Roundtable Review: Taxi, “The Road Not Taken” (Parts 1 and 2)

TaxiLast01

By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Andy Daglas, and Noel Kirkpatrick

Season 4, Episode 23: “The Road Not Taken” (Part 1)
Original airdate: April 29, 1982

Summary: Tony, Louie, and Jim tell Elaine about turning points in their lives as she tries to decide whether or not to move to Seattle.

Noel: What else do you need to know about this episode other than that it contains TOM HANKS EATING SPECIAL BROWNIES? I repeat: TOM HANKS EATING SPECIAL BROWNIES.

I kid, I kid (though it is damn funny). “The Road Not Taken” is the kind of sitcom episode I generally enjoy, so this is very much in my wheelhouse. I love flashback episodes where we visit the characters before we met them. It gives actors a chance to look ridiculous, shows a chance to lampoon earlier decades (should they so choose), and while backstories are often not very important to the development of characters on a sitcom, it always provided for great character moments. (Friends, for the record, excelled at these episodes.)

Tony’s story is decidedly the weakest of the three, and it’s familiar ground given “One-Punch Banta.” But it does have really decent fight choreography—I appreciated them using Tony Danza’s skills and the wide shots to show everything—so it’s more that the sequence isn’t funny than anything else. Louie’s story amuses on a number of levels, from his glorious lock of hair to how Louie now wears the same outfit the sweet old Irish dispatcher wore. But it’s Jim’s story that left my sides aching. Lloyd’s performance as Harvard-Jim is a deftly executed contrast to Reverend-Jim, neither overplayed nor underplayed. It’s the perfect faux-serious stereotype of a college boy that his caving in and eating the brownies feels like a full character arc in the span of 10 minutes. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Les: Few things please me more than being taken aback by an unexpected “before they were famous” cameo, and the sight of Tom Hanks (who was at this point in his career fresh off the cancellation of his own ABC sitcom, Bosom Buddies) having a religious experience at the sight of a lava lamp sent me into disbelieving hysterics. And they managed to keep the drug experiences understated and true-to-life: “I thought the ceiling looked familiar” is something I uttered more than once during my college days.*

*[Ed. note: This Was Television steadfastly discourages readers from partaking in illegal drugs, unless they have brought enough for the whole class. -A.D.]

As you say Noel, the flashback episode is a great conceit for sitcoms to try something new, and these three installments were a good demonstration of that. What I really appreciated about them is while they showed these characters years before they became the people we know and love, the writers here**  bring across how the innate traits of these characters remained unchanging over the years. Tony’s always been slow on the uptake, but we’ve also seen how decent a guy he is on many occasions, and here we see how that combination kept him from ever being a contender. He’s not so much a washed-up fighter as one who was never willing or able to play the game from the start. (His crosstalk with his manager and the gangster Frank evokes fond memories of “Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey“: “I represent some people who have bet a lot against you.” “Oh no! Are they right very often? Don’t tell me, that could shake my confidence.”)

**Including The Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon, who’d become a producer once the show moved to NBC for season five.

Louie's_Heavenly_Light

Similarly, we see that Louie was always miserly and lecherous, even before making his way into the cage, and as disdainful for the authority of the grandfatherly O’Malley as you’d expect. In Louie’s world, it’s dog-eat-dog, and giving slices of peach pie out is a sign of weakness. He’s not interested in the obligations of being in charge of the garage, especially the way O’Malley depicts it, he needs to see payoff and potential. But when that presents itself, he finds his calling in life: that microphone becomes not just a sound system but the vessel for his personality, and the raised profile of the cage becomes the means to make a buck off those literally below him. In a sign of how indelible this character is, and how much the show understood him, I predicted a split second before it happened that Louie’s first bribe was an epiphany deserving of heavenly light.

And yes, of course, Harvard-Jim. If anyone’s ever seen Clue, they know that Christopher Lloyd can play pompous as well as he can crazy, and to see the uptight nature of how he was before is a welcome opportunity to see that other side of his talents. And that too isn’t out of character—Jim’s a man who commits to whatever he does full-bore, regardless of consequence, and that one brownie simply flipped the switch from devoted academic to devoted burnout. Personally, I’d’ve loved to see more of this gradual conversion, particularly as he tries to bring his new worldview to his glee club. (Though not even expanded consciousness can tell him what the hell Regionals are.)

