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.
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.)