Saturday, February 12, 2011

Getting Revenge

In 2002, TV Guide named Taxi one of the top 50 shows of all time.

(For the moment, I will set aside the fact that TV Guide picked Seinfeld as the #1 show. That's another debate — and one that, frankly, I'd rather not get into right now.)

Taxi was ranked 48th on TV Guide's list — which sounds impressive until you realize that nearly all of the programs that most people would consider classics were in the Top 30. Taxi was ahead of Oprah Winfrey and Bewitched — but behind (and, in some cases, far behind) shows like Rocky and His Friends, The Larry Sanders Show, Twin Peaks and The X Files.

Not to take anything away from those programs (or any others), but I always felt Taxi was better than that.

It was a creation of James L. Brooks, who cut his teeth in television as a member of MTM Productions, Mary Tyler Moore's company that was responsible for many of the most successful TV series in the 1970s and early 1980s. After leaving MTM, Brooks gravitated to movies — but, in the process, he created Taxi and contributed to other TV series.

The show was set in the garage of a fictional New York taxi company. The characters were primarily cab drivers, all of whom dreamed of succeeding in a different field and considered cab driving to be temporary work. One of the drivers was an actor. Another was a boxer. Yet another was a receptionist at an art gallery.

One driver, Alex (played by Judd Hirsch), openly admitted once that he was an actual cabbie. "I'm the only cab driver in this place," he told a visitor.

The cabbies were all generally supportive of each other, but Danny DeVito, as Louie the dispatcher, was the guy everyone loved to hate. He exchanged insults with the cabbies, belittled all of their efforts to rise above their circumstances, appeared to have no ethics at all and actually enjoyed committing acts of which ordinary people would be ashamed.

Like Hirsch, he had been on the scene for several years, but he really became well known as Louie. His work in that role earned him a Golden Globe in 1980 and an Emmy in 1981 (as well as three additional nominations for each). After Taxi ended in 1983, he went on to a successful film career.

On this day 30 years ago, Taxi was a series that had begun its decline. It had thrived in its first two seasons, when it occupied part of ABC's Tuesday night lineup with ratings leaders like Happy Days, Three's Company and Laverne and Shirley to give it a boost, but, by the 1980–81 season, it had plummeted after being moved to a less secure night and time.

As far as I was concerned, the quality of the writing had not declined in any way. The humor was still as zany as ever, and it continued to take on controversial topics — one of which was failed marriage.

That was a topic that was explored by the series on other occasions, but, 30 years ago tonight, the subject was the boss' marriage.

The boss' wife was played by Eileen Brennan, who was nominated for an Emmy for her guest appearance on the show. In the episode, she and the boss had had a fight, and she was looking for a way to hurt him.

It was something, as Louie well knew, that had happened before.

Louie was at his smarmy and sleazy best (or worst, depending on your point of view), shamelessly ingratiating himself to the boss in the opening moments of the episode, then gleefully telling the cabbies what had happened the last time the boss and his wife had a fight.

To get even with her husband, Louie told the cabbies, the boss' wife picked a cabbie with whom to have an affair. The cabbie not only lost his job. He was never heard from again.

The cabbies were skeptical — until they asked the normally reliable Alex if there was any truth to the story. Upon hearing that the boss and his wife had been fighting — and learning that the boss' wife was on the premises and in the process of a confrontation with her husband — Alex wordlessly dove into a locker, confirming the story's veracity.

The other cabbies were horrified, especially the attractive ones because Louie had told them that the boss' wife always went after the young, good–looking cabbies when she wanted to hurt her husband.

And Louie was jubilant, eager to introduce the boss' wife to the cabbies so she could make her choice.

But Brennan quickly wiped the smirk off DeVito's face by informing him that he was her choice ...

... and Louie's attempts to deal with the situation somewhat honorably inspired most of the laughs in the remainder of the episode.

It was a wild and creative program, not the sort of thing one tends to expect from a series that has run its course and is spinning its wheels.