‘Night Court’ and ‘That ‘90s Show’ usher back age of pre-prestige TV
It’s impossible to generalize about television except to say that there’s too much of it, but here and there, in a small way, we seem to be experiencing something of a neoclassical phase. Reheating old series and seasoning them to modern tastes — often to make them darker, more psychologically acute or self-satirical — has been common practice for a while. But there is also a move to mimic and honor the forms and ambitions of pre-prestige television, made less to impress or elevate than to entertain. A show like the recent CBS series “So Help Me Todd,” with Marcia Gay Harden as an attorney and Skylar Astin as her investigator son, could easily have been mounted in the 1960s or ‘70s; “Poker Face,” with Natasha Lyonne, though identifiably of its time, takes structural cues from “Columbo” and “The Fugitive.”
Recent weeks also saw the revival of two popular comedies born in late 20th-century broadcast television. “Night Court,” which ran from 1984 to 1992, airs Tuesdays on NBC; Fox’s “That ‘90s Show,” a sequel to “That ‘70s Show,” which aired on Fox from 1998 to 2006, is on Netflix. Each features at least one old cast member; each recreates the old sets; each is, as before, a multicamera comedy; and neither is out to do more than capture whatever it was that made their progenitors so popular, to not fix what wasn’t broken. Whether this will work on a contemporary audience, whoever that might be — older generations looking for a hit of the past, and/or younger ones ready for something new that’s something old — is a separate question. Time will tell.
The original “Night Court” starred magician-comic Harry Anderson as Harry Stone, a young, irreverent judge working the night shift in Manhattan’s Municipal Court. In the new show, the late actor’s bench and gavel are newly taken over by Melissa Rauch, who also developed the revival, as Stone’s daughter Abby, a chirpy, chatty product of the upstate small town to which her father moved sometime after the first series ended. Having left behind “my friends, my fiance, my cow,” she’s a “woman who apologizes to her gavel when she bangs it too hard”: something of a Pollyanna, an effect amplified by her Hayley Mills bangs, but a puckish one (a portrait of a German shepherd in judge’s robes adorns her chambers). And she is no dope.
As former assistant District Attorney Dan Fielding, Emmy winner John Larroquette is the original series’ sole representative — and a joy to watch — transformed by time from a narcissistic womanizer into a merely misanthropic widower. Having become a process server, a job he finds emotionally satisfying, he’s drafted by Abby in the opening episode to be her courtroom’s one and only public defender, which makes no great sense yet suits the whimsical nature of this satisfying show, which successfully realizes the essence, the rhythms, the gentle humor, the gestalt, the Weltanschauung of a 1980s sitcom.
India de Beaufort steps into Larroquette’s old shoes as assistant DA Olivia, whose low self-esteem flips her predecessor’s self-love. The team is filled out by Kapil Talwalkar as Abby’s moony clerk, Neil, and Lacretta as “Gurgs,” her jovial bailiff.
Young people, wearing the old clothes of formerly young people, are at the center of “That ‘90s Show,” which, like “That ‘70s Show,” is “Happy Days” with drugs and sex. Though the age of experimentation trends lower with time, as the clothes and hair and the mode of the music change, teenage shenanigans, awkwardness and ignorance remain fundamentally the same — which makes “That ‘90s Show” very much of a piece with its predecessor, substituting techno for disco and sneaking off to a rave for sneaking off to a rock concert.
Although the stars of the first show (notably minus the legally embroiled Danny Masterson) are present at one point or another, apart from Debra Jo Rupp and Kurtwood Smith, they are bit players. Once again, we are in Point Place, Wisconsin, mostly in the kitchen, driveway and basement of grumpy Red (Smith) and doting Kitty (Rupp) Forman. Son Eric (Topher Grace) and wife Donna (Laura Prepon) are visiting from Chicago with daughter Leia (Callie Haverda), named for the space princess.
Attracted to the sound of Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” blasting from Donna’s old house next door, Leia meets Gwen (Ashley Aufderheide), determines that she needs to become her best friend and talks her parents into letting her spend the summer with her grandparents. In the bargain, she inherits Gwen’s crew, including her jock half-brother Nate (Maxwell Acee Donovan); her brother’s brainy girlfriend, Nikki (Sam Morelos); acerbic Ozzie (Reyn Doi) and hunky Jay (Mace Coronel), the son of on-again-off-again couple Kelso (Ashton Kutcher) and Jackie (Mila Kunis).
The new cast trends younger than their “‘70s Show” counterparts, and taken as a whole lack their physical weight and maturity, which can give the series the flavor of a dedicated “teen sitcom”; at times, it’s like watching the best actors from half a dozen high school drama departments, which I mean in the best way.