Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re concluding our coverage on the best episodes from Taxi (1978-1982, ABC; 1982-1983, NBC), the smartest and best written sitcom of the late ’70s/early ’80s. I’m pleased to announce that all five seasons have been released on DVD.
A group of New York cab drivers share the ups and downs of their lives in between shifts. Taxi stars JUDD HIRSCH as Alex Rieger, DANNY DeVITO as Louie De Palma, MARILU HENNER as Elaine Nardo, TONY DANZA as Tony Banta, CHRISTOPHER LLOYD as Jim Ignatowski, CAROL KANE as Simka Gravas, and ANDY KAUFMAN as Latka Gravas.
Following its cancelation by ABC, Taxi was picked up by NBC, where it was shuffled around in a variety of time slots, inevitably never able to establish the audience that the network hoped. The series was canceled again after its first and only season on its new home, even though the show, creatively, could have had more years of life (especially since the characters were maturing and entering seemingly long-term relationships — thus more potential for story). In fact, this is another fine season of offerings, and while there is a definite decline in quality from the glorious material produced in the middle seasons, the show’s evolving trend towards broader comedy is matched and rivaled by a self-indulgent desire to be POWERFUL and emotionally resonant, which itself becomes broader and more pronounced in the final season (especially in the second half). As a result, we get episodes that fluctuate between goofy hijinks and tearjerking Drama (note the capital D). Both modes are too ostentatious for this series, which used to do memorable character comedy without pomp and circumstance. In short, Taxi is now trying too hard, and it does have a noticeable effect on the scripts. However, the addition of Simka — played by the Emmy winning Carol Kane, a broad presence if there ever was one — to the main cast makes for several comedic high points (even among the many cheap laughs wrought from her loony portrayal), and there are, as usual, an assortment of wonderful offerings, especially for the strongest members of the ensemble. Thus, Taxi has the fortune of going off the air when it was still good (not great — but good), and I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Five. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 91: “Love Un-American Style” [a.k.a. “The Shloogel Show”] (Aired: 09/30/82)
The Gravas try to match each of their single friends with the perfect date.
Written by Ken Estin & Sam Simon | Directed by Noam Pitlik
In some ways, this installment sets up several arcs that will continue throughout the rest of the season, as Simka and Latka pair up each of the other cast members with someone whom they think is their perfect match. (The tradition is called a “Shloogel.”) Tony, Elaine, and Louie all find the people with whom they will be coupled when the series comes to a close at the end of the year — a no-nonsense Italian broad, a sweet natured nebbish, and a beautiful blind girl, respectively. Meanwhile, Alex and Jim get paired up in the more comedic situations, as the former is matched with a woman who seemingly has no interest in him. But my personal favorite, not surprisingly, is Jim’s date, Marcia Wallace, the star of his favorite TV series, The Bob Newhart Show, who plays herself — bemused and confused. Very funny and original!
02) Episode 92: “Jim’s Inheritance” (Aired: 10/07/82)
Jim’s brother claims him legally incompetent to receive his father’s inheritance.
Written by Ken Estin | Directed by Noam Pitlik
This episode builds from the knowledge we learned about Jim in Season Three’s “Going Home,” as Dick Sargent guest stars as an attorney who breaks the news to Jim that his father has died and left him a huge inheritance. Unfortunately, Jim’s brother has him claimed legally incompetent and unable to receive the money, forcing all of Jim’s friends to jump to his aid in a very funny sequence. Although the judge rules against him, Jim ends up getting the real reward — a trunk filled with mementos that his father left for him, including a recording of Stevie Wonder’s “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life,” which Jim plays at the conclusion of a well-written monologue that gives Lloyd probably his most poignant material of the entire series. Eschewing laughs, the final scene shamelessly goes for dramatics — but not disappointingly.
03) Episode 94: “Scenskees From A Marriage (I)” (Aired: 10/21/82)
Latka sleeps with a cabbie to keep them from freezing to death.
