05 May, 2011

"They simply don't make terrorists like they used to."

"Night Court" is back, such as it is. The dvd for season 4 were briefly available at the WB online store, which proved impossible for me to negotiate. I could sign up to order things or I could put the dvd set in my 'cart', but not both, even though both were required to place the order. This was frustrating, especially since one assumes the reason it didn't get such a widespread release was because of low interest in earlier seasons. Then it was withdrawn altogether, before being rereleased exclusively through amazon.

Naturally I did place an order this time, although the reviews made it clear this was an inferior product. I just wanted the episodes.

The reviews were right. There are no scene choices, no episode descriptions, the video and sound quality is lower than pretty much any official dvd I've ever seen and worst of all the discs only play in a device specifically built for that purpose, a 'dvd player', if you will. Not a laptop or recorder or anything that peforms a task other than playing dvds.

Still, this is "Night Court". So I went out and bought the cheapest dvd player I could find just for the purpose of watching this one season of a show I used to love, and have enjoyed the reissues immensely. So far I've watched the first several episodes, and one from later in the season [the first "200 cases to midnight" show]

I'm not having trouble justifying the purchase, and I certainly enjoyed most of what I watched, but I wasn't as enthralled by it as I'd been by the first few seasons, even though they were of lesser quality. [I felt the same way about the new "Bloom County" collection which came out a few weeks ago].

The series is still great, no denying that. With the addition of Marsha Warfield, the cast is now in place, but it's not clear what they're there to do [aside from arraign Manhattan Criminal Court Part 2]. "Night Court" wasn't a character-driven series like MASH or other shows. All the TV guide needed to print was "the Bunkers discuss birth control", and everyone so inclined would tune in to "All in the Family" because they wanted to see what Archie, Dingbat, Meathead and Little Girl would have to say about the topic. Shows like "Family Ties" would make Very Special Episodes part of their trademark.

"Night Court" seemed to share that latter failing, natural since they were contemporary hits on NBC, but even here I didn't think it was as pronounced as the third season, where half the episodes seemed to fill up the last three minutes with "Dan Learns His Lesson" the way Alex P. Keaton filled the role on "Family Ties" [or Gary Coleman on "Different Strokes", whichever "Facts of Life" girl was in the spotlight that week.] The trope probably goes back at least as far as Ralph Kramden so it's not exactly specific to this era or anything, although "Seinfeld" would famously declare that it had "no hugging and no learning."

So far in the episodes I've watched, the "sensitivity" stuff has at least been kept at a lower level, on plots/subplots that specially spotlight the characters, and enough weirdness to compensate. The season opener has Harry finding out that his mother is dead, a later two-party has Dan worried about growing old alone, an episode I haven't watched yet has Mac on a drunken spree when he finds out Quon Lee is pregnant. Lots of hugging, but said season opener also featured John Astin as Harry's step-father.

[While writing this, the dvd player crapped out. What a great purchase!]

I also noticed that most of the characters weren't given much to do. In Roz's first appearance, she didn't do anything except explain her name as a legacy of her mother's love of show business. It worked out better for her than her brother and sister, Slappy and Zsa Zsa. Florence's death was mentioned, but only in passing while Harry talked about his mother. ["Harry hasn't talked to her in twenty years" someone said to Roz. "My brother hasn't talked to my mother in twenty years." "Your brother?" "Topo Gigio."] A witty retort Roz delivered a few episodes later could have came from either of the characters standing next to her, but I suspect it was a matter of giving the new kid on the block something to do and a matter of where they were standing relative to the main actors in the scene. Again, this wasn't a character-driven show.

But it was funny. They're not even pretending to be realistic anymore, with a cavalcade of hilarious legal cases. Someone who legally changed his name to 1987, vowing to take all responsiblility for the new year. ["I'm going to make ABC the number one network again." Harry: "Held over for psychiatric evaluation."] Brandon Tartikoff shows up to rescue a Nielsen Family and they poke a great deal of fun at their own network, execs and stars alike, for a bit that lasts around 45 seconds.

As mentioned, I skipped ahead (before the dvd player died) to watch the first "200 Cases To Midnight" episode, and it was wonderful, a rapid-fire series of jokes that, even when they misfire, there's another one coming right away and it's all so delightfully weird that there's no time for reflection. The cast play their parts wonderfully, especially John Larroquette who functions as a superb utility player. If a plot or subplot can't be hung around Dan Fielding, it's usually not worth it.

Harry Anderson and Markie Post aren't known for their acting abilities, but the writing compensates quite a lot, and they do just fine with what they have as the male and female leads [although Markie Post is wearing too much makeup]. Harry can handle the serious or wacky roles as required, and Christine has delightfully silly moments in between the naivete and being the butt of jokes. The dvd player died on an episode that had her being dragged off to jail in the opening segment, by a female judge who would later sleep with Harry ["if you want to be technical, neither of us did any sleeping"], and she was doing a great job there.

It's a shame that technology can be so crappy. There's got to be a way for interested parties to give WB some money in exchange for decent unedited copies, and what I've seen of this set at least meets that standard. There's jokes in here I know I never saw in syndication.

But I'm feeling muuuch better now.

No comments: