Thursday, February 10, 2005

Judge Harry!

I picked up the first season of Night Court on DVD, and watching some of it has inspired the following thoughts on the show which, as a kid, I loved above all other NBC sitcoms:

- Reinhold Weege, the creator, appears in the making-of documentary (as well as doing a good commentary on the pilot). Everyone who ever watched the show remembers that name. Even I, as a kid, noticed that name. And I've got to say, based on that name I always pictured someone... well, less like a generic Hollywood TV writer/producer. Ah, well. Childhood illusions shattered.

- By the way, one of the younger writers on the show (and the de facto showrunner in the fifth season, which may have been the best) was Linwood Boomer, who went on to create Malcolm in the Middle. But a show where the credits include a "Reinhold Weege" and a "Linwood Boomer?" It's a credits-watcher's dream.

- You probably know that Night Court had many cast changes, some unplanned (the death of Selma Diamond), others not. The first cast change actually occurs during the 13-episode first season: Karen Austin, who plays the idealistic young court clerk who comes to worship Harry Stone for his caring ways, disappears after the tenth episode and is never heard from again. They replace her in the last couple of episodes with a ditzy blonde clerk whose name I can't remember.

Starting in the second season, the clerk role had been filled by Charles Robinson (late of NBC's too-good-for-TV Buffalo Bill -- sort of the Arrested Development of its day). And the public defender, Liz (Paula Kelly) was replaced by a succession of guest characters. One of them was Markie Post; Weege claimed that he wanted her to do the show full-time, but she couldn't get out of her contract with The Fall Guy. So in about the fifth episode of the second season, they added Ellen Foley as a "permanent" public defender. Except that starting in the third season she was gone, never to be heard from again, as Post had left The Fall Guy and Foley -- depending on who's writing about this -- either got fired or left to continue her singing career.

- Everybody knows that Night Court was similar to Barney Miller -- Weege had been a major writer/producer on Barney Miller and hired several of his colleagues from that show, and used some of Barney's regular guest stars like Phil Leeds. But until I watched the first season again I'd forgotten just how similar it was to Barney in terms of style. The jokes are not as broad and wild as the Night Court I watched as a kid; instead they're mostly dry, low-key, jokes that don't really sound like jokes. (The big punchline of the pilot is as follows: "It would be an honor to call you Harry." "Then it's lucky I happen to have that name.") That's the kind of humor Barney Miller did; half the time in Barney you couldn't explain why that last line was even supposed to be a joke, even though it was funny. As Night Court went on, of course, Weege started injecting the show with broader and broader comedy, bringing in wilder guest stars, and pumping up the sexual-innuendo quotient to heights previously unimagined on a TV sitcom (Woman: "Dan, you ever fool around at work?" Dan: "Not with another person"). And that worked better, actually, because with such broad and quirky performers, as opposed to the more conventionally actorly cast of Barney Miller, broad and wild worked better than quiet and dry.

- The biggest problem with the first season is that almost every episode seems to follow the formula of Harry solving some guest character's problem with his warm n' wise caring. It gets old, and I'm glad they changed that for the second season, putting more emphasis on the problems of the regular characters, not the guests.

- Not relevant to the first season, but in the second season, this show pulled off its most infamous bit of Barney Miller cloning. Barney Miller once had an episode where Phil Leeds plays a new cop who impresses everybody until it turns out he's not really a cop, just a clerk from Brooklyn. The second season of Night Court had an episode where Phil Leeds plays a new judge who impresses everybody until it turns out he's not really a judge, just a clerk from Brooklyn. But once you get past the surface similarities, they're really very different stories, of course.

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