I borrowed an advance copy of Taxi: The Complete First Season, due from Paramount on October 12. As with Paramount's other recent TV-on-DVD sets, there are no extras, which seems a shame when so many interesting people were involved with the show; who wouldn't like a commentary by co-creator James L. Brooks, or Danny DeVito (Louie), or Andy Kaufman (assuming he really did fake his own death)? However, the lack of extras allows these older shows to be marketed at a relatively low price, and unlike Columbia -- which puts out a lot of old sitcoms in bad-looking DVD versions -- Paramount seems to know what's what when it comes to remastering its older shows for DVD.
Taxi was always one of the best-looking sitcoms ever made; director James Burrows found ingenious ways to overcome the limitations of the three-camera, studio-audience format and give the show a realistic look, almost more like a movie where most sitcoms look like stageplays. On this DVD set, it looks splendid: clean, bright, well-defined, obviously taken from the best possible prints. The episodes are at their original length -- about 24 minutes and 30 seconds. And that's the point of TV on DVD: to see a favorite show without syndication cuts, and looking better than it does in syndication. The 22 episodes are presented in production order, as opposed to airing order.
Since, as I said in another post, all Hollywood projects can be described as "X meets Y," Taxi can be described as "Mary Tyler Moore meets Barney Miller." It was created by a group of people from MTM productions who had jumped ship for Paramount: Brooks, Ed. Weinberger, Stan Daniels, and David Davis were all from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. James Burrows, the director for all 22 episodes of season 1, had directed for MTM's The Bob Newhart Show, and Taxi's most prolific writers, Glen and Les Charles, had written for Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart. (The Charles brothers and Burrows would go on to create the heavily Taxi-influenced Cheers.) Having spent so many years doing shows focusing on women, like Mary and Rhoda, Brooks said at the time that he wanted to do an ensemble sitcom focusing primarily on men, like Barney Miller. Set in the most ethnically-homogenous cab company in New York, Taxi was definitely a show about guys; there's a token female character, Elaine (Marilu Henner), but, in many of the first-season episodes, she's less a character than the designated spokesperson for all the things that the guys have trouble with: being honest, expressing their emotions, and generally doing the right thing.
But Taxi was primarily a show about lovable losers. It was a bit darker than most sitcoms of the time, especially in the first season. Most sitcoms are about people who are more or less happy, but face a problem and have to resolve it by the end of the half-hour. Taxi is about people who aren't particularly happy, and a lot of episodes deal with them getting their hopes up, only to see them crushed: in an early episode, "One-Punch Banta," pathetic wannabe prizefighter Tony Banta (Tony Danza) thinks he's finally won a fight, only to discover that his opponent took a dive. What keeps the characters from being depressing is that none of them have given up hope of getting out of cab driving and fulfilling their dreams, and that's the optimistic note that is struck at the end of some episodes: they may not have made the big time, but they still have hope. Alex (Judd Hirsch), the central character, is one who comes the closest to giving up hope altogether -- he's the only character who defines himself as a career cab driver, rather than someone who just happens to be doing this as a sideline -- but in the pilot, he acknowledges that giving up is just a way of taking the easy way out; it's hard but more fulfilling to keep on trying. When, at the end of the pilot episode, Alex has a tender moment with his estranged daughter (who is the subject of the first of the show's many jokes about Judd Hirsch's nose), it sort of sums up the theme of Taxi: life may not give you what you want, but it's worth trying and taking chances just to get a moment's worth of happiness or victory. These aren't winners, but they have their winning moments.
The first season of Taxi is a bit different from the later seasons. Partly because it's darker; there are more of those lovable-loser stories, whereas as the show went on it started to include more wacky and surreal humor. It's a similar trajectory to that of Brooks' The Simpsons: it starts as a fairly realistic series with a harder edge than most sitcoms, and then gets a little nuttier and sillier every year. The source of much of the nuttiness was Reverend Jim (Christopher Lloyd), and he only appears in one episode, as a guest character in "Paper Marriage," where Latka marries a call girl in order to keep from being deported. Lloyd was so funny in this role that he became a regular in season 2, displacing John Burns (Randall Carver), an innocent-in-the-big-city character who wasn't very interesting; the two episodes focusing on him are two of the weakest of the season.
The best episodes tend to be the ones written by the Charles Brothers; they include two terrific Latka episodes, the aforementioned "Paper Marriage" and "Mama Gravas," where Alex sleeps with Latka's mother (Alex: "What we did was indiscreet." Latka: "You mean not even indoors?"), and a strange and weirdly touching Elaine episode, "Elaine and the Lame Duck," about Elaine's relationship with a clumsy U.S. congressman with low self-esteem, hilariously played by Jeffrey Tambor. The set concludes with the two-parter "Memories of Cab 804," the first of several two-part episodes where each cabbie tells his or her own story (they would later do episodes with each cabbie's fantasies, the job each cabbie does while laid off, and so on).
While I definitely think that Taxi got better as it went on -- the increasingly surreal humor, combined with the realistic setting, made it different from any other sitcom, and the addition of Reverend Jim really strengthened the cast -- the first season is still well worth picking up; it looks great, contains many excellent episodes, and contains the one thing without which life is not complete: the sight of Louie DePalma (DeVito) in his cage, screaming at people.
Also, in case this is a deciding factor for some of you, Marilu Henner goes bra-less in several episodes. This was de rigeur on ABC shows in the late '70s: Charlie's Angels, Three's Company, possibly Barney Miller (you think Fish wore a bra when he dressed up as a woman for mugging detail?)... basically, if there wasn't at least one bra-less person on an ABC show, they got a personal reprimand from Fred Silverman.