Best of ’23: The Verdict Is: Why?/Those 90s Shows

At long last, the first episodes of newly produced scripted TV for the 2023-24 broadcast season will be NBC’s Christmas gift to viewers who are simply sick and tired of searching for something on some streaming service to serve as background noise while we wrap presents or stuff a fowl.  Yes, both were produced prior to the strikes, but both the holiday episode of the second season of the resurrected NIGHT COURT and the debut of the aggressively promoted EXTENDED FAMILY still qualify as SOMETHING, and thanks to an overly competitive AFC Central Division they will enjoy a highly-rated lead-in of a crucial Cincinnati-Pittsburgh NFL game. 

And while it would be fairly easy to dismiss this as a non-event, especially since the reviews of EXTENDED FAMILY are, to be kind, meh, I’ve been wrong before.  In fact, as 2023 started  I expressed some reservations about the wisdom of bringing back a show that in its original incarnation owed its success as much to its scheduling environment as its ability to stand out.  NIGHT COURT was never more than the fourth most popular sitcom on NBC’s storied Thursday night block in the 80s, but by today’s standards, it would be right up there with Sunday Night Football.  And yes, I was rooting for it, largely because I’m still a pious believer that just when the so-called culture experts are writing a genre off entirely may very well be the opportunity for the populist view to surprise us.  It happened when THE COSBY SHOW proved those that had called sitcoms dead in the wake of the primetime soap opera revolution dead wrong.  And while having nowhere near the level of impact that COSBY had on NBC then, last winter’s arc of NIGHT COURT opened surprisingly well, and indeed earned its renewal.

So I’m actually looking forward to the special Christmas episode tonight, and I’m actually even willing to give EXTENDED FAMILY a shot.  It’s got a lot of roots in the success stories of prior decades’ comedies.  Cryer, of course, was the glue that held together 11 seasons of TWO AND A HALF MEN, surviving both Charlie Sheen and Ashton Kutcher as roommates after a painful divorce.  Once again, he’s the lovable nerdy, well-intentioned dad amidst a very very cool roomie, only this time the hot ex-wife is still in the picture.  And it’s courtesy of an actress I’ve had the pleasure of knowing personally, the stunning and surprisingly comically timed Abigail Spencer, who made the struggle of selling TIMELESS to NBC over and over again a lot more fun.  And Donald Faison, who had a strong nine-year run on SCRUBS is the man in the middle in this plot, which as it turns out is actually based on a real-life situation involving the actual owner of the NBA Boston Celtics. Which is chum in the water to showrunner and yes, big sports fan Mike O’Malley, whose YES, DEAR had a more than decent run of its own.  

So yep, count me in, at least for now.  Ever since I happily ate crow last January, my expectation bar is lowered.  Just please, PLEASE, be funnier than LOPEZ VS. LOPEZ?

After more than 30 years since it last aired an original episode, and more than two years after NBC and Warner Brothers announced their intention to revive it, tonight NIGHT COURT is back in session on NBC.  To their credit, both entities have gone out of their way to promote it during their more popular programs, including NFL football, and you can’t avoid its presence splashed across multiple landing pages on Peacock.

And, to be sure, I have some strong personal feelings for both the IP and its talent.  I’m inspired that Melissa Rauch, the prettiest savior for a tortured Jewish boy with a gravel-voiced overbearing mother one could ever hope for (as Bernadette Rostenkowski on THE BIG BANG THEORY), and her lucky hubby Winston thought enough of the show to be as passionate and as dedicated toward bringing it back.  And speaking of happy couples, India de Beaufort was added to the cast after the pilot, and she and her husband Todd Grinnell were among my favorite human beings as part of the cast of perhaps the most joyous reboot I’ve ever part of, the recent Netflix updating of ONE DAY AT A TIME.

