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Night Court: The Complete Fourth Season
October 13, 2010

After releasing the first three seasons of Night Court commercially, Warner Home Video has decided to release the fourth exclusively through their DVD-on-demand Warner Archive program. Night Court: The Complete Fourth Season has 22 episodes on four discs.

Night Court Season 4

I can understand the decision, although it gives customers many fewer choices for their purchasing. (They can’t comparison shop prices or use gift certificates at other retailers, for example.) All DVD producers of TV seasons seem to be cutting back, as customers buy less in tight economic times. The market became over-saturated, as too many sets were released, and perhaps more people, like me, are realizing that they own more DVDs than they can watch. Plus, customers have been burnt by studios that have failed to finish series that they’ve started. Who wants to buy seasons 1 and 2 without knowing whether they’ll ever get season 4, which is when it gets good? In many cases, the first season of a TV show sells well out of nostalgia, but then, when some customers sit down to watch it, it may not be as good as they remembered. So sales decline for future releases, disappointing those core customers who really do want the whole thing.

When it comes to pricing, a lot of TV season set buyers I know ignore the typical $60 list price, looking instead for discounts (either on first week of release or during targeted sales periods, when a new season is released or during the holidays) that bring the sets down to a more achievable price, in the $30 range. Here, there’s no discount, but a reasonable starting price: $34.95, plus shipping. And Warner Archive often runs sales and free shipping offers with minimum purchase to encourage buying more from them.

In short, releasing direct to interested consumers makes sense — the producer gets all the profit, with no discounts to distributors needed. There’s no up-front production cost, as sets are made only as people commit to buying them. And it’s less likely that copies will go to Netflix, meaning interested viewers are driven to buy instead of rent. On the customer side, you can get the shows you’re interested in without worrying whether enough other people want it to justify a mass market release.

Based on those I’ve seen, made-on-demand DVDs are of good quality, with professional-level package design and viewing quality. I do think it’s a shame not to have a print booklet to refer to for episode titles and descriptions, although the four discs do have the episode names listed on them for easy reference. Unfortunately — and this was my biggest problem with the set — in this case, they’re mislabeled. Disc 1 says it has Episodes 1-6, but it only contains 1-5. Disc 2 is labeled 7-12, but it holds 6-10. Disc 3 reads “Episodes 13-17″ but actually has 11-16. The final disc, labeled 18-22, contains 17-22 instead. (The internal, on-screen menus are correct, though.)

Disc options are minimal, with an episode list and the choice to play all, that’s it. There are no extra features, just the episodes. Those carry a warning:

This film has been manufactured from the best-quality video master currently available and has not been remastered or restored specifically for this DVD and Digital Download release.

So don’t expect pristine picture quality. This is based on 25-year-old videotape, and broadcast expectations weren’t what they are now, pre-HD. Because of the made-on-demand process, Warner also warns that these discs may not play in non-standard DVD players, such as recorders and PC drives. I tried to run them in my DVD player/recorder and had no problems, except for the audio and video sync on the first episode. That’s ironic, because it features a group of ventriloquists. (Others have reported similar issues on that one episode, “The Next Voice You Hear…”.) The remaining episodes were fine.

One of the Last Great Classic Sitcoms

Season 4 opens with the introduction of Roz Russell (Marsha Warfield) as the new female bailiff, completing the well-working cast that ran for five more seasons past this. I’d forgotten how traditionally paced this show was, with setups, punchlines, laugh track, mistaken identities, and occasional heaping scoops of pathos. It was cool to see again Judge Stone (Harry Anderson), lawyers played by Markie Post (sporting a mullet) and Emmy-winning John Larroquette, clerk Mac (Charles Robinson), and most especially bailiff Bull (Richard Moll). The show was created by Reinhold Weege, who previously wrote for Barney Miller, and you can see some of the same influences — wacky characters trying to do a legal job as even weirder perpetrators float through their workplace — although as Night Court went on, it became broader and with more slapstick.