Written by Howard Gewirtz & Ian Praiser | Directed by Noam Pitlik
With an incredibly difficult story to make work . . . On paper, the idea of Latka sleeping with a woman to keep them from freezing to death is nothing more than an obvious ploy to get to Part II’s beat (in which Simka must sleep with one of his friends to even the score) and a way to do so without condemning him. But the actual execution, with Allyce Beasley (whom you may remember as Coach’s daughter on an early Cheers), actually functions with surprising truth. It gets much better, however, when Simka realizes right away what has happened and tries to keep her composure in front of Alex. But the final scene, in which the troubled couple visits Reverend Gorky, is the most hilarious, mining laughs from difficult personal tragedy — and it’s loaded with big bits. Gimmicky and overblown, yes, but also a fascinating watch.
04) Episode 95: “Scenskees From A Marriage (II)” (Aired: 10/28/82)
Simka is ordered to sleep with one of Latka’s friends in retaliation.
Written by Howard Gewirtz & Ian Praiser | Directed by Noam Pitlik
Part II is more amusing than the first, even though it clearly has a less harder job; now that Simka’s having to sleep with one of Latka’s friends is set up, it simply has to play out. The most enjoyable stuff occurs as Latka and Simka try to figure out which one of his friends she’ll choose, and the scene in which they decide that whomever arrives at their party last will be the guy is tension-filled (especially since we fear, with Simka, that Louie will be the one) and unflinchingly funny. Once it’s revealed to be Alex, the episode loses a lot of its comedic steam (despite Kane’s fun, hammy performance) as the script now has to work its way out of the predicament. In the meantime, however, there’s a brilliant scene between Simka and Elaine where Henner gives one of her best performances from the run. It’s a surprising moment — rare for both.
05) Episode 96: “Crime And Punishment” (Aired: 11/04/82)
Louie steals from the company and pins it on Jeff.
Written by Katherine Green | Directed by Stan Daniels
My favorite ‘Louie episode’ of the final season, this one works so well because, in its desire to explore and give even greater depth to the character (as all of his stories this year seem wont to make him more emotionally dimensional), it doesn’t forsake any potential comedy. (Too many of his other episodes, some of which you’ll find in the honorable mentions below, aim more for sentiment than laughs.) This installment, which maintains a strong comedic presence throughout, involves Louie wrestling with his guilt after Jeff, who gets more to do here than ever before, is fired for a theft that Louie committed. It’s a wonderfully simple story, perfect for Louie, without any of the gimmicks that exist in some of the other episodes on this list. Furthermore, it’s enlivened by Green’s fresh, witty script. A favorite — chock full of laughs.
06) Episode 97: “Alex The Gofer” (Aired: 11/11/82)
Alex fulfills a dream when he becomes a gofer for two Broadway producers.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by Michael Lessac
Judd Hirsh is given several superior offerings in the final season and this is among them. The story finds Alex, the only realist among the cabbies, pursuing a desire from his childhood to work in the theatre. After meeting two producers in his cab, he fights to become their gofer, only then to be humiliated by the menial tasks and demeaning way that he’s treated. The story eventually develops into a wonderful moment for Alex and Louie, who has spied the whole thing and is stunned to discover that Alex is a dreamer, just like all of the others. Although I question the character’s sudden resolve to become a gofer, I love that the show still can — five years into its run — reveal new things about the main characters and have them make (mostly) sense. There’s humor in this one, but it’s mostly here for the meaty Alex material. Hirsch handles it.
07) Episode 98: “Louie’s Revenge” (Aired: 11/18/82)
Louie plans to get revenge of Emily, the woman who broke up his relationship with Zena.