Rauch optimistically calls this incarnation a “newboot”, and that’s as much by necessity as it is a cboice.  Sadly, the principles of the original version are gone, lead Harry Anderson passing too soon in 2018 and, in 2021, the ascerbic Charlie Robinson and the stunning Markie Post also left us.   And during the series’ early days, two veteran comediennes who played bailiffs with gravely voices akin to Bernadette Rostenkowski Wolowitz’s mother-in-law, Selma Diamond and Florence Halop, both eerily died of lung cancer in their 60s within months of each other.   So while the series concept is timeless, the need to build around new characters is obvious.

Rauch’s Abby is the daughter of Anderson’s Judge Harry Stone character, and appears from the trailer to be as offbeat and wisecracking as her dad was.  The key link to the original is John Larroquette’s Dan Fielding, who played the Assistant D.A. on the original and is now a public defender who turns up in the pilot looking homeless and haggard and is eventually recognized by Rauch’s Abby character and is given a new lease on life.  Turns out Dan, who had lusted after Post’s Christine Sullivan for much of the original’s run (understandable, TBH), eventually did settle down and find true love, but, alas, she’s left this world too.   So it’s a more subdued and somber version of Fielding that we see in this version, which his portrayer  apparently championed as a storyline.

Having won four Emmys for Best Supporting Actor in a comedy playing Fielding, Larroquette certainly has a reason to be involved in this version, if for no other reason than he’s still breathing.  But John hasn’t exactly been a lightning rod for success since then.  His JOHN LARROQUETTE SHOW was a low-rated tour de force set around a St. Louis bus station that limped through parts of three seasons with little success.  His follow-up effort, a reboot of FAWLTY TOWERS for CBS called PAYNE, was even less successful than both his show and a previous reimagining of the classic BBC comedy that Bea Arthur failed with a decade earlier (AMANDA’S), that mercifully left the air after eight episodes and, if nothing else, quickly put a taskmaster showrunner with a slimy attitude out of work.

And for as much as the title NIGHT COURT resonates nostalgically with fans of must-see NBC TV of the 80s and early 90s, the show’s sustenance was tied to its ability to be a “coattails” show.  A show that aired on the “:30”, most often following CHEERS.   When it was syndicated by Warner Brothers, it aimed to be paired with CHEERS reruns, but in many markets was inexplicably purchased by stations that were competing head-to-head.   I inherited some of those situations in some of those cases when I programmed stations, and much as we tried to cross-promote with the still-successful network originals when given a choice viewers ignored NIGHT COURT repeats.  Even on cable networks and streaming services, the original continues to be a mediocre performer at best.

If that sounds familiar, it’s much the same narrative that applies to MURPHY BROWN, another critical darling of the prolific late 80s and early 90s Warner Brothers TV comedy machine which never found a rerun audience of note, either.  The default defense was to blame the topical political storylines, which gave CBS enough confidence to invest in a Trump-era reboot of that in 2018.  But even with a still-competiitve Thursday night lineup in front of it,  and with much of the original cast still intact, the revival was a ratings disaster.  And yes, it even aired on the “:30”.

The one cause for optimism is the potential for stunt casting that will evolve the show and give the main characters fresh faces to play off of.  Among those upcoming that NBC has touted include the likes of Melissa Villasenor, Pete Holmes (who plays Rauch’s boyfriend, lucky man) and Wendie Malick.  Much like BARNEY MILLER, which was the training ground for many of the original show’s key creatives, having a setting where nut jobs are natural and strong comedians can have a field day, much of the comedy a show like NIGHT COURT can offer up lies in those opportunities.  Though Mel Torme’s no longer around, either.

NIGHT COURT’s “newboot” will lead off a Tuesday night where NBC has struggled to find a comedy audience for decades, since the LARROQUETTE show first premiered, in fact.  It’s leading off a night and hoping the viewing patterns of today’s audience that tends to watch shows recorded earlier in the evening in later time slots will prove true, since networks have all but given up the concept of scheduling and live viewing.  Yes, I will watch the first two episodes tonight, and I will reserve any critical judgement until I actually see the show.

