Night Court: New(ish) Sitcom, Same Copaganda
A criminal-legal reporter ventures into Night Court—the cringy sitcom reboot and the real courtroom in Manhattan.
Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg Apr 20, 2023
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Night court is bleak, but you may not know it from the recently revived NBC sitcom of the same name, which is rife with laugh tracks.
However, when I attended the real night court in Manhattan for a few hours last month, the only people who looked happy to be there were the cops. They chatted amongst themselves and snacked, while, just on the other side of a closed door people sat in cages, still wearing their street clothes—a work uniform, a winter coat. They’d been arrested hours earlier, possibly a day or more before. In that time, police take the people they’ve arrested to a police precinct and then to the courthouse jail cells where they await arraignment.
At an arraignment, the judge decides what will happen while the case is pending —if the person should be held on bail, remanded (sent to jail without bail), or released, and under what conditions. An arraignment is notably different from a trial, where a judge or jury hears the facts of a case and renders a verdict. In New York, people are supposed to be arraigned within 24 hours of their arrest. Night court, in theory, exists to get people before a judge within that time frame, although some people are held longer. Importantly, people appearing in night court are presumed innocent.
At the night court arraignments I saw, people stood before the judge with their hands cuffed behind their backs. The prosecutor and Legal Aid attorney briefly spoke about the accusations. Almost all the defendants were Black.
Because of New York’s bail reform law, which makes many low-level crimes ineligible for bail, most people were released without having to pay bail. After the judge told them they could leave, a Legal Aid attorney sometimes gave them a MetroCard and offered them snacks and water. One older man limped as he made his way before the judge. With his hands cuffed behind his back, he tried to hold up his pants.
An 18-year-old was accused of selling crack cocaine to an undercover cop. His mom had been waiting at the courthouse for several hours between her two jobs, his Legal Aid attorney told the court. “Your mother’s appearance here today makes me recognize you do have deep roots in the community,” the judge told the teenager who was released on supervision. If he missed a check-in, the judge warned, a bench warrant could be issued, meaning that he could be arrested.
In another case, the judge asked a woman if she could return to court in late April. She couldn’t, she said. It conflicted with her due date.
The real-life night court bears no resemblance to the sitcom. The show first ran from 1984 to 1992, following all the “silliness” in the “urban” courtroom Judge Harry T. Stone (Harry Anderson) presided over. The 2023 revival features his daughter, Abby Stone (Melissa Rauch), who begins her job as the night court judge, taking on her deceased dad’s role in the pilot episode.
Abby Stone is blonde, chipper, and from upstate New York. And Stone is doing a different job than what actually happens in real night court: She’s holding rapid-fire bench trials.
I didn’t expect real-life night court to look like the sitcom, and, of course, it didn’t. But that’s not my problem with the show. Like other forms of copaganda, the sitcom promotes the lie that our legal system is a necessary, potentially benevolent institution as long as the right people work within it. Poverty, trauma, and racism—the pillars of the American legal system—are largely scrubbed from the sitcom’s fictionalized depiction of night court.
Judge Abby Stone wants to help those who come before her court just like her dad, who saw people “as more than their crime.” But an unlikely obstacle stands in Stone’s way—the public defender named Paul Grossman. In the pilot he gives up immediately after the prosecutor presents her case against his client, a self-proclaimed psychic. When his client is exposed as a fraud before the judge, he chuckles and says, “Oh, you’re going to fry.”
After the case is wrapped up, Stone admonishes him.
“You didn’t put up much of a fight,” she says. “I expected more.”
He promptly quits: “I didn’t take this job to work hard.”
Later, Stone’s clerk tells her, “Legal Aid said they’d send another public defender as soon as they can.”
“What if we get another Paul?” she says. “We need someone who cares as much about people as I do.”
A Legal Aid attorney won’t do, so she goes to the home of former Assistant District Attorney Dan Fielding (John Larroquette), who worked alongside her dad. (The same actor played this part in the original). After some wrangling, he eventually takes the job. His clients are guilty, foolish, and fodder for canned laughs. One client’s apparent mental illness—he thinks Fielding is a lizard—is mocked.
To be fair, while most of the jabs are reserved for Legal Aid, there’s one zinger aimed at prosecutors in the pilot.
“Self-centered narcissists aren’t public defenders,” says the Night Court prosecutor. “We’re prosecutors.”
When I sat in on night court last month, Christine (not her actual name), an attorney with New York’s real-life Legal Aid Society, was on duty. When she first saw the Night Court sitcom was coming back, she told me she was excited there would be a public defender character. In popular culture, prosecutors are generally portrayed as heroic public servants, working with cops to protect our communities. Public defenders are far less visible and when depicted, less valiant.
But when she watched the pilot, she found it “horrifying.”
“The public defender quits because he said, ‘I didn’t sign up to work hard,’” said Christine, who has a caseload of just over 80 cases. “Pretty much every public defender I know is working nights and weekends to provide good representation for their clients.”
Many of Christine’s clients have been accused of taking small items from a drug store, like deodorant, she told me. Often they don’t have housing. Some are in the midst of a mental health crisis. At her first night court shift, she cried, said Christine. One of her clients had been arrested for allegedly stealing Christmas gifts for their children.
“[The real night court] is a place you can go to see that as a society we don’t care about poor people,” said Christine. “You’re in this microcosm of all the institutions that failed our clients.”
Her shift ends at 1 a.m., and then she often has to return to court the next day. Even when most clients are released, she said, night court can feel like almost getting into a car accident again and again—“you are constantly in night court bracing for the next tragedy.”
The sitcom’s portrayal of Legal Aid attorneys, she said, “is actually much more stinging when I think about what everybody is actually going through when we go to court.”
Courthouses are oppressive, tense, and enervating environments. When I went to night court, many people got to go home, but their lives had still been upended for up to 24 hours (maybe more.) They’d been cuffed and sat in a cell for hours—inherently demeaning rituals that Trump was spared when he was arrested and arraigned.
It was a place where most of the accused needed necessities—money, housing, healthcare—but all they got was an arrest. In the sitcom, the judge sees the courtroom as a place where people can be provided the help they need.
Spoiler alert: It’s not.
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