This was one of the last great classic sitcoms. It was surprisingly raunchy for its time, mostly due to the sex-crazed Dan, played by Larroquette. (See, for example, episode 12, where he considers donating to a sperm bank, which means no sex for two weeks.) That means it still fits right in today. The first episode has an impressive performance by Ronn Lucas as a voice-thrower who refuses to move his lips until he finds the perfect dummy. There’s also a guest appearance by John Astin (The Addams Family) as Harry’s previously unknown stepfather, who became an occasionally recurring character.

In episodes this season, Dan almost forces Post’s Christine into sleeping with him after saving her life; Bull writes a kids’ picture book in a special episode about the pain of being different; Christine is thrown into jail for contempt of court by Harry’s temporary replacement; Mac’s wife announces she’s pregnant; Dan has a paternity suit scare; and the cast meets kid dopplegangers of themselves while they’re trapped in the courtroom after an earthquake. That one also involves sumo wrestlers stuck in an elevator, demonstrating how imaginative and un-realistic the show became in the service of quite funny humor.

There’s also a Halloween episode featuring an orphan kid (for all those “awww” heartstring moments), one with a stray dog who saved Harry’s life, and a two-parter in which Dan undergoes surgery for an ulcer. That one is a good indication as to why Larroquette won the Emmy; it’s an impressive picture of a man hostage to his needs, as Dan first returns to work against doctor’s advice and finds himself physically challenged, then in a scene where his lust overcomes his common sense.

Now-Famous Guest Stars

Surprising guest stars include Fran Drescher in episode 3 (“Author, Author”) as the dual-personality victim of an alleged peeping tom and Jeff Altman in episode 7 (“The New Judge”) as a gun-loving temporary replacement for Harry who handles a case of noisily amorous senior citizens. That episode also features Joe Regalbuto (Murphy Brown) as an investigator. Frank Bonner shows up as a State Department rep in episode 10 (“Prince of a Guy”), where an island princess with a thing for nudity wants to escape the marriage arranged by her brother.

In “New Year’s Leave”, episode 11, Harold Gould is a sweetheart of an old man who just wants to visit Times Square. (We wondered why Dan wasn’t in it much, until we saw the “directed by John Larroquette” credit.) Sela Ward is “Christine’s Friend” in episode 17, where all the guys fawn over her. Teresa Ganzel, one of my favorite 80s starlets, shows up in “Caught Red Handed”, episode 18, a story about sexual harassment from Christine’s boss, Michael Gross. Such a time capsule to see the guys try to protect Christine and solve her problems for her, written and directed by Harry Anderson. There’s also a guest appearance by Mel Torme, Harry’s favorite singer, but I won’t tell you where to avoid spoiling the surprise.

In one of the most “sitcom-y” episodes, number 14, “The Modest Proposal”, Christine gets engaged to Bill (Timothy Stack), a very forgettable guy. Of course, no one wants her to marry him, but no one will say why, and there’s lots of “will he or won’t he” regarding what the judge will say. It all feels very quaint and conservative these days. The next one, “A Day in the Life”, is much better, as the court has to run through an immense number of cases while Dan is trying to sneak away for a quick tryst. The result is a bunch of sight gags, puns, and humorous defendants, including a guest-appearance by then-NBC head of programming Brandon Tartikoff.

The season ends with the two-part “Her Honor”, about Christine getting picked to be a judge while Harry’s position is in danger. It’s continued with a two-part follow-up at the beginning of season six, so let’s hope Warner doesn’t keep viewers waiting too long for that release.

We had lots of “I remember this one” moments while watching these old-school comedies, which is exactly what I was hoping for. (The studio provided a review copy.)

