Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re continuing 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, and ANDY KAUFMAN as Latka Gravas.
Season Four, the last on ABC, marks a very transitional period in Taxi‘s history, the crossroads of the old and the new. For instance, former series regular Jeff Conaway only appears in three episodes this season, two held over from last year and one produced midseason to tie up the loose ends and explain that Bobby moved to Hollywood to do a television pilot. Truthfully, Bobby Wheeler isn’t missed; he and Tony were repeatedly underused during Conaway’s time on the series (which some argue was due to their characters’ interchangeability), and his departure frees up more time for the other characters. But to fill the void, the producers bring back Carol Kane as Simka, who reprises the role for two episodes and becomes a regular next season, which aired on NBC. Yes, ABC canceled Taxi after this season and claimed it was due to poor ratings. But the show’s track record as a thrice-winning Outstanding Comedy at the Emmys should have been enough to keep it going. There is obviously more to the story. Apparently, it seems that an argument between Jim Brooks and ABC over “The Unkindest Cut,” which is included in today’s list, made the network lose favor for its still critically acclaimed comedy, opting not to renew the series out of spite. (At least, that’s Brooks’ side of the story.) For a while it seemed like HBO might pick up the series for a fifth season, but NBC eventually acquired Taxi and the show was allowed to continue.
But this would be without Burrows and the Charles Brothers, whose contributions to the series reduced considerably during Season Four as they were in preparations to do the pilot of Cheers for NBC. Does their limited involvement hinder the show’s quality? Well, although I do feel that the becomes zanier and increasingly less realistic during this era (and not near the calibre of Season Three), the show’s ability to make us laugh is as strong as ever, and there are still many fabulous episodes in Season Four. In fact, this was another tough list to make. And, like last week, there are a lot of really wonderful honorable mentions. But, before you check those out, 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 Four. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 69: “Mr. Personalities” (Aired: 10/22/81)
Latka visits a shrink and adopts a third personality: Alex.
Written by Howard Gewirtz & Ian Praiser | Directed by Howard Storm
A continuation from last season’s “Latka The Playboy,” which introduced the series to Latka’s alter ego, the swinging Vic Ferrari, this installment has Alex taking his troubled friend for psychiatric help. But it seems that the shrink makes things worse, for Latka soon develops another personality: Alex’s. Adding to the hijinks is that Latka is doing a better job of being Alex than Alex is. This comes to a climax when the pair visits the doc, and Latka (as Alex) talks about all the inner things that are bugging him, leading to a return of Latka and a catharsis for Alex, who decides to stay and have his own session with the shrink. It’s a really funny episode, and in addition to giving Kaufman much to play, Hirsch once again proves himself as the show’s most hauntingly truthful performer. This is really his episode.
02) Episode 70: “Jim Joins The Network” (Aired: 10/29/81)
A TV executive uses Jim’s psychic abilities to help schedule programs.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by Noam Pitlik
This sequel to the season premiere, “Jim The Psychic” (which was held over from the previous season, and would have made this list had I been able to choose 11; you can read my thoughts on it in the honorable mentions below) features Martin Short, over a year after the cancellation of the team’s The Associates (1979-1980, ABC) in which he starred, as a TV executive that uses Jim’s psychic powers to help him with scheduling and programming. Written by David Lloyd, this is a very funny episode (and less superstitiously kooky than the aforementioned season premiere) and especially enjoyable for those who appreciate whenever this series lampoons or takes aim at the television industry. It’s far from being the best Jim episode, but it’s certainly a highly enjoyable and memorable offering.
03) Episode 71: “Louie’s Fling” (Aired: 11/05/81)
Louie has an affair with Zena’s vulnerable friend Emily.
Written by Sam Simon | Directed by James Burrows
Andrea Marcovicci, the chanteuse whose voice can be heard on at least one past Wildcard Wednesday post, guest stars in this episode as Emily, Zena’s friend who is distraught over her recent split with her boyfriend Adam (of whom Alex apparently reminds her). Zena coaxes Louie into taking her emotional friend home, where he ends up exploiting Emily’s vulnerability by bedding her. Naturally, the woman is disgusted at what happened and tells Zena, who dumps Louie, thus officially ending their two year relationship. The comedy in this episode, not surprisingly, comes from Louie, whose boasting and bragging about his actions make for a delicious contrast to the sincere longing and remorse that comes across in his final scene with Alex, after he realizes that he’s lost his only love. DeVito shines.
04) Episode 73: “Louie’s Mother Remarries” (Aired: 11/19/81)
Louie is enraged when his mom plans to marry a Japanese man.
Written by Earl Pomerantz | Directed by James Burrows
Julie DeVito returns as Louie’s mother in this hysterical episode that climaxes with the old woman’s Shinto wedding to an elderly Japanese man — a very funny sequence that, although broad, stills manages to hold itself up without feeling cartoony. The humor from this installment, once again, comes from Mr. DeVito’s Louie, who expectedly objects to his mother’s remarriage (to a Japanese man, no less) only to come around before the closing credits roll. In this regard, it’s not a very surprising episode, but the chemistry and authenticity between real life mother and son translates naturally onto the screen, and helps give the story both its dramatic weight and comedic propellant. And, frankly, little old Julie DeVito is a hoot; she could probably read the phone book and we’d laugh. Memorable.
05) Episode 76: “Louie Goes Too Far” (Aired: 12/17/81)
Elaine has Louie fired after he peeps on her while she’s dressing.
