Night Court premiered Jan. 17 on NBC. New episodes will release every Tuesday.
The original Night Court sitcom aired for nine seasons from ‘84 to ‘92 and helped define NBC’s comedy dominance that carried the network into the 2000s. The new revival of the series picks up 30 years later with the Judge Harry Stone (Harry Anderson) character’s daughter, Abby (Melissa Rauch), following in her father’s footsteps and donning the black judicial gown to preside over the weirdo cases that fill the New York City night court docket. It’s the same sets, multi-camera format, dated laugh track, and quirky ensemble, including the return of John Larroquette as Dan Fielding. But what seemed kind of edgy and wacky in the original series now feels dated and corny especially since even the live audience sitcoms have evolved very much in three decades.
The basic premise of the revival has Abby taking the thankless job of New York City night court judge to personally connect to the gig that her now-deceased father spoke so highly about during her childhood. A beacon of eternally positive sunshine in the bowels of the justice department, she presides with a propensity to care more about the people who stand in front of her, rather than treating them like a never-ending blur of case numbers. She inherits Neil (Kapil Talwalkar), the bored clerk; Olivia (India de Beaufort), the acerbic and put together prosecutor; and bubbly bailiff Donna “Gurgs” Gurganous (Lacretta). All she’s missing is a public defender, who unceremoniously quits the night she starts, so she goes looking for her dad’s buddy, Dan Fielding (Larroquette), to work in her court.
The relationship between Rauch’s Abby and Larroquette’s much-changed Fielding is the most original element of the new series. Back in the day, Fielding was the horn dog lothario of the original series. Cynical with a razor-sharp wit, Fielding was a product of the time who would be entirely problematic if ported over to this show. Instead, Fielding has lived a life with a longtime, devoted marriage. Now, he’s retired, doing odd jobs by choice and still mourning his recently deceased wife. Abby knows he’s been hiding away and she channels her dad’s kindness and empathy to do an effective “Judge Harry” on Fielding to get him to temporarily sign on to her court. They’re opposites in personality, but Rauch and Larroquette are sitcom pros who know how to temper that relationship so it’s got a bit of bite and doesn’t devolve into saccharine or maudlin territory. In fact, the best scenes of every episode find Fielding counseling Abby on things like how to separate her own life from work, or in the case of “Just Tuesday,” identifying a surprising Achilles heel in the young woman which makes her more human and interesting than the pilot would have you think.
In the first six episodes provided for review, this new Night Court adheres to the old show’s beats, rhythms, and old school presentation with such fealty it plays more like a weird time machine than a separate show in its own right. The over-the-top studio laugh track in particular is cringey and only serves to make the majority of the tepid jokes fall flatter. About once or twice an episode, a line reading — usually from Larroquette or a guest star who was a mainstay of ‘80s and ‘90s comedy, like Wendie Malick (Just Shoot Me) — or a joke will get a real laugh. But in general, the majority of episodes rely on such lightweight support plots and silly defendants that everything is forgettable. Although, I give points to the Daria-like Werewolf Lady in “Blood Moon Bingo” as the standout of the revolving defendants so far.
The writers do try to gin-up some rapport amongst the core cast with B and C plots that pair them up for silly adventures within the building, or like encouraging Fielding to go on his first date. It works a little with Olivia, who gets better as the episodes progress. But other characters aren’t given much to work with and it’s all directed to be played so big and theater-y that it’s hard not to see everyone as a caricature. I can’t imagine anyone who isn’t a Boomer or Gen X embracing this series when there’s so much more sophisticated single-camera comedy out there to enjoy. The Night Court of today is packed with too much of yesterday to feel like anything more than a fleeting nostalgia experiment.