Cory: I’m saving most of my thoughts, which are “big picture”-y, for below but I will say that the first part of this episode is one of the funniest we watched for the roundtable. Jim’s entire flashback sequence is as funny, if not funnier thanks to Tom Hanks, than the DMV sequence that we discussed a couple of weeks ago, and I really enjoyed Danza’s performance in Tony’s flashback as well. Tony (and Danza) is probably the character that we have talked about the least in this space, and while that makes some sense (he’s fairly one-note), I still appreciated the character all the way through. It doesn’t  appear to me that Tony got progressively dumber as the show went on, a trap most shows and characters like that fall into, and there has always been a strong warmth to him that I’ve always admired. It makes sense, then, that Danza later got his own show. 

Andy: Good catch that Sam Simon was a writer on this episode, Les. I don’t know if he had any influence on this, but Jim’s insta-addict transformation recalled the identical gag from The Simpsons which flashbacked to Barney’s sober-as-a-judge college days. Jim’s segment is definitely the strongest, but it also stands out in the way it not only turns one of the series’ most reliable punchline-delivery vehicles into the straight man, but also gives over most of the best comic material to a guest star. (Yes, that guest star is Tom Hanks, but even in the wake of Bosom Buddies he wasn’t yet Tom Hanks.)

Cabbies_Card_Trick

What makes this all particularly intriguing ground for a finale is that we’re not just getting glimpses of our characters’ pasts. We’re getting their origin stories. This is how the heroes of the Sunshine Cab Company became the people they had to become to exist in this world of stories. Even though we’ve come back repeatedly to the theme of thwarted dreams at Taxi‘s roots, these three vignettes—and the three which follow in part two—all tell stories of people who are happier at the end than at the beginning. They’ve all lost something they started out wanting (all except Louie, perhaps), but only because they gave it up for something greater, something truer to themselves: Tony’s integrity, Alex’s independence, Louie’s lust for power, Jim’s peace of mind (something he didn’t seem to have much of as a student, but which comes naturally as a stoner), Latka’s ambition, Elaine’s ties to home.

In a way, the dashed dreams Alex alludes to in the pilot have moved away from the center of the show by this point. Elaine’s balance her gallery career with, if not necessarily aplomb, then at least some measure of success. Tony’s heavyweight glory was always a non-starter. Bobby has moved on. Louie’s, Latka, and Jim are all squarely in their comfort zones. Taxi embraces the old saw about life being what happens while you’re making other plans. By the end of season four (if not the series), it’s clear that Alex Rieger is no longer the only cab driver in the place.

Season 4, Episode 24: “The Road Not Taken” (Part 2)
Original airdate: May 6, 1982

Summary: Latka and Alex weigh in with crossroads stories in their lives, and Elaine makes her decision.

Noel: So this was to be the last episode of Taxi. The episode was filmed in March, and the series was canceled by ABC around the time this episode aired. The week after the episode, Danny DeVito hosted Saturday Night Live and railed against ABC in his monologue before bringing the cast out for their final bow (Hulu), something denied by the late cancellation. (They also did a skit of DeVito, as Louie, driving a cab into ABC headquarters, but I couldn’t find it anywhere.) As last episodes go, it’s really not that bad of a way to go out.

Neither Latka’s nor Alex’s stories reach Jim’s hilarious heights, but like all the other stories, they encapsulate each character’s quirks and qualities. Alex’s refusal to budge on doing the right thing (which in turn explains why he’s so hesitant to help people now), Latka’s charming naïveté, Louie’s greediness, Banta’s earnestness, and Jim…well, Jim’s extreme personality issues. And even though Elaine’s never given a flashback, she not only needs to hear these stories and get approval from her kids, but then she puts herself fully on display as the neurotic and indecisive career woman she so desperately want to be.  Her breakdown and then gut-punching of her would-be boss sum her up as well as the flashbacks do the guys. If anything, Elaine feels like the early sketches for both Diane Chambers and Rebecca Howe.