Written by Danny Kallis | Directed by Michael Lessac
Many Taxi fans cite this installment as the first official breakdown of Louie’s antagonizing persona, as the episode culminates in a scene in which Louie unburdens himself to Elaine, revealing the personal pain associated with his less-than-average height. It’s a powerful scene, and both DeVito and Henner are top notch. Does it try a little too hard to be emotionally resonant? Yes. But fortunately, there’s so much comedy in the preceding scenes, which involve Elaine’s reaching out to the National Organization of Women and getting Louie fired after he peeps in on her while she’s getting dressed in the garage restroom. It’s a slimy thing to do, but not out of character for Louie, and because he is punished for his behavior, we never really hold it against him — especially once we reach the final scene.
06) Episode 77: “I Wanna Be Around” (Aired: 01/07/82)
Louie has some members of the garage go through an apocalypse preparedness drill.
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles | Directed by James Burrows
My favor regarding this episode has fluctuated throughout the years. Initially I was disappointed by the inherently silly premise, especially since I went in with high expectations for the quality of the laughs, which I first felt were cheap. With repeated viewings, I find myself increasingly less bothered by the story, and focusing more on the character-driven comedy, which exists, not so much from the slightly out-of-character Louie, but in the story’s supporting players — particularly Tony, Alex, Jim, and perennial peripheral character Jeff (who’ll get a bit more to do next season). Thus, I now see a lot in this episode that I would identify as quality laughs, and once again, because of the creativity of the writers in concocting this original premise, I appreciate the offering more than ever.
07) Episode 83: “Take My Ex-Wife, Please” (Aired: 02/18/82)
Alex’s ex-wife rebounds from being dumped by going out with Louie.
Written by Howard Gewirtz & Ian Praiser | Directed by Noam Pitlik
Louise Lasser returns as Alex’s ex-wife in this amusing installment that pairs her up with Louie, yielding a few great scenes between she and DeVito — two performers who can find truth in comedy without sacrificing a single possible laugh. Though the casting of Lasser in this role has always been a bolder (and I would say, more performative) choice, she is a brilliant actress who makes the utterly ridiculous character believable, and the episode works well — in large part due to her playing. But the script also makes plenty of time for its two big stars, Hirsh and DeVito, and despite a more “sitcomy” premise, the combination of these well-crafted characters with Lasser makes for an episode equally as memorable as her first. (However, I can’t say the same for her Season Five appearance.)
08) Episode 84: “The Unkindest Cut” (Aired: 02/25/82)
Elaine is furious when a snooty hairstylist gives her an awful new look.
Story by Barbara Duncan & Holly Brooks | Teleplay by Sam Simon | Directed by Noam Pitlik
Future Cheers star Ted Danson, who was just about to be cast in that iconic series, plays a flamboyant and elitist hairdresser who intimidates Elaine and then ends up ruining her hair with a memorably miserable hairdo. (Apparently, the character and the episode were based on something that happened to both Jim Brooks’ wife and assistant.) It’s a terrifically funny show, and Danson is great; again, everything is much broader than it would have been in the early years, but because the humor works, the story works. The network, however, didn’t want the story to get produced, and as briefly mentioned above, Jim Brooks threatened to quit the show if they didn’t back off. Many on the show believe that Brooks’ power play led to ABC’s decision to cancel the series a few months later.
09) Episode 86: “Elegant Iggy” (Aired: 03/18/82)
Elaine reluctantly brings Jim to a ritzy society party.
Written by Ken Estin | Directed by Noam Pitlik
Another marvelous Jim episode, and a fan favorite that many deem almost on par with Season Two’s utterly classic “Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey” (I don’t), this installment combines the duality of Elaine’s roles as cabbie and art gallery wannabe (introduced way back in the first season’s “Come As You Aren’t”) with Jim’s routine penchant for surprising the others with his random cultural knowledge and abilities. I doubt that there’s a moment as comedically rewarding for the Jim character (and for the season) than when he switches on the piano from a bad version of “Chopsticks” to a brilliant display of his classical music training (which, actually, had been established in Season Three’s “Tony’s Sister And Jim”). This is a marvelous episode for Jim — and for Elaine. A favorite and a highlight. (But it’s edited on the DVD; if anyone has the complete episode — with all of the music cues — please let me know!)
10) Episode 88: “Cooking For Two” (Aired: 04/08/82)
Jim moves in to Louie’s apartment and accidentally burns it down.
Written by Ken Estin & Sam Simon | Directed by James Burrows
Yet again, we have another classic installment! This episode is wonderful because it makes time to pair up Jim and Louie, always a winningly comedic combination, as Jim moves in with Louie following the demolition of the condemned building in which he was previously residing — only to accidentally burn it to the ground using the stove. Although a lot of the comedy comes from Louie’s scheme to get Jim’s rich dad to pay for the damage (and then some, of course), nothing beats the brilliant sight gag, and the ensuing scene, in which it’s revealed what has happened to Louie’s apartment. Louie’s reaction is perfectly played by DeVito, and both he and Lloyd earn much deserved praise for their stellar work for this fun, original, and special installment. Among my absolute favorites.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Jim The Psychic,” a fan favorite episode that would have made the list if I were to choose 11, but was bumped due to my disfavor for the installment’s adherence to the show’s trend in declining realism, “Vienna Waits,” a not-so-hilarious episode that is exceedingly memorable because Alex and Elaine finally have sex (although it’s barely even addressed again afterwards), “Bobby Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” the aforementioned episode that ties up Bobby’s arc and marks Conaway’s last appearance, and “Simka Returns” and “The Wedding Of Latka And Simka,” both of which feature the Emmy winning Carol Kane and have plenty of amusing moments, but milk Latka a bit too much, leaving him feeling one-dimensional and tired.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Taxi goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the final season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!