Season 4, Episode 23: ‘The Road Not Taken’ (Part 1)
Original Airdate: April 29, 1982
Summary: Tony, Louie, and Jim share their life-altering moments with Elaine, who grapples with the decision to relocate to Seattle.
Sidant: What more can I tell you about this episode apart from the fact that it features TOM HANKS INDULGING IN SPECIAL BROWNIES?
Yes, you heard me right: TOM HANKS EATING SPECIAL BROWNIES.
I’m just kidding, though it’s undeniably hilarious. ‘The Road Not Taken’ falls into the category of sitcom episodes that I typically enjoy, making it right up my alley.
I have a fondness for flashback episodes that take us back to a time before we met the characters.
They give actors the opportunity to appear comically absurd, allow shows to parody earlier decades (if they wish), and while character backstories may not always be crucial to sitcom character development, they do provide excellent character moments. (For the record, Friends excelled at these episodes.)
Tony’s storyline is unquestionably the weakest of the three, and it treads on familiar territory already explored in One-Punch Banta.
However, it does feature commendable fight choreography that I appreciated, making use of Tony Danza’s skills and employing wide shots to capture the action.
The issue here is not the action sequence itself but rather the fact that it lacks humor.
Louie’s narrative provides amusement on multiple levels, from his magnificent lock of hair to his adoption of the same outfit worn by the sweet old Irish dispatcher.
However, it’s Jim’s story that had me in stitches. Christopher Lloyd’s performance as Harvard-Jim is a finely balanced contrast to Reverend-Jim, avoiding both overacting and underacting.
It presents the ideal faux-serious depiction of a college student, and his eventual surrender to indulging in the brownies feels like a complete character arc condensed into a mere 10 minutes.
I couldn’t get enough of it.
Kriti: Few things delight me as much as encountering an unforeseen cameo by someone ‘before they were famous.’
Witnessing Tom Hanks (who, at this stage in his career, had recently experienced the cancellation of his ABC sitcom, Bosom Buddies) having a profound moment of awe while gazing at a lava lamp left me in a state of incredulous laughter.
What’s more, they maintained a realistic and subtle portrayal of drug experiences: “I thought the ceiling looked familiar” was a phrase I frequently uttered during my college years.*
*[Ed. note: This Was Television firmly discourages readers from engaging in illegal drug use unless they have brought an ample supply for everyone. -A.D.]
As you rightly point out, Sidant, the flashback episode is an excellent tool for sitcoms to explore fresh storytelling avenues, and these three episodes serve as a prime example of that.
What I found particularly commendable is how, while portraying these characters in their earlier years before they evolved into the familiar figures we adore, the writers skillfully conveyed that their core characteristics remained constant over time.
Tony, for instance, has always exhibited a certain slowness in grasping things, but we’ve also witnessed his inherent decency on numerous occasions.
In these episodes, we witness how this combination of traits prevented him from ever rising to the top.
He isn’t so much a washed-up fighter as someone who was never inclined or capable of playing the game to begin with.
(His humorous exchange 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 often correct? Please don’t tell me; it might dent my confidence.”)
**This group of writers includes Sam Simon, co-creator of The Simpsons, who assumed a producer role after the show transitioned to NBC for its fifth season.
Similarly, it’s evident that Louie possessed his miserly and lecherous traits long before entering the cage, along with his expected disrespect for the authority of the grandfatherly O’Malley.
In Louie’s world, it’s a cutthroat environment, and offering slices of peach pie is a sign of weakness. Assuming the responsibilities of running the garage, especially in O’Malley’s idealized manner, doesn’t interest him.
He craves tangible benefits and potential. However, when that opportunity arises, he discovers his life’s purpose: that microphone transforms from being a mere sound system into a vessel for his personality, while the elevated status of the cage becomes a means to profit from those literally beneath him.
Demonstrating the character’s indelible nature and the show’s deep understanding of him, I foresaw, just a split second before it occurred, that Louie’s first bribe was an epiphany illuminated by heavenly light.
And, naturally, we have Harvard-Jim.
If anyone has seen Clue, they are aware that Christopher Lloyd can portray pomposity as proficiently as he can portray insanity.
Witnessing the uptight nature of his character before his transformation is a delightful opportunity to explore the other facets of his acting talent.
This transformation is not out of character either—Jim is a man who fully commits to whatever he does, regardless of the consequences, and a single brownie simply flips the switch from a dedicated academic to a committed burnout.
Personally, I would have enjoyed seeing more of this gradual evolution, particularly as he attempts to impart his new perspective to his glee club.
(Although not even expanded consciousness can clarify what Regionals are.)
Astha: Most of my thoughts, which are more ‘big picture’ in nature, will be shared in the subsequent discussion.
However, I must mention that the initial part of this episode stands out as one of the funniest among those we’ve watched for the roundtable.
Jim’s entire flashback sequence, enhanced by Tom Hanks, is as humorous, if not more so, than the DMV sequence we discussed a couple of weeks ago.