21 Responses  
Chris Howard writes:  

So these Warner Archive products are the push back against people with their own homemade collections of these old shows, recorded from broadcast and shared online or by swapping. The quality isn’t really a lot better, it costs a fair bit, but you can claim you are above board legally. Hmmm…

 
Johanna writes:  

Well, the quality is a good deal better if you consider things like
* no ads or jumps where ads were cut out by hand
* full season of shows — I’ve seen bootlegs that skipped episodes or homemade tapers who missed one because of a storm or whatever during the airing
* no channel bugs where they picked up re-airings on SyFy or some other second-run source

But I guess that depends on how much you care about those kinds of details. We tend to get obsessive about shows we like and want the best available sourcing.

 
Curt writes:  

I’m not so sure about the quality of these discs…they aren’t even dual-layer 8.5GB, they only come in at just over 4GB in size. With 5-6 episodes per disc, that doesn’t bode well for the bitrate of the content. It looks grainy as if it was recorded from a over-the-air rabbit-ear broadcast from back in the 80s. It doesn’t look like any digital enhancements were done at all.

On my copies, the first episode of the first disc has an audio/video synchronization problem where it is off by about a second. It starts near the middle of the episode and lasts through the end of the episode. I haven’t yet found any audio problems with other episodes yet, and I don’t know if any other customers have the same audio issue.

Each episode only had 2 chapter marks each, at 10:00 and 20:00…none at the credits, title sequence or scene breaks (where commercials would have been). This is very amateurish and makes for poor DVD navigation.

All-in-all, this set is not even close to being worth the $34.95 competition-free price tag that WB is charging. Monopoly at its finest.

 
Johanna writes:  

They don’t digitally enhance the material, and they’re clear about that on the purchase page with a prominent disclaimer. As I mentioned and linked above, the audio issue you mention on the first episode has been reported elsewhere, although that episode seems to be the only problem one.

I did have the same problem you did with chapters — I much prefer shows where there’s a chapter stop right after the credit sequence, so when you’re watching several episodes in a row it’s easier to scan through.

Given that bootleggers charge at least $25 (last time I checked) for a season set with half the number of episodes, and Amazon charges more than $35 for a commercially released season, I find the pricing reasonable. Of course, opinions may differ.

 
Curt writes:  

I’m fine with no enhancement of the material if the original masters are at least acceptable. Couple that with the fact that they used single layer discs (4.7GB) instead of dual-layer (8.5GB), introducing compression artifacts into an already borderline source quality just doesn’t cut it for a commercial DVD, IMO.

Regarding Amazon pricing, typically they charge 20-30% LESS than MSRP (for instance, I got the Season 1 Bionic Woman DVD set for 26.99, 32% off MSRP of 39.99.) WB is charging full MSRP (well geez, they ARE the manufacturer after all). You would think by removing the middleman that costs could be saved and passed on to the consumer, but due to the monopoly of being the only place to buy the set, they can charge whatever they want. And IMO (again), the price does not justify the quality/defects.

 
Curt writes:  

BTW, I paid 19.99 each for seasons 2 and 3 from Amazon at the time of their release, and they didn’t suffer the chapter issues, labeling issues, and video quality this 4th season set did. If this is a function of the manufacture on demand service, then it has failed.

 
Johanna writes:  

I think we’re comparing prices at different times. Yes, you can get big discounts if you commit to preorder or buy in the week of release or wait for a while until retailers start cutting out product — but for normal pricing, I just compared seasons of Two and a Half Men on Amazon right now, and list on all is $45, discounted to anywhere from 30-40. That makes $35 a reasonable price for a mid-run sitcom season without having to hunt for discounts. If you think it’s too much, then Warner Archive does sometimes run sales, but probably not on a new product right away.

Fundamentally, it comes down to whether you want the show. As I discussed in the review, you don’t have as many options for purchase with a limited, non-commercial release, but it is available for those fans who want it. The other choice is not getting any more Night Court at all. The economics no longer seem to exist for traditional releases of old, long-running shows.

