Friday, September 09, 2005

Oh, Brothers

Taxi: the Complete Third Season is out, and while the quality of the show took another leap forward in this season -- the third and fourth seasons were by some distance the best -- one thing that remained consistent was that most of the best episodes were written by the team of Glen and Les Charles.

In fact, for those who keep track of such things, the Charles Brothers' work on "Taxi" may be the most consistently impressive work ever done by one writer or writing team for a television comedy (and I'm including British television series where one writer or team writes everything). Their episodes included:

- "Paper Marriage" (Latka marries a hooker to keep from being deported; introduction of Reverend Jim)
- "Elaine and the Lame Duck" (Elaine dates a U.S. Congressman with pathetically low self-esteem)
- "Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey" (Jim becomes a regular; includes the "what does a yellow light mean?" sequence)
- "Zen and the Art of Cab Driving" (Jim uses the power of positive thinking to reach the ultimate goal: an apartment full of TV sets)
- "Latka the Playboy" (determined to become something more than "that cute little foreigner," Latka transforms himself into lounge-lizard "Vic Ferrari")
- "Going Home" (introduction of Jim's blue-blood family)

This was back when TV writers tended to write many more scripts per year than they do now; the tendency now is to emphasize the rewriting process, which means that individual writers or teams will spend as much time rewriting other people's scripts as they do writing their own. The Charles Brothers, as producers of "Taxi," were involved in rewriting other people's scripts, and their dark sensibility definitely pervaded the whole series, but they also wrote 17 scripts in four seasons.

The Charles Brothers, as I said, had an unusually dark sense of humor for sitcom writers. They were part of the "second generation" of MTM writers, guys who came along after the company was already established; the second generation may well have been better than the first (Jay Tarses, Hugh Wilson, Gary David Goldberg and David Lloyd are other examples of writers who joined MTM in the mid-'70s and took MTM's sitcoms to somewhat edgier places). Their preference, in writing scripts, seemed to be for a rather bleak worldview and darker endings than sitcoms usually had; they'd often have a character wind up less happy than when he or she started, and none the wiser. Example: their first and only "Mary Tyler Moore" show script was about Mary dating an elderly man; the episode ends when the man dumps her for a woman two months older than herself, and Lou lectures her about the fact that there is nothing whatsoever to learn from this horrible experience.

The combination of the dark, often surreal humor of the Charleses -- who loved to focus on the surreal characters like Latka and Jim -- with the bittersweet but more humane comedy of James L. Brooks helped to make "Taxi" what it was, and was a combination that would in a certain sense be repeated with "The Simpsons," where Brooks (and his lieutenant Sam Simon) teamed with a darkly funny cartoonist and a bunch of Harvard grads with a preference for wacky humor.

The Charleses left "Taxi" after the fourth season -- which is why the fifth and final season of "Taxi" was overall a disappointment -- to create "Cheers," which, especially early on, was one of the darkest mainstream sitcoms; every character was a loser, every situation ended with some variant of finding dignity in defeat. They've never created a show since then, but then, they've never needed to.

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