Paramount // 1979 // 540 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Neil Dorsett (Retired) // November 17th, 2004
"A man takes a job, and that' job, y'know, that becomes what he is. Y'know like, you do a thing, and that's what you are...You understand? You get a job, you become the job." -- The Wizard, Taxi Driver
"No, no, I understand. You see that guy over there? He's an actor. That
guy on the phone? He's a prizefighter. This lady over here, she's a beautician.
The man behind her, he's a writer. Me, I'm a cabdriver. I'm the only cabdriver
in this place."
-- Alex Rieger, Taxi
Against a black screen, a wistful pipe plays a gentle little tune, a theme that speaks of personal dreams not yet fulfilled. The screen fades in to a moving view of New York City from the Brooklyn Bridge and pans across as the flute repeats its theme, revealing a checker cab that is crossing the bridge. Christ, how did I wind up here? Driving a stinking cab in this dirty town. What happened? Anh. The cab continues across the bridge as an electric piano kicks in, reminding us that we are, after all, moving -- trucking, even. As the piano and flute are joined by a small fusion band, we are reminded by a list of names that even if the job is lousy, we've got friends there, and they're pretty good, and even if they're a pain in the ass at least life can be interesting for having them. Heh, remember that one time when Louie got behind the couch at Jeff's party when Latka was getting his papers renewed and...good times, good times. Coming up on the end of the bridge now. Hey, maybe driving this cab ain't so bad -- it's nothing but an endless series of small victories, right? And there's that piccolo again, but this time it seems to be reminding us that we haven't lost our dreams yet. Yeah, things are all right, y'know? I get by. And willya look at that town!
In fifty seconds you know all you really need to know about Taxi.
Sunshine Cabs Dossier:
* Alex Rieger (Judd Hirsch, Running on Empty): A fortyish lifelong New Yorker with an ex-wife, an estranged daughter, and a lot of life learning.
* Elaine Nardo (Marilu Henner, Chasers): Divorced mother of two, Elaine has devoted her early thirties to pursuit of a career in the arts (on the gallery end), but has found it necessary to drive a cab nights to make ends meet. Elaine is attractive and streetwise, rarely without male attention that often brings problems (read: plots) to the table.
* Bobby Wheeler (Jeff Conaway, Babylon 5): The biggest, whitest teeth this side of Erik Estrada. An aspiring actor and fashion victim, Bobby has little in the way of chops but much fortitude, weathering an endless series of self-esteem crises with aplomb. He always returns to his arrogant self in the end. Wears eyeliner.
* Tony Banta (Tony Danza, Going Ape!): The classic gentle fighter. Tony is as good-natured as they come, despite his war experience; even a bit of a shlub, often exploited.
* John Burns (Randall Carver): Designated regular guy. Most of the humor in John's character springs from the results of an early episode, "The Great Line," in which Jack, still newly arrived in New York, winds up suddenly married to a total stranger, and the two decide to stick with it. John would move on with his life by the time the second season of Taxi rolled around, succeeded by the far more entertaining Reverend Jim (Christopher Lloyd, featured in only one episode of this box).
* Latka Gravas (notorious anti-comedian Andy Kaufman): An often-incomprehensible import from somewhere behind the Iron Curtain. Latka is a crack mechanic; the only problem is communicating with him. Seems capable of learning only idiomatic English. Very expressive of gratitude.
* Louie DePalma (Danny DeVito, Throw Momma from the Train): The diminutive bully, usually parked in his high-mounted dispatching cage, or throne as he would have it. Louie is abrasive even in his best moments, but he has a tendency to come through for people when the chips are down.
Taxi is some good stuff. In its heyday, it was one of the best sitcoms on the air, with the Norman Lear and Garry Marshall cycles still in swing but starting to wane from their glory days (with the exception of Sanford and Son, which moved along at the same pace through its entire run), and Taxi came along with a modern sensibility from which would emerge the dominant workplace sitcom of the '80s, Cheers (the Charles-Burrows-Charles team worked on Taxi, as did Simpsons co-founder James L. Brooks). It was also the first workplace sitcom in which the characters do not define themselves by their employment. Of course, this only makes sense; why would you have a show where characters work a dull job and do nothing but talk about the dull job? One always had the sense with Taxi that there were huge important parts of all the characters' lives that we didn't see. Who else in 1970s sitcoms can really claim that? Howard Cunningham? Lou Grant? On Taxi, it's everyone.
The show revolves around the characters in the dossier above, all drivers (except Latka and Louie) at the Sunshine Cab Company, which immortalizes, along with so many other films and shows, the even then almost defunct Checker Cab. It's strange how Checker's large-bodied fleet remains such a dominant cultural image of what a cab should be, when there are virtually no cabs left that resemble them at all. Anyway, what usually happens in a Taxi is that one of the cast becomes embroiled in some sort of personal entanglement. Whether it's Alex getting involved with a telephone operator who turns out in person to be horribly bitter over her looks, Latka having difficulties with his visa, Louie's impending high school reunion, or trouble in Jack's new marriage, this is the subject we'll be sticking with over the course of the show. Most of Alex's plots involve the cabdriving job itself in some way; he's taken on a strange courting by Harold and Maude's Ruth Gordon, he steals a dog from its abusive owner, he gets into his first accident in years (avoiding another dog).