I really would like to be wrong for once.  And given the fact that NBC considers LOPEZ VS. LOPEZ successful enough to warrant a renewal, I just might be.  Anything even remotely competitive to the procedural franchises of THE FBI and THE ROOKIE that it will compete with will likely be considered a win by NBC officials, especially if its streaming runs show any success, and if Warner Brothers breathes any life into the original version as a result.

But I’m not the judge in this case.  The American viewing public is.  And their verdict is still pending.   Here’s hoping the response to “why?” is “Because”.

For as much as I like to toot my own horn when I’m right (spoiler alert: the ratings on MILF MANOR were indeed lousy; please check the update for yesterday’s entry for those details), I will always freely admit when I’m dead wrong.   As Cynopsis is reporting this morning, despite the somewhat tepid reviews and Rotten Tomatoes scores, the reborn NIGHT COURT actually, by 2023 standards, did really, really well:

The two-episode premiere of NBC’s “Night Court” reboot won the highest ratings for a comedy debut in over five years for the network. The first episode of the original series in 1984 was the highest-rated and most-watched program of the night, according to Nielsen, and the same was true nearly four decades later. The first episode of the night on Thursday averaged 7.4 total viewers, while the second delivered 6.7 million viewers.

BTW, that’s a 1.0 A 18-49 rating, which these days is in the neighborhood of unheard of when it comes to live-plus-same-day performances for a broadcast network comedy.

Though, in hindsight, I should have seen this coming.  By combining the right mix of nostalgia and evolution, reboots/newboots/revivals tap into a nerve that is as much biological as it is sociological.  My curiosity reignited, I came across this fascinating 2017 piece by Patrick Metzger for a site called THE PATTERNING, which describes itself as  “dedicated to identifying patterns in music, culture, and the Universe,”  In an article titled THE NOSTALGIA PENDULUM: A ROLLING 30-YEAR CYCLE OF POP CULTURE TRENDS, Metzger provides ample evidence for why, at a certain point in lifecycles, we should anticipate and even embrace success:

There’s a reason that the culture of the 1980’s is experiencing a resurgence right now. Just as there’s a reason that we’re in the early days of getting more build-up of 90’s nostalgia. It’s not all that complicated, but it is a pattern that has profound consequences for how art is created, how we conceptualize culture, and perhaps even what sort of political rhetoric comes into vogue.

The pattern is this: pop culture is forever obsessed with a nostalgia pendulum that regularly resurfaces things from 30 years ago.

There are a number of reasons why the nostalgia pendulum shows up, but the driving factor seems to be that it takes about 30 years for a critical mass of people who were consumers of culture when they were young to become the creators of culture in their adulthood. The art and culture of their childhood (e.g. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comics in 1984) helped them achieve comfort and clarity in their world, and so they make art that references that culture and may even exist wholly within that universe (e.g. the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2014 film reboot, 30 years later). Since most of the other fashionable creators around them also lived through the same period, they too indulge in the “new” nostalgic trend that’s being repurposed, creating a kind of feedback loop where all parties involved want to contribute more and more work that revives that same zeitgeist.

It can be explained equally well from the consumer side. After about 30 years, you’ve got a real market of people with disposable income who are nostalgic for their childhoods. So artists working in popular mediums are rewarded for making art that appeals to this audience.

Like many pop culture patterns, some aspects of this phenomenon are intentional, and some aspects are an organic product of the personal histories of the creators involved. Film studios and advertisers, for instance, often consciously use the nostalgia pendulum to build an audience’s emotional attachment with the release of something new. On the flip side, the writers and toy makers and musicians who are creating the artifacts of culture really do have fondness and nostalgia for the themes of their childhood that they’re referencing. So J.J. Abrams really was a kid during the summer of 1979 in which Super 8 is set.

This theory, which Metzger backs up with an exhaustive analysis of more than 500 movies and TV shows’ popularity pendulums, also explains why THAT 70S SHOW was a rare sitcom hit for FOX when it was introduced in 1998, and successfully produced more than 200 episodes by the time it concluded eight years later.  And why the initial reviews and expectations for the reboot which Netflix is dropping today, THAT 90s SHOW, have been so well received.