Each story, and Elaine’s actions in the last act, gives a charming vignette of these characters, and it’s a nice way to go out for the series, and to close out our discussion of it. I don’t want to make grand, sweeping pronouncements about Taxi based on our sampling here, but its awkward, transitional point in TV history makes it as fascinating as it is funny.

Les: Once again, both vignettes gave us an illustration of how while these characters may have been different people a long time ago, their character traits are so deeply buried that they haven’t changed too much. Latka, so much a throwaway character in the early days of the series, grew to be someone approximating the show’s emotional heart, and to see his wide-eyed enthusiasm for America—distorted as it is—has completely come around to being charming. (Oh, don’t we all long for the days when jokes about O.J. Simpson were in reference to his football playing skills alone?) We learn that it wasn’t so much Alex’s choice to become a cab driver for life, but process of elimination: his “real compulsion to put things his own way” meant that was the only job he could have that freedom in. And as you say Noel, while we don’t get a flashback for Elaine, we get yet another piece of evidence that she’s a crazy person as she sabotages yet another career opportunity.

Alex_Elaine_Taxi

As a potential series finale, “The Road Not Taken” makes for a satisfying close, oddly because it doesn’t close off much of anything. Elaine doesn’t get her dream job, Tony doesn’t get his big fight, Alex doesn’t get remarried, Louie doesn’t get a promotion, and Jim doesn’t suddenly return to consciousness. Taxi, or least the bits we’ve seen, wasn’t a spectacularly emotional or optimistic show, so it makes sense that it wouldn’t end with every character finally out of the garage and chasing their dreams. It was about the quiet, American Splendor-style day-by-day victories, ordinary people getting by in often unconventional ways. Things aren’t perfect—or even close to it—for the cabbies of the Sunshine Cab Company at the end, but there’s always another fare to pick up and another opportunity for the next big break.

Like you Noel, I don’t want to get on a soapbox and make grand proclamations about Taxi‘s place in the sitcom pantheon without sampling a larger group of episodes. But what I will say is that the episodes we’ve seen hold up remarkably well for a show that was produced over 30 years ago, and while I enjoyed some more than others I can’t say any of them were bad. The ensemble clicked remarkably well together even with the gains and losses over the years, the stories were melancholy yet never surrendering to complete darkness, and the writing and aesthetic remained reassuringly consistent. I’d never seen a minute of Taxi before this, and I’m glad this discussion finally gave me the chance.

Cory: One of the big tenants of television criticism, one of the things we’re always supposed to value, is character development or progression. In theory, we want the people whom we are watching to change, to mature and basically, be something at the end of the journey that they were not at the beginning. Contemporary shows that don’t traffic in that sort of storytelling—*coughModernFamilycough*—are (often rightfully) demonized for not trying, throwing softballs, what have you.

But what our viewing of Taxi has shown to me is that many of the medium’s “classic” sitcoms didn’t really care about supposed character progression at all. This two-parter was, as Noel discusses above, intended to be the end of Taxi. ABC was done with the show, the writers knew that they were crafting not just a season finale but a series finale. And yet, here we are, with an episode that, outside of Elaine’s possible move, doesn’t suggest much change at all. Instead, it only further reinforces that these core characters are more or less the same people they were when we met them, only now they like each other a lot more (though it was pretty clear to me in the pilot that Alex, Tony and Bobby were quite close). Elaine is still a hard-working mom who really, really cares for her friends. Tony is still a dolt. Louie is still an asshole. Alex still loves giving advice. And Latka is still Latka. 

And as Les suggested, the flashbacks only further underscore this point by keying us into crucial moments in these characters’ lives where the choices they made were defined by their core personas. But this isn’t Seinfeld-ian in its lack of change. Of course, shows often take the “full-circle” approach to intended finales but I think it’s more than that here. The writers clearly wanted to point out both how very little (or how much, in the case of Jim, where comic excellence outdoes whatever larger thematic points the writers had in mind) these people had changed but also how much deeper than connection became. Tony’s advice to Elaine being just a wait a little while until Alex caves and can’t help himself was one of my favorite moments in all the episodes that we’ve watched. Just a perfect, tiny character moment that points out the familiarity these folks have with one another.

