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Night Court: The Complete Third Season

(NBC; US DVD: 23 Feb 2010)

There were 193 episodes taped during Night Court’s run from 1984 to 1992, helping it become one of the most popular TV comedies of all-time. Whether that was due to luck or talent is debatable—if anyone still cares enough to debate it (although according to the Amazon sales ranking for the 3rd season DVDs it’s possible there are people who would). Through fortune or by deal-making, the show ended up in the 9:30pm slot on NBC’s “Must See TV” in between Cheers and L.A. Law.


This was at a time when the Internet was unknown, cable was still a rarity and American audiences watched what they were told to by the networks. If your show was in a prime-time slot, it would get seen. 


The DVD presentation of the third season of Night Court is a straightforward affair. There are no extras and no commentary. Part of this might be due to the show’s creator and main writer Reinhold Weege having apparently dropped off the face of the planet. It was his company, Starry Night Productions, which produced the series for NBC. DVD reviews don’t typically involve hunting down direct sources, so suffice it to say there are few Internet or news leads on what became of Weege after the series ended in 1992. His credits and his life in the public eye seem to end there. 


The third season of Night Court is when the show began to hit its stride. Marki Post was added to the cast which gave it the sex appeal it had been lacking in the two seasons prior. Post was the catalyst that other cast members, particularly John Larroquette, needed to help solidify the recurring story lines that made Night Court such an indelible part of television in the mid- to late-‘80s.


Florence Halop, a one-time Mercury Theatre radio and stage actor, friend of Orson Welles, Bing Crosby and Errol Flynn (from the St. Petersburg Times, 19 May 1946) appeared in the first 20 episodes of Season Three as bailiff. She took over as a replacement when original bailiff Selma Diamond died of lung cancer after the second season. However, Halop was diagnosed with breast cancer late in the third season’s run and was forced to quit the cast to receive treatment. She died shortly thereafter.


Halop’s appearance on the show underlines that, despite the show having ended in 1992, the Night Court reissues are really like watching a piece of television history: single, non-moving camera angles, cuts only transitions (as opposed to dissolves), grainy video, simple sets, echoey sound recordings, and most interestingly, no music or sound effects that didn’t take place during shooting.


Much of this was due to the relative crudeness of that era’s video editing systems; every shot had to be edited from one video deck to another, there was no computer editing at that time. Additionally, laying in a new soundtrack was difficult due to technological limitations and the challenging delivery schedule of 22 episodes a year. In a way it can be seen as the last echoes of television as glorified stage play, something that had been killed off in film during the ‘60s.


Night Court will be seen by television historians as the last hurrah of a certain epoch of TV that was rapidly coming to a close in the early 90’s. Night Court had more in common with Happy Days and MASH (many of its writers had written for both those shows) than the revolutionary TV that FOX was spawning with Married With Children, The Simpsons, In Living Color, Melrose Place, and Beverly Hills 90210. Its own station, NBC, helped to hasten its demise when Seinfeld became part of “Must See TV”, coming on after Cheers beginning in 1989.


The kindness and goofiness of Night Court couldn’t compete with the satirical new humor that had come to the fore in the early ‘90s. By 1993 Seinfeld had taken its time slot on Thursday nights and Night Court was off the air.


There was recently an eBay auction for a Night Court t-shirt signed by the entire post-1986 cast (item #330406283007). With only hours left, it had yet to receive a single bid; $19.99 plus shipping was all you would have had to spend to own a piece of TV history. While it’s unfair to judge a television show based on whether or not a t-shirt sells on eBay, it does point towards Night Court having become a piece of nostalgia as opposed to a historically or culturally relevant artifact in and of itself.


No viewer or fan can say that Night Court changed their life. However, if that were the criteria by which TV shows were made or not we would all still be having group read-along’s around the fireplace each night. As Orson Welles said in 1956, “I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can’t stop eating peanuts.”

Rating:

George Russell is a writer living and working in Los Angeles. His PopMatters essays have appeared in an anthology published by W.W. Norton. He can be reached at russell@popmatters.com.


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