 
Tommy Raiko writes:  

“WB is charging full MSRP (well geez, they ARE the manufacturer after all). You would think by removing the middleman that costs could be saved and passed on to the consumer, but due to the monopoly of being the only place to buy the set, they can charge whatever they want.”

There is surely a difference cost structure between a mass-produced product (like DVD sets released to, shelved at, and sold through retailers nationwide) and a manufactured-on-demand product (like these Warner Archive DVDs.)

The economies of scale for any manufacturing process usually hold that when you manufacture a greater quantity of items, the per-unit cost of those items become smaller.

That is to say: if you manufacture 10,000 items, the manufacturing cost for each of those 10,000 units is surely lower than the cost when you manufacture just one item at a time.

To the extent that its the cost of manufacturing good that guides retail pricing, I wouldn’t automatically assume that the costs of this manufacture-on-demand Warner Archive model are so much lower as to self-evidently justify lowered retail pricing (even with the model’s other cost advantages–no warehousing, more immediate payment/cash flow, etc.)

 
Curt writes:  

I apologize for getting the 2 separate points intertwined in my responses. I do understand the economies of scale between the two types of releases. My bringing up Amazon prices at all was in response to the claim that Amazon charges more for commercial DVD releases.

I still don’t think it’s unreasonable to demand for the price that is being charged to fix the audio, chapter, and labeling problems, and use higher capacity media. THAT is what makes the 34.95 price unacceptable.

 
Johanna writes:  

I wish I knew someone to talk to in the Archive program. It would be interesting to ask them how much they thought Warner would charge if someone had done the cleanup and added chapters to the masters. I suspect it would be more along $50-60 a set — and then they definitely wouldn’t sell. This program works for them because they’re just duping whatever they have, without much processing.

What price would you expect to pay for this product as it is?

 
Tommy Raiko writes:  

“I wish I knew someone to talk to in the Archive program.”

They’re apparently on Twitter (@WarnerArchive,) for whatever that might be worth…

 
Johanna writes:  

Yes, and that’s a great way to get updates, but I wouldn’t want to talk to someone about such a sensitive subject that way.

 
Tommy Raiko writes:  

TVShowsonDVD.com occasionally participates & posts news from forums convened with the folks at Warner Home Video about upcoming home video releases, but I notice that in recent sessions, they’ve not had the Warner Archive team represented, so they’ve spoken to that program only obliquely. Maybe soon the Warner Archive folks will take part more fully in those sessions.

 
Legends of the Superheroes ยป DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] Marsha Warfield (Night Court) cameos as a fan in the phonebooth […]

 
Johanna writes:  

An update, via TVShowsonDVD.com: Warner Archive has stopped selling these sets for now and removed the listing from their site. There are two known errors, as mentioned above — the disc labeling and the out-of-sync first episode — but it hasn’t been confirmed that those are the reasons the set is no longer available. We’re waiting to hear when/if the set will return and what will be done for existing customers.

 
Curt writes:  

Johanna, this is good news. If they can fix the chapter marks as well, I would be a happy camper. It’ll also be interesting to see how they handle existing customers.

 
Thom writes:  

Warners has been quite good about fixing glitches for customers in the past. I’ve always been able to get stuff resolved quite easily with them.

 
Curt writes:  

FYI, after contacting WB customer service, I got this reply back:

The item has been removed from the website, when the problems are fixed, they will reship a new copy to you. We are putting you on the list for a reship, we do not have an expected time for the reship.

If you have any other questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact us again.

——

I suggest that if you want to be sure to be on the reship list, that you contact customer support yourself.

 
Johanna writes:  

Thank you very much for sharing that information, Curt, that’s helpful.

 
MsNova writes:  

I have an update, I received an e-mail from Amazon this morning. WB is now putting Amazon in charge of the Night Court S4 set and they are manufacturing them on demand. Amazon does not say if the set has been corrected. The price is still set at $40.

 
Curt writes:  

Another update…I got an email from WBshop.com stating that my replacement set was shipped on Tuesday, 2/8.

 

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