To a TV viewer of a certain age—let’s say around 30, their pop-cultural coming of age coinciding with the rise of the small-screen mockumentary—the multi-camera sitcom looks and feels like a relic.
The over-lighting required in the live-studio-audience environment has a harshness unseen anywhere else on the airwaves (save late-night softcore), made harder to look at by the flattened crispness of digital. The braying, instructive laugh track creates a halting rhythm of setups and punchlines closer to the person-to-person energy of the theater than the rapid-fire density of jokes flourishing over the past couple decades of standard-setting comedies. Pillars of Western society like , the jokecraft aims for the lowest common denominator, as soft and stale and easily digested as month-old crackers. Its notion of a well-placed reference is best exemplified with a line name-checking Bridgerton, an allusion both safely popular and a couple years past its sell-by date. The last iteration of Night Court always mined laughs from the nightly docket, filled by a New York with an unlimited supply of kooks. In the reboot, these mini-sketches (“My client is a vampire, your Honor!”) find the writing staff at their best, riffing on assorted themes.
They’re a respite from the show’s general grousing about our newfangled world and drippy lessons about honesty or kindness— a palatable edgelessness that extends to the premise itself, minimally tweaked to ditch the old standbys of Dan’s incorrigible horndoggery and humor at the expense of sex workers, yet still far from any political introspection along the lines of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
At the beginning of its second season, a show should be hitting its stride and working out its kinks, but this ensemble still has yet to cohere. The most natural crowd-pleasers—chief among them Lacretta as bailiff Donna “Gurgs” Gurganous, echoing the last mononymous comedienne portraying her workplace’s resident Donna—might as well be on their own, often left to laboriously cue up and answer themselves in gags not nearly worth the effort.
There’s no patter, no back-and-forth layering laughs on top of each other, just a mild volley of feeble not-quite-jokes. In the latest episode, Dan winds up wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt to a hearing, and ADA Olivia (India de Beaufort) burns him by interjecting, “Can we get back to deciding who wore it better: Dan or the Jerry Garcia Beanie Baby?” De Beaufort then cracks up at her own slam. If the bit is supposed to be that she delights herself with her tired material, then the following reaction shot of an equally amused Rauch biffs it.
The exhuming of Night Court continues NBC’s campaign to strip-mine their backlog of IP, a doctrine that has at least given us the fitfully solid Saved by the Bell revival. While both play on nostalgia for the same era of broadcasting, Night Court has shied away from self-aware reinvention in favor of doling out more of the same. There’s good money in this; the first season’s ratings hovered around a respectable 3 million, albeit a far cry from the monster numbers of its predecessor. But creatively, the show is porridge, lumpen and flavorless. The major networks have resolved not to let the multi-camera comedy go from passé to extinct—not when production costs can be kept this low. But will they revive the pre-millennial glory of that format? Jury’s still out.