One of the great mysteries of television is how a show as good as Taxi, almost unique in that it was superb from Day One and never declined, should have died so ignominious a death. It was a ratings success its first two seasons (1978-79 and '79-'80) then inexplicably went into a tailspin. The sharp ratings decline of all of producer Garry Marshall's hit shows (Happy Days, Mork & Mindy, etc.), series that dominated ABC's schedule, may have been a factor. In any case there was no good reason for Taxi's plummeting ratings, but plummet they did. ABC cancelled it at the end of Taxi's fourth season, but then in an extremely rare move the show was given a second chance on another network, NBC. ("Same Time, Better Network," claimed the ads.)
By this point, Taxi was undoubtedly the best sitcom on the air, what with the decline or cancellation of all the great '70s sitcoms by this time. And yet nothing helped. At the end of its fifth season, Taxi was gone for good. (The show it was paired with on Thursday nights, also in the basement ratings-wise, was nearly canceled as well but hung on. Cheers went on to become the emblematic '80s sitcom.)
It's amusing to consider Taxi began its life on ABC, switched over to NBC, and turns up here on CBS DVD. Taxi - The Final Season is as good as any of the previous seasons and Highly Recommended. In minor ways the show's fat has been trimmed, distilling its many qualities even further, but otherwise it's the same fine show it always was.
Set in New York, Taxi explores the lives of free-lance drivers at the lowly Sunshine Cab Company. Initially, the series' premise was that its major characters aspired to bigger and (presumably) better things, that being hackies was a means to an ultimately unreachable end. Tony Banta (Tony Danza), for instance, is an aspiring boxer; single-mother Elaine Nardo (Marilu Henner) struggles to find a way into Manhattan's exclusive art world. Only middle-aged cabbie Alex Reiger (Judd Hirsch), whom everyone turns to for help and guidance, seems resigned to his fate yet is also strangely content.
By Taxi's fifth and final season, the show's focus had shifted somewhat. While its all-important humanism and emotionally truthful core remained, Taxi's eccentric supporting characters - and the actors playing them - became more popular and were frankly more interesting than the more believable but also more ordinary ones. John Burns (Randall Carver), a young married man new to New York, was dropped after the first season, while Bobby Wheeler (Jeff Conaway), an aspiring actor - but one-trick pony, character-wise - disappeared after the fourth season.
Meanwhile, Danny DeVito, Andy Kaufman, and Christopher Lloyd - as, respectively, scurrilous dispatcher Louie de Palma, bizarre immigrant Latka Gravas, and spaced-out ex-hippie Reverend Jim Ignatowski - all became big stars playing popular characters. Their personal lives were a mess - in some ways they could barely function at all - but none aspired to a life beyond the Sunshine Cab Company.
And so Taxi's focus shifted more and more to their personal lives and their reliance on one another. If the stories became less believable - Jim inherits $3 million from his wealthy father; Latka's wife, Simka (Carol Kane, who joined the cast in 1980) is ordered by her priest to sleep with one of her husband's co-workers - they're no less funny, and the perceptive observations about human behavior remains intact.
This is especially true of shows centering on Alex, made all the more believable by Judd Hirsh's underrated, consistently excellent performances. "Alex Goes Off the Wagon" is an uncomfortably realistic portrait of chronic gambling; both Hirsh and the script by Danny Kallis bravely portray Alex's addiction as disturbing to watch. Similarly, "Get Me Through the Holidays" (by Ken Estin and Sam Simon) is like an anti-Christmas holiday show, with Alex's clingy ex-wife (Louise Lasser, in fine form) panic-stricken at the thought of being alone on Christmas. There's a whole lot of truth in this episode, and again Hirsh and the writers don't hesitate in clouding an essentially likeable character with ungenerous, unattractive behavior.
The fifth season gets off to an outstanding start - I remembered the premiere vividly in spite of not having seen it since its September 1982 airdate - with an ingenious episode entitled "Love Un-American Style" (by Estin and Simon). Latka and Simka set up the gang, all single, on carefully-selected blind dates: loathsome Louie is matched with an upbeat blind woman; beautiful Elaine with her physical opposite, a nebbish wonderfully played by Wallace Shawn; Tony with a dame as tough-talking as he is; sensitive Alex with the woman of his dreams; and obsessed Bob Newhart Show fan Jim with Marcia Wallace (Marcia Wallace), who famously played Bob's acerbic receptionist. It's a hilarious, observant show, Taxi at its best, and these budding romances continue in various episodes throughout the season.
Notable guest stars include Dick Sargent, Allyce Beasley, Vincent Schiavelli (like DeVito and Lloyd, another One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest alumnus), Allen Garfield, Caren Kaye, David Paymer, Andrea Marcovicci, Dick Miller, Mark Blankfield, Rhea Perlman, Lois De Banzie, Peter Frechette, Gayle Hunnicutt, Penny Marshall, Keenan Wynn, and Scatman Crothers. (J. Alan Thomas, as Louie's seen but largely unheard assistant in the "cage," gets to shine in "Crime and Punishmen," a funny episode.) DeVito helmed three of the season's episodes; actor Noam Pitlik directed many others.
Pitlik was nominated for his third consecutive DGA Award for directing Taxi, and while the series was cancelled, at that year's Emmy Awards, the series was nominated as Outstanding Comedy, and Hirsh, Lloyd, and Kane all won awards.
Video & Audio
Taxi - The Final Season presents 24 episodes on three single-sided, dual-layered discs in their original full-frame format. Shot in standard 35mm, Taxi looks very good, better certainly than its syndicated version airing later in the 1980s and beyond. The packaging informs us that "music has been changed for this home entertainment version," but after looking at about half the episodes I didn't notice any egregious cutting (unlike, say, Paramount's Odd Couple DVDs) nor any other cuts. The Dolby Digital mono is fine and the discs are closed-captioned, but offer no other audio or subtitle options.
Supplements are sadly minimal, limited to episodic promos for what I believe was the early television syndication release, and are not original network promos.
American situation comedy doesn't get much better than Taxi, a funny, perceptive show cancelled before its time. These still-hilarious episodes underscore the medium's loss. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Tora-san DVD boxed set, is on sale now.