The reboot of NBC’s “Night Court” feels like it came out of nowhere, but as sitcom resurrections go, it’s kind of irresistible.
The original show, which ran for nine seasons, was the brainchild of Reinhold Weege, a spark plug of a television writer who earned three Emmys for the show. He had previously won an Emmy for his work on “Barney Miller,” which explains his skill with comedies about the absurdities underlying social institutions. With “Night Court,” Weege, who died in 2012, built a steel trap of a workplace sitcom about a judge and courtroom staff at the nation’s weirdest hall of justice. (It’s based on the New York City Criminal Court, which processes and arraigns Manhattan’s accused until past midnight.)
The new “Night Court,” developed by sitcom yeoman Dan Rubin (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), hews closely to the original format, a testament to the sturdiness of Weege’s show. (It also wisely keeps the lite-jazz opening theme, a top-tier sitcom overture.) Here, the judge is Abby Stone (Melissa Rauch of “The Big Bang Theory”), who quickly clarifies that yes, she is the daughter of the late Harry Stone, the arbiter played by the late Harry Anderson. Like her father, Abby is an affable and empathetic judge with a talent for close-up magic. But Abby is also bright-eyed and idealistic, her energy radiating through an environment characterized by cynicism and despair.
Abby’s personality initially makes her inscrutable to her clerk Neil (Kapil Talwalkar) and Olivia (India de Beaufort), the assistant district attorney responsible for processing arrestees like widgets on a factory line. Abby jells better with Donna, aka “Gurgs” (Lacretta), the night shift’s happy-go-lucky bailiff. But Abby most confuses the public defender assigned to her court, so she has to convince Dan Fielding (John Larroquette) to give up his current hustle as a process server and come back before the bench.
Dan agrees to return, but this time as a public defender. And it’s a good thing: it’s hard to imagine a viable version of 2023’s “Night Court” without Larroquette reprising the role he originated. Larroquette is a killer sitcom performer, able to put force behind every zinger. This despite playing a radically different version of Dan Fielding. The lecherous young prosecutor who was a menace to any woman within earshot has grown into a more emotionally complex person. In addition to being less gross, Dan has since realized how much he valued his job and the people he did it with.
Larroquette is well-matched with Rauch, who plays Abby with a spiky cheerfulness reminiscent of characters like Leslie Knope and Kimmy Schmidt. The chemistry between the two is enough to carry the first few episodes, which, like even the best workplace sitcoms, takes a few episodes to find its footing. The supporting cast is mostly solid, particularly de Beaufort, whose spin on the self-absorbed prosecutor role is shrewd and hilarious. It may take a few more episodes (six were sent out to critics) to find the right application for Talwalkar’s muddled character.
But once “Night Court” gets going, the jokes hit harder and more often, and the visual gags in the courtroom get ever more outlandish. The genius of “Night Court” lies in the novelty of the characters who come through the courtroom, each bringing with them a microdose of sketch comedy. There’s a reason “Saturday Night Live” does so many courtroom sketches, and “Night Court” serves as a reminder of it. The courtroom is a conveyor belt of colorful characters.
To its credit, Rubin’s take on “Night Court” understands better than its forebear that there are human beings behind its sight gags and a good number of them are probably getting an unfair shake. The show has a lot to say about the criminal justice system, but it does so in a restrained way that enhances the show without distracting from it. As with any other suddenly reanimated television show, some skepticism toward “Night Court” is natural and healthy. But if given the opportunity to be heard, it acquits itself well.
“Night Court” has a two-episode premiere on Jan, 17 at 8 p.m.