Night Court—the new Night Court, that is, which is the sequel to the old Night Court—has a pretty big question on its hands, right from its opening moments. And it’s one headier than any of the legal issues that cross the bench of Judge Abby Stone (Melissa Rauch) as she presides over her courtroom full of nocturnal weirdos: Why? Why resurrect a TV show that went off the air 31 years ago, and which is mostly remembered at this point by die-hard sitcom nerds—and why do it in a way that sometimes feels needlessly beholden to those three-decade-old comedic rhythms?
The answers, as far as we can tell, are two-fold. The first is that Rauch—reigning sitcom royalty after years serving as one of the consistently funniest parts of The Big Bang Theory—seems pretty into the idea, throwing her considerable efforts into reviving this particular sitcom husk. And the second is, to put it bluntly: John Larroquette said “Yes.”
Nu Night Court doesn’t waste much time introducing us to either star, opening as it does with an ambitious (and largely ill-advised) scene that cuts between Abby and former Night Court prosecutor Dan Fielding on Judge Stone’s first day of court. (And, yes: She’s the daughter of that Judge Stone; although Larroquette is the only original Night Court regular to appear in the show’s first six episodes, the late, great Harry Anderson’s legacy is front and center for most of them.) Said scene is ill-advised mostly because it foregrounds one of the show’s big weaknesses: Its editing, which often seems bound and determined to suck the life out of every single one of the numerous jokes Night Court fires off every single minute it’s on the screen. That opening scene is meant to demonstrate Abby and Dan’s contrasting perspectives on the court; what it mostly does is instill an early sense of dread that takes a few episodes to wear off, as the show (mostly) finds its rhythm.
That especially includes the supporting cast, all of whom struggle in the show’s early going with a set of scripts that land somewhere in the territory between old-school broad comedy, and, well, more modern broad comedy. Either way, we’re talking big, obvious jokes, and it’s a mixed bag how each performer fares with the material. On the low end, we have Kapil Talwalker as court clerk Neil, who delivers many of his lines with a disaffected rush that serves sometimes weak material fewer favors. On the winning end, meanwhile, we’ve got India De Beaufort as the court’s new prosecutor, Olivia; De Beaufort attacks the character with a crisp intensity that’s exactly the kind of “playing to the fences” mentality that the show’s more throwback style demands.
But the main draws of Night Court, unsurprisingly, are Rauch and Larroquette, both of whom are capable of that sitcom superstar’s trick of playing their characters simultaneously as real people and cartoons. Although she struggles from time to time, Rauch largely avoids turning Abby—whose chipper desire to see the good in every defendant drives much of the show’s plot—into a simple caricature of cheerfulness, giving her actual human emotions from behind the smile. And John Larroquette is John Larroquette; the man was winning Emmys by the pound for precision-delivering deadpan one-liners while most of his castmates were in diapers. Meanwhile, he gives the aging Dan just enough sadness and gravitas to keep the whole show from flying off into orbit.
The good news about Night Court is that it gets noticeably better as it works its way through its first season, and as the rest of the cast find enough grasp of their characters to begin, if not matching Rauch and Larroquette, then to at least not bog them down. The highlights, as with the original show, are often the courtroom scenes themselves: Rauch, Larroquette, and De Beaufort tossing zingers off of each other while weirdos parade through. What’s not to like? And while we’re not entirely sold on, say, an episode of Night Court that wrestles with how bailiff Gurgs (Lacretta) deals, as a Black woman, with being part of an often corrupt and inefficient legal system, it’s at least interesting to see the show wrestling with its status as a show about, y’know … a court.
The final question hanging over the Night Court revival, then, is who is it for? The old-school theme song and decidedly retro credits sequence suggest that there’s at least some nostalgia hunting going on, but that can’t explain the series’ whole existence. And there are laughs to be had here, even if they’re delivered less naturalistically than modern comedy fans might be used to (and even if the editing does not improve at the same pace as the cast). If you’re curious about it, don’t let the pilot throw you off, at least; check back in a few episodes later, once the show has actually hit its (often pretty funny) comedic stride.
Night Court premieres January 17 on NBC.