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The Night Court Revival Proves '80s Sitcoms Can Still Work

NBC’s reboot doesn’t mess with a good thing.
  • Melissa Rauch and John Larroquette in Night Court (Photo: Jordin Althaus/NBC)
    Melissa Rauch and John Larroquette in Night Court (Photo: Jordin Althaus/NBC)

    Why Night Court? Out of all the long-running sitcoms that NBC could have rebooted in 2023 — like Cheers, say, or Family Ties – why is the network revisiting a show that has been half-forgotten by the generation that grew up with it and has likely gone unseen by the young people of today? Yes, the original ran for nine seasons from 1984 to 1992, paired with Cheers in its first year and Seinfeld in its last, but it hasn’t stuck around in pop culture the way its old time-slot partners have. Is this revamp just a name recognition thing? Is it a ploy to give the old-timers who watched the series in its first run — and who still watch network TV today — something that feels familiar?

    That may be part of NBC’s plan, but beyond any cynical motivations, the Night Court revival quickly proves that the show’s sturdy premise works in modern times as well as it did 30 years ago. In fact, the new version succeeds even though it barely reimagines or reinterprets the original. The show is set in the same run-down Manhattan municipal courtroom, filled with the same mix of small-time criminal offenders and exhausted civil servants. John Larroquette returns as the cynical attorney Dan Fielding (a role that won him four Emmys), though the character has switched sides, becoming a public defender instead of a prosecutor. And while original star Harry Anderson died in 2018, Melissa Rauch channels his upbeat, inquisitive spirit as Judge Abby Stone, the daughter of Anderson’s character Harry Stone.

    The basic structure is also much the same. This is still an old-fashioned multi-camera sitcom with laughs on the soundtrack, and it features the same basic character types: In addition to the judge and the public defender, there’s also a prosecutor (the frequently flustered Olivia, played by India de Beaufort), a clerk (the obsessively officious Neil, played by Kapil Talwalkar), and a bailiff (the energetic Gurgs, played by Lacretta). A typical episode combines quick bursts of zaniness from the parade of weirdos who come before Judge Stone’s bench and longer stories about the court officers’s personal conflicts. It’s all very traditional.

    But there’s a sharpness to the material that makes it feel vibrant. Head writer Dan Rubin is a veteran of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Happy Endings, two of the funniest and sweetest sitcoms of the past 10 years. He deploys a similar heart and wit here, and it jibes with the spirit of the original. The core premise of the first series was that Harry Stone was trying to ease the bureaucratic drudgery in the criminal justice system’s bottom rungs by doing magic tricks (a Harry Anderson speciality from his standup comedy days), playing lighthearted pranks, and sometimes slowing down the proceedings to get to know the accused. He treated his courtroom like a late-night talk show.

    Anderson’s style contributed to the the show's broad humor, which included ‘80s-era tropes like punchy quips, cutting remarks and occasionally insensitive comic stereotypes. The new Night Court changes that a bit. In the six episodes provided to critics, the defendants — all those public urinators and petty thieves — still generate plenty of jokes, but Rubin’s writers work in commentary about the ambivalence many people feel toward judges, lawyers, and cops. They also spend more time on the main characters’s private lives, grounding their comic excesses in insecurities, aspirations, and troubled pasts.

    Still, modern audiences will need a certain level of affection for the 1980s sitcom format if they hope to enjoy this throwback series. (Anyone who gets emotional hearing the updated version of Jack Elliott’s original theme song is in the right place.) For those who can embrace it, this can be an enjoyable “hangout show,” where what happens each week only matters because it gives a likable batch of characters an excuse to interact. This new Night Court is also a fine showcase for talented comic actors. Lacretta is a particular standout, bringing an infectious enthusiasm to Gurgs, and it’s always good to spend time with the bright, bubbly Rauch — who’s one of the series’s executive producers, alongside her husband Winston Rauch.

    But the biggest pleasure here is arguably seeing the great Larroquette revisit his signature role, bringing layers of depth and poignancy that come with 30 extra years of living. Dan Fielding is still a skeptic and a misanthrope (on the surface, anyway), but he has some sympathy for his younger colleagues who haven’t yet experienced his decades of setbacks, disappointments and, sure, fleeting moments of joy. Larroquette can still get laughs with his deadpan line-readings, like when Dan quotes DJ Khaled then admits, “I have Spotify, and sometimes it shuffles to things I don’t understand,” or when Abby tries to welcome some visiting junior high students with a “Welcome, Justice Buddies!” sign. “If there’s one thing I know about this generation,” Dan says, “it’s that they love a banner.”

    In a way, Dan Fielding stands in for everyone who isn’t entirely sure if this new Night Court is a good idea, but is willing to show up anyway. He’s here because there’s a comfortable rhythm and a familiar look to this place, and he can fit right in. That’s not always a given for someone whose heyday was in the ‘80s, and if the old style still has life in it, then there’s value in giving it a go.

    Night Court premieres Tuesday, January 17 at 8:00 PM ET on NBC. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Noel Murray is a freelance pop culture critic and reporter living in central Arkansas.

    TOPICS: Night Court, NBC, Dan Rubin, Harry Anderson, John Larroquette, Lacretta, Melissa Rauch