Written by Sam Simon | Directed by Stan Daniels
Andrea Marcovicci, who plays Emily, Zena’s best friend who got drunk last season and slept with Louie (and then was so disgusted that she blabbed about it to Zena, who promptly dumped Louie) returns in this highly entertaining installment that gives him the opportunity to take his revenge. But a drunken rendition of “It Had To Be You” — the script is clearly playing to Marcovicci’s strengths — changes his mind, and he ends up her lap dog. The final scene where she, in essence, brushes him off is a bizarre thing of beauty. And while this installment plays explicitly with the melting of Louie’s hardened persona (something we discussed here a bit last season, and occurs a lot this season), the battle within him is allowed to be part of the text, and the script knows to keep things comedic — especially in that great last scene.
08) Episode 103: “Louie Moves Uptown” (Aired: 01/22/83)
Louie tries to get approved by the tenants’ board in a swanky co-op apartment.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by Michael Zinberg
Penny Marshall, then starring in the final season of Laverne & Shirley, guest stars as herself in this amusing episode that features an utterly New York premise: Louie’s attempts to get approved by the snobby tenants’ board in a ritzy co-op apartment. While the scene with Marshall is filled with laughs (especially when she explains the silly stuff she has to do on her series), her presence in this episode is simply to raise the stakes; if Marshall can’t get approved for the building, how in the world is Louie DePalma going to get accepted? The answer to this question, because he does indeed make it into the building, is amusing and unanticipated, as the board’s racism is put in conflict with their desire to spite Alex (who, naturally, has accompanied Louie) for his indignation. It’s very funny, and though broad, welcomingly so!
09) Episode 112: “Jim’s Mario’s” (Aired: 05/18/83)
Jim uses some of his inheritance to buy Mario’s.
Written by Ken Estin & Sam Simon | Directed by Danny DeVito
Among the show’s funniest, I’ve seen this fan favorite lambasted by others for being too “sitcomy” and lacking sound logic. To those who feel that way, I would argue that the show has broken with logic for the sake of comedy several times in the past, and as long as the results are worthwhile (i.e. really funny), it can generally be excused. Personally, I have no problem defending this episode as I don’t anticipate a lot of logic in stories thrown to Jim, and am thus able to enjoy the generous helping of laughs. Incidentally, this episode, the third of three directed by DeVito, features a musical sequence with Alex (singing “Ebb Tide” and “Lazy River”) that is edited out of the DVD’s due to the non-acquisition of the music licensing rights. Would love to see the complete version released, especially since, as noted above, this is one of the best.
10) Episode 113: “A Grand Gesture” (Aired: 05/25/83)
Jim gives each of his friends’$1000 with the caveat that they give it away.
Written by Ken Estin & Sam Simon | Directed by Noam Pitlik
The final episode produced for the show, this installment actually aired as the penultimate one due to a pre-emption that bumped “Simka’s Monthlies” to mid-June, where it became the last first run episode broadcast. But this a much more fitting finale, function almost like past season’s “pickup” shows, giving each member of the ensemble a sequence to shine. There’s real beauty in this premise, which finds Jim giving each cast member $1000 to prove to them what joy it is to give that money away to someone in need. It’s not a hysterical script, but all of the scenes work well for the characters, and for that reason, the comedy seems stronger than it otherwise could. (For those curious, Louie’s scenes with Jeff probably feature the most comedy and the most drama.) Fine ending to a marvelous show — everyone gets something.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Alex Goes Off The Wagon,” a heavy handed episode about Alex’s gambling addiction, which nevertheless has some really funny Jim moments, “Zena’s Honeymoon,” a sentimental episode in which Louie must confront his feelings for Zena when she announces that she’s getting married, and “Alex Gets Burned By An Old Flame,” which enjoys a routine premise (about Alex liking one of Jim’s ex-girlfriends, who still carries a torch for him), but is saved by the characterizations of both Alex and Jim. All but the second of these three, which was always considered nothing more than an honorable mention, were very close to making today’s ten.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Taxi goes to…..
“A Grand Gesture”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the first season of WKRP In Cincinnati! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!