Additionally, I thoroughly enjoyed Danza’s performance in Tony’s flashback.
Although we haven’t focused much on Tony (and Danza) in this discussion, it makes sense, given that he’s a rather one-dimensional character.
Nevertheless, I consistently appreciated his character throughout the series.
Unlike many shows and characters of this nature, it doesn’t seem to me that Tony became progressively less intelligent as the series progressed.
He managed to avoid that pitfall, and there has always been a remarkable warmth to his character that I’ve admired. It’s no surprise that Danza later received his own show.
Reesav: Great observation regarding Sam Simon’s involvement in this episode, Kriti.
I’m not sure if he had any influence on it, but Jim’s rapid transformation into an addict certainly brings to mind a similar gag from The Simpsons, where Barney went from being sober in college to his current state.
Jim’s segment is undeniably the strongest, and it’s noteworthy for how it not only turns one of the series’ most reliable sources of punchlines into the straight man but also allocates most of the top comedic material to a guest star.
(Of course, that guest star is Tom Hanks, but even though he had appeared in Bosom Buddies by then, he wasn’t the Tom Hanks we know today.)
What makes this finale particularly intriguing is that it doesn’t merely offer glimpses into the characters’ pasts; it delves into their origin stories.
These narratives unveil how the heroes of the Sunshine Cab Company transformed into the individuals necessary to navigate the world of stories they inhabit.
Despite revisiting the theme of thwarted dreams at Taxi’s core, these initial three vignettes, as well as the subsequent three in part two, all recount tales of characters who find greater happiness in the end compared to their beginnings.
Each one sacrificed something they initially desired (with the potential exception of Louie), but they did so in exchange for something more significant, something truer to their essence: Tony’s integrity, Alex’s independence, Louie’s desire for power, Jim’s peace of mind (which he lacked as a student but discovered as a stoner), Latka’s ambition, and Elaine’s connection to home.
In a sense, the abandoned dreams Alex mentioned in the pilot have shifted away from the show’s central focus by this point.
Elaine manages to balance her gallery career with a degree of success, even if not flawlessly.
Tony’s aspirations for heavyweight glory were always unrealistic. Bobby has moved on.
Louie, Latka, and Jim have all settled comfortably into their respective comfort zones.
Taxi embraces the adage that life happens while you’re busy making other plans.
By the conclusion of season four and possibly the series, it becomes evident that Alex Rieger is no longer the sole cab driver in the midst of it all.
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.
Sidant: So, this marked the end of Taxi. They filmed this episode in March, and ABC canceled the series around the time of its airing.
The week following this episode, Danny DeVito hosted Saturday Night Live and passionately criticized ABC in his monologue before bringing the cast out for their final bow (Hulu), despite ABC’s abrupt cancellation.
(They also did a skit featuring DeVito, portraying Louie, driving a cab into ABC headquarters, but I couldn’t locate it anywhere.)
As far as series finales go, it’s actually a decent way to conclude.
While neither Latka’s nor Alex’s stories achieve the hilarity of Jim’s, they still capture each character’s quirks and attributes.
Alex’s unwavering commitment to doing what’s right (which explains why he’s now so hesitant to help people), Latka’s endearing naivety, Louie’s greediness, Banta’s earnestness, and Jim… well, Jim’s extreme personality issues.
Even though Elaine doesn’t have a flashback, she not only needs to hear these stories and gain approval from her children, but she also lays herself bare as the neurotic and indecisive career woman she desperately wants to be.
Her emotional breakdown and her confrontational encounter with her potential boss encapsulate her character as effectively as the flashbacks do for the male characters.
If anything, Elaine feels like an early draft for both Diane Chambers and Rebecca Howe.
Every story, along with Elaine’s actions in the final act, offers an endearing glimpse into these characters’ lives.
It serves as a delightful way to conclude the series and wrap up our discussion of it.
I won’t make sweeping declarations about Taxi based on our limited selection, but its intriguing position in TV history during a period of transition makes it as captivating as it is humorous.
Kriti: Once again, both vignettes provided an illustration of how these characters, though they may have changed on the surface over time, retained their core character traits.
Latka, initially a minor character in the series, has evolved into someone who arguably represents the show’s emotional core.
Witnessing his enthusiastic view of America, even in its distorted form, is now genuinely charming. (Oh, how we all yearn for the days when O.J. Simpson jokes pertained solely to his football skills.)
We discover that Alex didn’t necessarily choose a career as a cab driver for life; it was more a process of elimination.
His “real compulsion to do things his own way” left him with few job options that allowed that level of freedom.
As you mentioned, Sidant, although we don’t get a flashback for Elaine, we receive further evidence that she’s eccentric as she undermines yet another career opportunity.
As a potential series finale, ‘The Road Not Taken‘ offers a satisfying conclusion, albeit an unusual one because it doesn’t neatly tie up loose ends.
Elaine doesn’t attain her dream job, Tony doesn’t get his big fight, Alex doesn’t remarry, Louie doesn’t secure a promotion, and Jim doesn’t miraculously wake up.
