‘Night Court’ Is Back, and America Is Tuning In
In recent years, network executives have rebooted and revived decades-old TV series at will, all in the hope of finding a born-again hit.
Classic series like “Magnum P.I.,” “Murphy Brown,” “The X-Files” and “Roseanne,” to name just a few, have all been exhumed and brought back to life, some with the original casts, others with new ones.
It took a long while for “Night Court,” a popular but not quite chart-topping 1980s sitcom, to get its shot. So far it is, somewhat inexplicably, paying off.
The first three episodes of NBC’s “Night Court” revival scored the highest ratings of any new network comedy in four years. The show is averaging 6.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen, and the first episode, which premiered on Jan. 17, has drawn more than 16 million viewers when delayed and streaming viewing is included, NBC said.
While it is still early, studio executives and producers behind the revival believe the show has found its audience. But the initial results for “Night Court” — which ran for 193 episodes from 1984 to 1992 — have also left them a bit dazed.
“I was a combination of absolutely stunned and unbelievably thrilled” when the first ratings arrived, said Channing Dungey, the chairman of Warner Bros. Television, one of the studios behind the series.
Melissa Rauch, who stars as the judge in “Night Court” and is an executive producer of the series, said, “When I saw the numbers, I honestly thought there was a typo.”
Though garnering an audience of more than six million people qualifies as a standout performance in network TV these days, that’s a far cry from the sizes of audiences that used to tune in — four decades ago or even four years ago. New network sitcoms have also had trouble breaking out of the pack in recent years as viewers have gravitated to streaming.
The new “Night Court,” like the original, takes place at an after-hours Manhattan arraignment court and centers on the characters that populate it: the judge, the lawyers, the bailiffs, the stenographers, the scofflaws. The lone returning cast member is John Larroquette, reprising his role as the sharp-tongued lawyer Dan Fielding. The last time viewers saw him, he was a 45-year-old prosecutor. Now he’s a 75-year-old public defense lawyer.
Mr. Larroquette, who had recently been contemplating retirement, was not sure how “Night Court” would perform. He has not watched network TV in years, he said, and had no idea what makes for a good rating point in an era of vastly diminished viewership.
“I haven’t been in a sitcom in a very long time, obviously,” he said.
In the show, Ms. Rauch plays the daughter of Harry Stone, the oddball judge from the original “Night Court,” who was portrayed by Harry Anderson. Ms. Rauch, a former star of “The Big Bang Theory,” was the one with the improbable idea of bringing the show back to life.
Ms. Rauch, who has a deal with Warner Bros., was combing through the studio’s library looking for show ideas when “Night Court” struck her as a viable candidate because, she said, it offered “an evergreen set of stories with these characters and cases that just come in and out each night.”
Though the new iteration takes place in 2023, it looks like a throwback. In the last two years, other successful new network sitcoms, like CBS’s “Ghosts” and ABC’s “Abbott Elementary,” have deployed a single camera. “Night Court,” like the original, uses an old-school multicamera setup, complete with a studio audience.
“If you look around the courtroom that we’ve constructed for ‘Night Court,’ it’s not filled with tons of computer screens or modern trappings of life,” Ms. Rauch said. “We really intentionally wanted ‘Night Court’ to feel like a place a bit frozen in time.”
The original “Night Court” won seven Emmys, including four consecutive wins for Mr. Larroquette as best supporting actor in a comedy. After his fourth win, he withdrew himself from future consideration.
But its success had limits. Critics had a hard time warming up to it, particularly in comparison with other sitcom hits of its era, such as “The Golden Girls” and “Cheers.” The Los Angeles Times once described the show “as durable as a polyester suit but just as unfashionable.”
Stuart Kreisman, a former executive producer of the show, lamented in 1992, “That is our legacy — we’ve always been the other show.”
When “Night Court” was canceled in 1992, word came from the network at such a late hour that the show’s writers did not have a chance to whip up a proper send-off. (Years later, “30 Rock” would do the honors in an episode featuring a courtroom wedding for Mr. Anderson’s character.)
“Night Court” went into syndication on A&E and, in more recent years, on the obscure network Laff. But it never made it to Netflix or Hulu to help introduce it to a new generation of viewers the way “Friends” and “Seinfeld” did. Dan Rubin, an executive producer on the “Night Court” revival, said he had to resort to buying older episodes off Amazon Prime during the development process. (The original series is now available on Amazon’s free streaming service, Freevee.)
Susan Rovner, the chairman of entertainment content at NBCUniversal Television, suspects that nostalgia helped “Night Court” connect with the public.
“When you ask people about ‘Night Court,’ they have positive memories, but they can’t necessarily speak so specifically about it,” she said. “And that might be part of why it’s resonating. There’s a warm, fuzzy feeling about it, even though they may not remember every moment of it.”
Given the glut of reboots, Mr. Larroquette said that before “Night Court,” the last time he had appeared in front of a television studio audience was a guest appearance on — naturally — the revival of “Murphy Brown” in 2018.
The original “Murphy Brown” was very much a creature of its time, and the revival awkwardly tried to place the title character headfirst into the Trump-era culture wars. It was canceled after a single season.
Mr. Larroquette said “Night Court” could be working because of its offbeat style of comedy.
“I don’t mean this in a Rembrandt or a Henry Moore sculpture way, but the show was kind of timeless because it wasn’t topical,” he said. “It wasn’t stuck in the politics of the day, or the mores of the day. It was onto itself: Is this funny? Regardless of its connection to society, and present time.
“So when you fast forward 30-odd years, you’re still using that as your gauge,” he continued. “Is it funny?”