Night Court reboot review: What TV revivals get right and wrong

Ah, the time-honored tradition of the television reboot: a way to wring ever more money out of a television property once seemed dead. The latest in the genre is night courtwhich is a revival of night court. It premiered last night on NBC and I still can’t believe they actually went through with this thing.

Now, I loved the original night court — so much in fact that I had a years-long Twitter bit demanding its return. The joke was that I thought I was the only (non-fictional) person who felt that strongly about the show to want one, which is why it would never happen. But the joke is on me, because the night court reboot is here. And after a co-worker said she thought night court was just a 30 rock invention and not a real show, I knew I would have to review it, as only the show’s truest and best fan could. Even though I wasn’t expecting much. There are things a fan wants from a reboot — a return to a place, people, and tone — that no night court reboot could possibly provide. Although this one, at least, tries to hit them all and sometimes it succeeds.

night court was a sitcom based on a New York City night court, which is a real thing. I assume the real night court doesn’t remotely resemble the hilarious hijinks-filled one that graced our television screens for eight years and stunk them up for one more (the last season sucked) in the ’80s and early ’90s. The court was run by the unconventional Judge Harry T. Stone (Harry Anderson), who was as compassionate as he was corny (a lot of magic tricks happened in that courtroom). Dan Fielding (John Larroquette), the prosecutor, was a jerk who only cared about money and women, though he was prone to occasional bouts of decency and depth. Christine Sullivan (Markie Post) was the naive and perky public defender, Mac (Charles Robinson) was the sarcastic, sweater-loving court clerk, and Roz (Marsha Warfield) and Bull (Richard Moll) were the two bailiffs. Roz was angry most of the time. Bull was very weird and very tall.

In both content and format, the show was very much of its time, which is also very much not of this time. It was your basic multi-camera sitcom performed in front of a live studio audience, the way almost every sitcom was back then and far fewer are now, the days of one-camera comedies as well as cable and streaming. A parade of petty criminals, drunks, punks, sex workers (different terms were used for them), the mentally ill (but the funny kind!), and other assorted characters representing New York City’s seedy, wacky underbelly filed past Judge Stone’s bench and filled the courtroom gallery every week. Chaos usually ensued (but the funny kind!). The walls had cracks and peeling paint and everything had a layer of grime. Despite all of the Fox News assertions that we’ve wholly returned to the crime and drug-infested days of ’80s New York City due to soft-hearted liberals, the city used to be a much dirtier and more dangerous place. night court reflected that, to a point. It was a ridiculous show and it happily owned that. The jokes were rapid-fire and often mixed with some legitimately impressive physical comedy. It celebrated weirdness and revealed in absurdity. There is a slight chance that it was funnier and better in my childhood memories of watching it than it actually was.

Reboots are difficult. The best ones either completely revamp the show, giving it its own separate-enough identity that it can succeed in its own right (Star Trek: The Next Generation), or they come on like three seconds after the original goes off the air, making it almost the same show you knew and loved (Criminal Minds: Evolution). In between, you get something that’s not enough like the original show to keep the fans it had, but too much like the original to attract new ones. night court falls into that middle ground; there was no way that it wouldn’t with the setup it has.

Or, as my brother — my most frequent and favorite night court viewing companion — put it: “There’s no way this show can be good.” Maybe, but it isn’t bad, either.

In this version, our judge is Abby Stone (Melissa Rauch), Harry’s daughter who transfers from a judgeship in her two-bus upstate New York hometown to her father’s old New York City night court stomping grounds to feel closer to him, as he has died. (Don’t do the math on Abby’s age, by the way. In the original show’s timeline, she can’t be older than 30. There’s no way she’s that young here.) I like Rauch even if I don’t quite buy her as Harry’s daughter. The character reminds me much more of Christine, who was also bright and bubbly and from upstate New York.

Rounding out the cast are the entirely new characters of Olivia (India de Beaufort), the prosecutor, Neil (Kapil Talwalkar), the court clerk, and bailiff Gurgs (Lacretta, no last name). Olivia is the highlight here, ably filling the snarky, shallow, selfish suck-up role Dan vacated. night court is still writing the best lines for and getting the best performances out of its prosecutors! Gurgs alternates between channeling Bull and Roz and would benefit greatly from getting her own personality from her. She has potential. And Neil is there.

