But even the best situation comedies generally need a season or so to find their rhythm. This, more than anything else, seems to have been the cause of the relative failure of The Mary Tyler Moore Show's First Season DVD. MTM's first year was good, but also a far cry from what the show would blossom into during its second season. The same can be said of The Dick Van Dyke Show and M*A*S*H for that matter, but Taxi somehow hit the ground running, getting off to perhaps the best start of any sitcom in the history of American television. That's what is so great watching these first season DVDs: each of the first half-dozen shows is terrific, and a couple of them are classics of their type.
In achieving this Taxi lived up to its pre-premiere hype, though it never stopped struggling to find as big an audience as it deserved. Part of the problem was that for most of its run Taxi aired on ABC, a network then enjoying an enormous boost in its rating thanks to the low-brow slapstick of shows like Laverne & Shirley and Three's Company. In its last season Taxi made the rare switch to different network, NBC, but by then it was too late, and the series was cancelled for good at the end of its fifth season.
The show's premise was a clever one, opening it up to myriad story situations. At a New York taxi company, its drivers all have ambitions beyond driving cabs. Tony Banta (Tony Danza) is an aspiring boxer, Bobby Wheeler (Jeff Conaway) is a struggling actor, Elaine Nardo (Marilu Henner) wants to break into the New York art scene. For them driving a cab is a temporary vocation, a day job to pay the bills until their big break comes along. Only salt of the earth Alex Rieger (Judd Hirsch), whom everyone admires and looks up to, is honest enough to resign himself to life as a fulltime, permanent cabbie.
Alex is an archetypal '70s sitcom hero, sensitive and ethical like Hawkeye Pierce, but also everyman enough to function as a straight man for the more extreme personalities swirling around him, much as Mary Richards functioned on MTM. Like Moore, Hirsch is a terrific actor in this type of part. He's a great reactor, but also quite funny on his own, and is especially good in the show's smattering of straight drama. In the pilot, "Like Father, Like Daughter," Alex is fleetingly reunited with a daughter (Talia Balsam) he's not seen in 15 years; both actors are excellent in this superbly-written, shorthand reunion, which expresses honest emotions rare in TV drama of that time, let alone sitcoms.
The series is notable for turning cliched sitcom plots and characters on their head, creating some interesting results. The company dispatcher, Louie De Palma (Danny DeVito) is introduced as a vile, overbearing monster, yet when he first comes out of his "cage," Louie turns out to be a short (five-feet nothin'), diminutive figure. DeVito was virtually unknown to the general public when Taxi debuted, so the revelation about his size genuinely surprised audiences.
In one of the best of the early episodes, "Blind Date," Alex hits it off with a telephone operator and, thinking he's made a connection, asks her out. Only Angela (Suzanne Kent) turns out to be as big as a house. She's no fat girl with a heart of gold, but a hostile, bitter woman determined to be miserable and self-destructive. As with the pilot, the brutal honesty of the writing is refreshing and unexpected, making its resolution all the more moving. (Kent would memorably return in a second season episode.)
Best of all, Taxi is a very funny, adult show. In "Come As You Aren't," high-minded Alex refuses to lie about his occupation at a high-stakes party Elaine is throwing -- until a drop-dead gorgeous blonde believes Alex's wild claims that he's a firefighter putting out oil well fires. Iconoclast comedian Andy Kaufman, as immigrant mechanic Latka Gravas, was considered Taxi's break-out star, but the comic reportedly hated playing the character (cute and lovable, if slightly deviant), and always seemed tangential, though often amusingly so, to what the show was all about. Christopher Lloyd, as fifth-dimensional Reverend Jim, is introduced in an early episode, and would become a more integral, regular part of the show in its second season.
Video & Audio
Taxi looks okay in an otherwise unimpressive transfer that's not time-compressed. This is a real bare bones title. The season's 22 episodes are spread over three discs that have no subtitle options or chapter menus -- nothing. Sadly, there are no Extra Features at all, though with its $38.99 SRP, about $1.77 an episode, that's still a pretty good bargain.
Even after its original run, Taxi didn't make much of a dent in syndication, but maybe it'll finally find new audiences on DVD, a format that offers the show perhaps its best chance at rediscovery.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.