Taxi, or at least the segments we’ve witnessed, wasn’t a show brimming with emotion or optimism, so it’s fitting that it doesn’t conclude with each character finally leaving the garage to chase their dreams.
The series was about the quiet, day-to-day victories in the style of American Splendor, with ordinary people making their way through life in often unconventional ways.
Things aren’t perfect—or even close—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.
I share your sentiment, Sidant. I don’t intend to stand on a soapbox and make sweeping declarations about Taxi’s position in the sitcom landscape without examining a broader selection of episodes.
However, what I can confidently assert is that the episodes we’ve watched have aged remarkably well for a show produced more than 30 years ago.
While I found some episodes more enjoyable than others, I can’t label any of them as subpar.
The ensemble cast meshed exceptionally well, despite the comings and goings of characters over the years.
The stories maintained a sense of melancholy without succumbing to complete darkness, and the writing and visual style remained consistently reassuring.
Prior to this discussion, I had never watched a minute of Taxi, and I’m grateful for the opportunity it provided.
Astha: One of the fundamental principles of television criticism, something we are often encouraged to appreciate, is character development or growth.
In theory, we hope to see the individuals we are observing evolve, mature, and essentially become something different at the end of their journey compared to the beginning.
Modern shows that avoid this type of storytelling, like Modern Family, for instance, are frequently criticized (and rightly so) for not attempting to challenge characters or introduce significant changes.
However, our experience watching Taxi has made me realize that many of the so-called “classic” sitcoms didn’t prioritize character development at all.
This two-part episode was, as Sidant previously discussed, intended to serve as Taxi’s conclusion.
ABC had decided to end the show, and the writers were fully aware that they were crafting not just a season finale but a series finale.
Nevertheless, what we have here is an episode that, aside from Elaine’s potential move, doesn’t imply substantial change.
Instead, it further underscores that these core characters are essentially the same individuals they were when we first encountered them, albeit with a stronger bond (although it was evident to me in the pilot that Alex, Tony, and Bobby had a close relationship).
Elaine remains a hard-working mother who deeply cares for her friends. Tony remains a dimwit. Louie remains unpleasant.
Alex still relishes giving advice. And Latka remains Latka.
As Kriti suggested, the flashbacks serve to emphasize this point by revealing pivotal moments in these characters’ lives where their choices were shaped by their fundamental personalities.
However, this isn’t Seinfeld-esque in its resistance to change.
While many shows often opt for a “full-circle” approach in intended finales, I believe it goes beyond that here.
The writers clearly aimed to highlight not only how little (or how much, as in Jim’s case, where comedic brilliance overshadows any larger thematic points the writers had in mind) these individuals had changed but also how much deeper their connections had grown.
Tony’s advice to Elaine, suggesting she wait a little while until Alex caves and can’t resist, was one of my favorite moments in all the episodes we’ve watched.
It’s a perfect, small character moment that underscores the familiarity these people have with each other.
While I’m not certain these characters were broken to the extent that we would label the shop as a “sitcom healing center,” they are probably in a better place now than they were at the beginning of the series, even if none of them truly achieved their initial aspirations (which is rather disheartening when you contemplate it).
In the end, I’m beginning to appreciate this character approach more.
I’ve been conditioned to fret about such matters or to concentrate on buzzwords like “development” and “arc,” but series like Cheers and Taxi have demonstrated the value of simply relishing the presence of these characters and observing them savor each other’s company.
Arguably, maintaining the show’s freshness and humor within relatively static character trajectories is just as challenging as constructing the narrative around those arcs.
However, based on what we’ve seen, Taxi managed to make it work.
Saying farewell to these characters feels quite melancholic already.
I believe this roundtable-style review was an enjoyable experiment, and I’d like to express my gratitude to Reesav for selecting such a delightful assortment of Taxi episodes for us to savor over the past eight weeks.
Reesav: Given our schedules and the episode availability, we wanted to ensure we watched a representative selection from Taxi’s lifespan.
The series commenced by featuring spotlight episodes for each of its main characters as an introduction, and it aimed to conclude on a note that similarly provided closure for all of them.
‘The Road Not Taken‘ fulfills a similar function as the clip shows that became popular in the 1990s towards the end of a series’ run: It reminds you of the strong connection you’ve formed with this group of individuals over the course of several seasons.
However, instead of revisiting moments we’ve already seen, it cleverly places everyone in a situation that deviates from the norm and expects us to immediately understand how they will react.
Witnessing Louie in a regular job, Jim as a serious scholar, or Alex diligently climbing the corporate ladder immediately makes it clear why these roles don’t suit them.
My fellow participants have eloquently summarized my sentiments about the series and this roundtable discussion, so I won’t dwell on it.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our first roundtable, and I hope our readers have as well.
If you’re a seasoned Taxi enthusiast, I trust we’ve done the series justice in your eyes. If you’re new to it, I hope this discussion encourages you to seek out more episodes.
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