Old Sitcoms Never Die

The odd returns of ‘Night Court’ and ‘That 70s Show’

Like appetizers we didn’t order but that the kitchen sent out anyway, ‘Night Court’ and ‘That 70s Show’ have returned to TV this month with new episodes. Technically, ‘That 70s Show’ is now called ‘That 90s Show,’ but it’s functionally still the same sitcom, with the same premise. So let’s call it a reboot, on both counts. And both feel familiar and kind of musty, like a box of memorabilia found in the attic or the basement. Those are actual plot points in the pilots of Night Court and That 90s Show respectively. Here we are, wearing that old flannel shirt again.

TV reboots can go any number of directions. There is the Artistic Reimagining, like Battlestar Galactica, which puts a quality gloss on genre junk. You have the Ethnic Updating, which is what happened with the Latino One Day At A Time and Party of Five restarts, among others. There is Same Show, New Cast, with no acknowledging of the old show, like with the modern Hawaii 5-0, MacGyver, The Equalizer, and Magnum P.I. Or there’s the Postmodern Approach, which Beverly Hills 90210 did in an entertaining but basically unpopular way.

Night Court and That 70s Show have gone the Next Generation route. That was the way David Lynch went with Twin Peaks: The Return, not only the greatest TV reboot of all time, but possibly the greatest TV show of all time, period, which functioned as an avant-garde critique of nostalgia for old TV while also celebrating it. Much much less artistically, Fuller House rebooted with the kids all grown up with kids of their own. Will and Grace came back last decade for 50 or so episodes. And few remember that Mad About You returned, in episodes it buried on the obscure Spectrum network, in the most disastrous TV reboot in history. Frasier is coming back as well, starring the actual Frasier, on Paramount+. As long as sitcom stars breathe, so do their characters.

Court is back in session
Night Court
Melissa Rauch and John Laroquette in the reboot of ‘Night Court’ on NBC.

If you had to pick one great NBC sitcom from the 80s to reboot, it would be Cheers, but that would be a very expensive proposition. Family Ties has dated poorly and a reboot is impossible for a number of reasons. The Golden Girls are all dead. And a return of Bill Cosby to prime time is about as likely as Harvey Weinstein returning to Miramax. So Night Court it is, still on NBC .

The Night Court reboot hinges on, and greatly benefits from, the return of John Laroquette as attorney Dan Fielding, who, along with Harry Anderson, comprised the beating heart of the old show, which ran nine seasons and was kind of sweet given that half the characters were con artists or public masturbators. Laroquette received four well-deserved Emmys for his portrayal of Fielding, a complex and dynamic character, particularly for a multi-camera sitcom. He still operates with maximum charisma and has great comic timing.

The rest of the supporting cast hasn’t really registered. The show also hinges on the charms of The Big Bang Theory’s Melissa Rauch, who plays Judge Abby Stone, the daughter of the late Judge Harry Stone (played by the late Harry Anderson). Rauch has plenty of gee-whiz charm and is a sitcom pro, so there’s potential. But the show is missing an effective foil for Laroquette like the one that the late Markie Post provided.

The new Night Court oddly feels like an artifact from the 1980s. The sets are exactly the same. The laugh track is the same. Even the prices in the court cafeteria hasn’t gone up much. There’s almost no nod to modernity. The opening scene has a nose-ring-in-metal detector joke. But no one has cell phones, as far as I can see. Our court clerk presents the docket as a big pile of manila folders. The judge’s office doesn’t even have a computer.

The show’s charm in the 80s, if it had any, was that it took generational urban decay and turned it into a funny free-for-all. We’re back to that decay point in our big cities. But the characters parading in front of the judge are the same array of Wacky White People who look like they just stepped out of their audition for David Letterman’s Stupid Human Tricks. It’s fine to replicate the original series’s tone. But Night Court needs to at least acknowledge that it’s 2023. The fact that it won’t means that this piece of intellectual property is probably due for a quick return to the attic.

90s Kids Will Remember

That 90s Show, on the other hand, avoids the modernity pitfalls by the fact that it takes place nearly 30 years in the past, even though it takes place 15 years after the action of the original show. So it can trade on references to grunge and VCRs, and it makes sense that the characters have aged. That 70s Show was always kind of a gimmicky, laugh-track-and-whoop-laden corn fest. But it succeeded because of the electric star power of its young-person cast, which included Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, and Topher Grace. All that cast is back except for Danny Masterston, who is still on trial for several accounts of rape, but they mostly have recurring or cameo roles.

Instead, we have a new cast of kids. The “kids” in the original That 70s Show were actors in their early 20s, but these are actual kids. They’re cute enough, but the scenes with them feel like an episode of The Wizards of Waverly Place where everyone is drinking beer and smoking weed. It doesn’t feel like the 90s at all. It feels like The Disney Channel in 2011.

But the show’s interest isn’t with the kids anyway, it’s with Red and Kitty Forman, who were the parents in the original show, and now are the grandparents. Since the kids left town in the 70s, life has gotten stale for Red and Kitty, whose quirky parenting attitudes were an essential subplot of That 70s Show. But now their cup runneth over again. Kitty gets to bake again and offer questionable advice, and Red gets to crankily say he’s going to put his “foot in the ass” of a whole new crew. Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp, who play Red and Kitty, are executive producers of this show, and it really does belong to them. These are their signature characters, and now here they are, happily doing their thing again, on Netflix.

I was never a huge fan of That 70s Show, and I’ll never be a huge fan of That 90s Show. It’s not great. But it’s also a fairly successful updating of the franchise. Red and Kitty Forman are kind of Al and Peg Bundy lite, but they’re legendary characters in their own way. That 70s Show was always sweeter, gentler, and simpler than Married: With Children or Malcolm in the Middle. Its central premise, hanging out with your pals and getting high in a small-town Wisconsin setting where the stakes are low and Tommy Chong is your neighbor, remains appealing, just like the 90s themselves, the last true good time any of us knew.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

2 thoughts on “Old Sitcoms Never Die

  • January 24, 2023 at 4:42 pm
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    I was actually rather stunned how much I liked the Night Court reboot. Maybe it’s because I liked the original so much, maybe it’s because of John Larroquette and the recreated set, maybe it’s because I don’t have much of a social life. But I liked it!

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