On her first day in the night court, Abby sets about being the new Judge Stone who cares about and spends as much time with the defendants as the old one did. This drives the public defender to quit immediately. In need of a replacement that it’s somehow her responsibility her responsibility to provide, Abby decides to track down her father’s former co-worker Dan, who stopped practicing law years ago and doesn’t want to start again. But Abby and a box of trick snakes convince him to return.

The Dan Fielding of the original series was a walking human resources violation that just can’t exist on a sitcom now, and so he doesn’t. The New Dan Fielding is a wise yet grumpy widower who becomes a father figure (or “emotional support grouch”) to Abby. Larroquette is very good here, just like he is everywhere. New Dan has kept his sarcasm from him, but he’s also old, tired, and sad. Some of this is necessary because time passes and Larroquette is now 75. But some of it is because the new show decided to write him this way. In that regard, Dan’s changes are emblematic of the show itself. It’s been reworked to fit into these times, but it doesn’t quite recapture the old show’s magic. Part of that is because it’s not 1986 anymore. But another part is because the writers haven’t quite nailed what made night court so good in the first place.

Criminal Court Part 2 is now in session, again.
Jordin Althaus/NBC/Warner Bros.

Thirty years after night court went off the air, Harry fell in love, got married, had a daughter, and died. Dan fell in love, got married, and lost his wife. And the rest of the series regulars apparently fell into a rip in the space-time continuum and were erased from existence, as none of them are even mentioned in the first seven episodes. New night court had a major hurdle to clear in that its cast was beloved and half of them (Anderson, Post, and Robinson) are dead. Of all the ways I thought the revival would handle this, I was not expecting what it ultimately did, which was give Anderson his due and make his loss of him a major part of the show (it is, in fact, its catalyst), and completely ignore Post and Robinson. We hear more about Dan’s dead wife, who we’ve never met and don’t care about, than we do about characters we knew and loved for years. Harry’s stuffed armadillo Clarence makes an appearance, but there’s nary a word about Christine, who Harry and Dan were both in love with at various (low) points in the show’s run. Did they think we wouldn’t notice or mind? The disrespect!

Beyond that, the show does a good job of feeling familiar yet fresh. When Dan first returns to the court, he muses that the place “hasn’t changed.” In many ways, that’s true. The theme song has made a triumphant return, albeit an updated and truncated version. We get one of Dan’s trademark yelp-gasps. I think some of the jokes were actually written for the original show; there are references to Vanna White, Weird Al, and key parties, of all things. The courtroom walls have a fresh coat of paint but otherwise look very much the same. But the sex workers, with their tiny clothes, big hair, and $50 fines are gone, and the gallery now looks more like an audience for Judge Judy than an assortment of misfits who may or may not be there because they have nowhere else to sleep that night.

We even get some of the sudden swings from zany comedy to very serious and painfully earnest material that the old night court often insisted on jamming into its scripts, no matter how out of place those moments were. There are dark moments that transported me back to the original, where at least three characters come close to killing themselves due to loss, loneliness, and, uh, diabetes. Harry at a comatose Dan’s bedside, begging him to wake up — do the laughs ever stop? Really, I swear this show was funny.

But something important is missing besides any reference to the original series regulars who aren’t Dan and Harry. The best episodes and funniest moments of night court were driven by the court’s defendants. They were unique and closely tied to the show’s setting. Now, they’re almost incidental.

In the first seven episodes of this night court, at least, the major plots feel like they could happen on any show, even one that doesn’t happen in a court or at night. I don’t watch night court to see people training for a marathon in a random gym, searching for a quiet office space, or trying to date after losing a spouse. I watch night court to see people who think they’re ambassadors from Saturn and/or the future holding the entire courtroom hostage, which happened at least twice on the original show. Where is my Dan Fielding being chased by a giant 8 ball moment?

For all of my tweets about how much I wanted a night court reboot, I wasn’t even planning on watching the revival at all. I didn’t really want to return to the night court universe if Harry, Christine, and Mac weren’t in it. I thought I could only be disappointed, but I was wrong. There are bright spots. It’s a fun watch. It’s clearly made by people who know and like the source material (or at least the half of it with Harry and Dan). Like Gurgs, it has promise. It just has to figure out what it’s really trying to be. But so did its predecessor, which didn’t really find its footing until the second or third season.

If you’re a fan of the original night court, there’s enough of it left in this one to make it worth at least a nostalgia watch. What I’m not sure of is how much what is otherwise a fairly routine sitcom will appeal to someone who’s never seen the show before. If you like what you see in the reboot, I encourage you to check out the original. All nine seasons are free to watch on Freevee now. Maybe skip the last one.

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