Read the thoughts of Yahoo!’s Nick Hilton, and see if you don’t relate as well as I do (if not better, considering I’m not quite in the demo sweet spot):

I vividly remember, as a child, listening to Atomic Kitten’s hits “Eternal Flame” and “The Tide is High”, and my father loudly complaining that “all songs these days are covers”. Well, the child is father of the man, as William Wordsworth might say, and after seeing The Addams Family, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and, now, That ’70s Show rebooted for modern audiences, I have become my father. “Why did you open our house to chaos?” asks Kurtwood Smith’s cantankerous grandpa, Red, as Netflix’s That ’90s Show begins. “Again!?” That, Red, is a question for the studio executives.

And from all accounts, the question is answered when we first see Eric and Donna, now parents of an expectedly gorgeous teen girl named Leia (named, of course, for the Princess), bring their girl for an extended visit to their grandparents’ home–almost devoid of any updating– in Point Pleasant, Wisconsin, and Red gets to tell his kids, who inspired a new generation to revisit the concept of smoking circles (and, no, those weren’t tobacco cigarettes), “you’re upstairs people now”.  The studio audience (yes, some comedies still have them), whooped and hollered with joy, much as those who attended tapings of the original series did.

The original series’ main characters, save for the uber-pothead played by Danny Masterson, who’s a little busy trying to avoid extended jail time these days, return, mostly for cameos, but the show spotlights a new generation of “downstairs people”.  And, truth be told, the Gen Z crowd that Leia and her friends represent is enamored with 90s culture in much the same way that their parents resonated with the 70s, and 70s kids did when HAPPY DAYS, another period comedy set in Wisconsin, became a megahot in that decade by revisiting the 50s.

If this formula sounds familiar for Netflix, it should.  FULLER HOUSE hit much the same notes with its successful run on the service, not only tapping into the memories from the now-aduits that literally grew up with the original but also familiar to younger viewers who followed its successful and ubiquitous runs in syndication and on cable networks,  THAT 70s SHOW, one of the few significant hits whose rights are controlled by an independent supplier (Carsey-Werner), has been sold and resold to literally dozens of outlets over the last two decades, and with that many episodes has often been a stopping point for many smoking circle participants of this century.  So yes, we’re familiar with Jackie and Kelso, Red and Kitty, and even Fez.   And now we get to spend some more quality time catching up with them, as well as our own youth.

It’s no surprise that conventions celebrating these eras have as much popularity as they do.  Particularly in the tortured times we now exist in, the hue and cry for days where we had more runway in front of us than behind us are all the more desired.  MEGACON, an annual event which this year will be held in Orlando during, appropriately, April Fool’s Day weekend, will feature numerous celebrities and salutes to everything from movies and TV shows to anime series.  You know how I feel about in-person events, and yes, I’ve got a couple of personal connections to this one, so I’m providing a link for you below to register.  I can unequiovacably recommend you take whatever you might have thought to spend at, say, a studio-centered Orlando theme park and devote that amount to this convention and, definitely, DEFINITELY, spend a buck or two on the merch (and generously tip anyone who might be working those booths, BTW–they deserve it!).

I have a few special friends for whom the 90s was a particularly eventful era.  The world was their oyster, they received international acclaim, they had significantly larger bank accounts than they do now, and to say they were popular would be an understatement.  And if you happened to be born around this time, you’re exactly the audience that Netflix hopes will watch, and perhaps even be inclined to get your own password to access it because, let’s face it, at some point soon, you’re gonna be ready to move out of the basement (though, lately, statistics are showing that’s less likely than ever to be the case).

There’s ample time for all of that maturing to happen.  In the meantime, get your rolling papers handy, light up, and settle in for a 2020s-era binge of a show that has all the makings of a needed comedy hit for Netflix, and a welcome respite from all else that’s happening today.

MEGACON Orlando I A huge four day weekend offering exciting family-friendly attractions, magical events, and incredible celebrities! (fanexpohq.com)

Until next time…

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