While I’m not sure these people were broken enough that we refer to the shop as a “sitcom healing center,” the characters are probably better off now than they were at the beginning of the series, even if none of them really accomplished their initial dreams (which is pretty sad when you think about it).  

Latka_Jim_Sobbing

Ultimately, this approach to character is one I’m sort of growing to admire. I’ve been trained to worry about things like this, or focus on buzzwords like “development,” “arc,” or whatever, but shows like Cheers and Taxi have shown me the value in simply enjoying the company of these characters, and watching them enjoy the company of one another. And arguably, keeping the show fresh and funny amid fairly static character arcs is just as tough as building the story around those arcs. But in what we’ve seen, Taxi made it work.

It feels really sad saying goodbye to these characters already. I think this roundtable-style review was a fun experiment and I’d like to thank Andy for picking such a nice cross-section of Taxi episodes for us to enjoy over the last eight weeks.

Andy: Given our schedules and the episode availability, we wanted to make sure we saw a representative sample of the lifespan of Taxi. The series began by offering a spotlight episode for each of its main characters by way of introduction, and it intended to close on a note that similarly gave them all their due. “The Road Not Taken” serves some of the same function as the clip shows that in the 1990s became prevalent towards the end of a series’ run: It reminds you how much you’ve connected to this group of people over however many seasons. Except that, instead of flashing back to moments we’ve seen, it cleverly puts everyone in a situation very different from the status quo and expects us to know, right away, how they’ll respond. To see Louie as a working stiff, Jim as a straight-edge scholar, or Alex dutifully climbing the corporate ladder is to recognize exactly why those roles are all wrong.

Everyone else has tidily summed up my feelings on the series and this roundtable, so I won’t belabor the point. I’ve enjoyed the hell out of our first roundtable, and I hope readers have as well. If you’re a Taxi expert from way back, I hope we did the series justice in your eyes. If you’re a neophyte, I hope you’re encouraged to seek out more episodes.

Taxi_Closing_Shot

***

A couple of weeks ago, we asked you all to pick the next roundtable series for the four of us to discuss. You had the choices of The Rockford Files, The Cosby Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Blackadder, and the combo of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. We’d like to thank all 35 of you who voted, and we’re announcing that the winner of the poll was… 

Blackadder! (As Noel predicted)

Starting next week we’ll begin the first series in the British sitcom, The Black Adder (1983). We’re doing 3 episodes at a time and that means we’re covering “The Foretelling,” “Born to be King,” and “The Archbishop.”

The series is available on DVD, Netflix Watch Instantly, Amazon Video (free for Amazon Prime members!), and iTunes. We hope the myriad of streaming options will encourage you to watch along with us and join in on the conversation!  

Here’s how the poll broke down, if you’re curious:

Choose the series you have the most amount of interest in reading our thoughts about.
Blackadder: 11 votes
The Cosby Show: 8 votes
The Rockford Files: 6 votes
The Bob Newhart Show: 6 votes
Bewitched & I Dream of Jeannie:  4 votes

Choose the series you have the second most amount of interest in reading our thoughts about.
Bewitched  & I Dream of Jeannie:  10 votes
The Rockford Files: 7 votes
The Cosby Show: 7 votes
Blackadder: 6 votes
The Bob Newhart Show: 5 votes

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2 Responses to “Roundtable Review: Taxi, “The Road Not Taken” (Parts 1 and 2)”

  1. Marty McKee

    Eh. I think character development or progression in a TV series is overrated. I mean, sure, it’s fine if you can do it well or want to do it, but it’s not very realistic. In real life, we don’t develop or progress all that much over the length of a few years. Some of us get married or a new job, but as far as character arcs as we see them on television, it just doesn’t happen that often. And in sitcoms, I don’t really care if the characters develop or not, so long as the show is funny. Maxwell Smart and Ralph Kramden never developed an iota. Didn’t hurt their shows any.

    Hanks’ silent scream of agony after setting the hot lava lamp back down is genius. BOSOM BUDDIES was filmed at Paramount next to TAXI, so I suspect Brooks/Weinberger/etc. knew his talent well.

    Reply

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