A conceptual highlight of the season (although not its most entertaining entry by far) is the two-part "Memories of Cab 804." The show is structured like one of those basement scenarios -- where the characters get locked in a basement and reminisce about previous seasons, and/or give Worf a new spinal cord. The gag here of course is that there are no previous seasons of Taxi; the show is comprised entirely of original footage (including another guest star, Tom Selleck, who gets in Elaine's cab and...do I need to say more?). It's a gag that's a bit lost when you watch Taxi in syndication, since the seasons blur together and are often shown out of sequence anyway, but here you get it full strength. I was gratified to find that this show contains the segment where Alex delivers the baby in the cab, because that means it never existed as a full-length show, thank god. I consider that a real low moment for the series, despite Mandy Patinkin's vigorous frenzy as the father; although it was a topical thing when it was new, it's always come off as horribly schmaltzy to me. The rest of that show, particularly the Elaine and Selleck thing, is pretty strong -- not especially funny, but a nice little piece for the two actors. I'd run down the episodes, but there are episode guides for that; the broad strokes are: Jack Burns is on every show, and Reverend Jim is on only one. I feel like I should say more about Andy Kaufman, but what hasn't been said at this point? The guy was funny, the show is funny, Latka is funny, that's what I'm stickin' with.
I always had sort of a strange feeling watching Taxi and in reviewing these episodes now, I finally figured out what it was: the camera is really far away from the actors on the large set and no one really crosses in front of them -- putting an indelible sheen of artificiality over the entire show. This isn't actually true of the pilot and very first episodes, in which the Sunshine company is fairly well-populated, even crowded. I remember this tendency popping up sometimes in Garry Marshall shows too, and Murphy Brown...for contrast, think of the cramped quarters of WKRP in Cincinatti. Of course, a lot of sitcoms work like that, and it's not usually bothersome. Anyway, it's pretty noticeable in Taxi; the garage segments definitely have a feeling of live theatre about them. Lots of crossing and long takes, with Louie up in the booth acting as a kind of surly Greek chorus. Mind you, I'm not saying this is a bad thing, it's just a particular style that I had trouble integrating as a youth who grew up watching the more film-styled one-hour dramas of the day (if The Six Million Dollar Man, White Shadow, and Quincy count as dramas). Eventually, of course, I realized that a lot of shows were done theatre-style with the whole three camera thing, but it still has a way of running interference on my involvement with a show. As a result I sometimes find Taxi more enjoyable when I'm not actually looking at it, although of course if I do that I miss all those patented Judd Hirsch surprise takes. What does all this mean? Nothing. Never mind.
Each episode of Taxi is presented in its original aspect ratio and running time. The transfers are solid, looking considerably better than what you get on the syndication package, and the shows are encoded progressively. The show was shot on murky 1970s TV stock to begin with, and shows a lot of dark environments, so don't expect too much from the dark end, but that's part of the original show anyway, so the DVD represents it well. Overall it looks pretty darn nice. Motion compression is barely evident, and the sound delivers exactly what one would expect of a late-'70s situation comedy (or TV show of any sort for that matter) -- a nice mono mix in which everything important is clearly audible. Some of the scene-change music can be a little annoying and generic -- somewhere between The Bob Newhart Show and Cheers -- but most of it is distinctly Taxi. At any rate, it all comes through very well, especially the forty-four occurrences of Bob James's main theme -- which I seem to recall performing the unique feat of returning to the pop charts years after its series was cancelled. I might be wrong about that, though.
No special features have been provided. I'm not going to hold that too much against the set, though, because in the case of a sitcom I always wonder what the special features could really be, and when they do show up they often seem forced. With 22 full episodes and no time compression, a good solid sitcom season set provides plenty of content. What I will hold against the set is its total lack of chapter stops -- they mean nothing to me, but a lot of people seem to want them and it's not like it's hard to do. Paramount has used their classy TV set style here; each disc has its own slimline keep case. I must say that I like this approach a lot better than the fold-out digipaks used by Warner and Columbia, which often feel fragile. This is more versatile, and the packaging inside the discs is nice, with good episode summaries on the back. My only quibble with the set's packaging is the over-reliance on crudely Photoshopped cast pictures; this set is great-looking inside and on the back, but the front of the package and the front of each disc is ugly. It would have been better to use an understated image for the front covers, perhaps the opening bridge shot itself. Paramount might be concerned that people would confuse the package with the new movie Taxi (or its progenitor, I guess), and its release is surely an impetus to this box's timing.
Taxi can be more than a bit heavyhanded and can seem a little cloying from time to time; it's not a joke-a-second show. Each episode is driven by a single story, which can draw things out a bit, and this can combine with the strong sentimentality to produce a sugary air from time to time. Certain parents may wish to avoid the show as well, since it occasionally mentions things like sex and drugs without judging them -- and even when some level of judgment is involved, people still speak casually of such matters. Taxi is a show about adults in the blue-collar workplace, from a time in which people and their entertainment weren't programmed quite so heavily toward preaching of that now long-mandatory nature. Despite a heavy hand toward morality, even venturing toward Fat Albert territory at times, the moral emphasis in Taxi is on incidents and social situations, not prohibitions. Fat Albert it might be, Blossom it ain't.
Taxi is what it is, and that is a good thing for us all on one level or another. If you've never sampled it, take a shot at a rerun sometime or rent the set (or preferably the second season set that hopefully will follow). If you have, you knew all this stuff already and if you liked it you should buy the set and encourage more. The only caveats are the list price, and the bare bones. Without even any closed captioning, this may be a serious consideration for many buyers.
Taxi is 100% guilty of providing a shining example of the 1970s situation comedy at its noblest and of breaking new ground for what was then the future. Anyone who's spent any time on a nowhere job and enjoys an old-school sitcom should snap it right up. And make no mistake -- it only gets better from here. Goodnight, Mr. Walters!
Review content copyright © 2004 Neil Dorsett; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 540 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Guide