. Of the first six episodes provided for review, the best is the third, “Dan vs. Dating,” wherein Judge Stone tries to coax the former ladies man back into the dating scene. Of course, Fielding is as acerbic as ever, but guest star Wendy Malick has the attitude and comedic flamboyance to hold her own opposite him. None of the regular cast-members can also say that, at least not yet.

Still, Kapil Talwalkar shows some potential as Neil, the lonely-hearted court clerk, who is desperate to up his romantic game. India de Beaufort also earns some laughs as Olivia, the self-absorbed, career-minded Night Court ADA. She is a bit of a mini-Fielding, but the show can always use more of him.

Awkwardly, the new Judge Stone and bailiff Donna “Gurgs” Gurganous have the same personality quirks—naïve and eager to be liked. That is unfortunate for Lacretta, who plays Gurgs, because Melissa Rauch, who stars as Stone, also serves as a producer and she has a lot of sitcom cred, having co-starred on
Big Bang Theory (she was the one who was pregnant in about half the episodes). So, if one of them will ever be cut from the show, it is unlikely to be Rauch.

In fact, the new Judge Stone is the new
Night Court greatest weakness. Yes, her father always tried to see the best in people, but he was also an old “friend of Stan Carlisle,” so he always recognized when someone was trying to pull his leg. His street smarts are dearly missed in the fourth episode, “Justice Buddies,” easily the worst episode of the initial half-dozen, about a pack of woke brats who try to occupy the court. Fiedling is trying to exploit the situation for his own benefit, which is reasonably in character, but that leaves nobody to deflate their juvenile leftist posturing. Frankly, it is just nauseating to watch their tantrum play out.

At its best, the
Night Court continuation focuses on Fiedling, using his perspective to refer back to the original series. Another nice example would be episode five, “Blood Moon Binga,” wherein Judge Stone’s mother pays her daughter a visit. However, Fielding recognizes her from when he prosecuted her during Harry Stone’s tenure. Again, Faith Ford is a sitcom vet, who makes a worthy foil for Fielding.

Unlike recent comedy series (like
Ted Lasso), the revived Night Court is very much like its predecessor in its highly episodic and self-contained approach. You can pretty much start with any episode and pick-up on the character dynamics. It definitely keeps faith with the 1980s series. While it also keeps Jack Elliott’s original opening theme, the new arrangement drastically cranks down the funkiness, which is truly a crime against humanity.

Still, there is something pleasantly nostalgic about watching Larroquette’s sarcastic scene-stealing (except in “Justice Buddies”). Recommended for old fashioned sitcom fans (again, with the exception of episode four),
Night Court premieres tomorrow night (1/17) on NBC and streams on Peacock the next day.