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Friday, September 25, 2009

TAXI: THE FOURTH SEASON -- DVD review by porfle

I caught a few episodes of "Taxi" during its original run (1978-83) and never got into it. But now that I've had a chance to watch TAXI: THE FOURTH SEASON and really get a feel for the show, I've found things to like about it that I missed the first time around. Like Bob James' beautiful soft-jazz theme music that opens each episode, "Taxi" has an almost melancholy feel that adds some realism to its light comedy plots--the characters seem oppressed by the crowded, impersonal city in which they live and work, and find emotional solace in each other.

The show doesn't have a lot of big, dumb slapstick moments designed to get the live studio audience whooping and hollering. Compared to most sitcoms of its era, it's low-key and character-driven. It would be hard to come up with a more reserved, contemplative lead character than Judd Hirsch's Alex Reiger, who serves as a de facto father figure for the group. Alex plays straight man for the nuttier characters but has a talent for deadpan one-liners and snags a good share of the laughs himself. He's also a conduit for the writers to insert a more rational point of view into the show's nuttier scenes.

The main setting is the New York City taxi garage where Reiger and his coworkers spend an awful lot of time just hanging around. (As in "Welcome Back Kotter", the place is haunted by those spooky extras who always hover silently in the background but never interact with the main characters, just like the "other" students in Mr. Kotter's class.) Danny DeVito is great as their vain, self-centered blowhard of a boss, Louie De Palma, whose bombastic personality compensates for his diminutive stature and trollish appearance. Marilu Henner is divorced single mom Elaine Nardo, an ultra-cute redhead who also works at an art gallery. She isn't funny, but she's ultra-cute.

Ex-boxer Tony Banta is played by Tony Danza with his usual obnoxious street-doofus style. As aspiring actor Bobby Wheeler, Jeff Conaway appears only a couple of times in this season since he left to pursue his own acting aspirations. This is okay with me because I never cared for his jittery character and, by this point, the cast seems overcrowded when he's there. I like Conaway a lot in GREASE, but I don't think his style is very well suited for this kind of sitcom.

The two comedy characters most people remember when they think about "Taxi" are mechanic Latka Gravas (Andy Kaufman) and Reverend Jim Ignatowski (Christopher Lloyd). Lloyd, who entered the public consciousness along with DeVito when they appeared as mental hospital inmates in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, gets plenty of laughs with his cockeyed, spaced-out character--he's the show's crowd-pleasing equivalent to Kramer from "Seinfeld"--but I don't always find Reverend Jim to be nearly as knee-jerk funny as we're supposed to. He can, however, be very amusing at times.

Latka Gravas, of course, is Andy Kaufman's "Foreign Man" character which he'd been performing in his stand-up routines for years, transplanted into a sitcom setting. As a Kaufman fan, I look forward to his appearances although his bizarre sense of humor is watered-down here. Kaufman would later regret having sold out the character, whom he regarded as an expression of his own more innocent side.

Latka's comedy potential was greatly expanded when it was decided to give him multiple personalities, enabling Kaufman to come up with characters such as sleazy lounge lizard Vic Ferrari, a cornfed cowboy, and his friend Reiger. Latka, along with Reverend Jim, gives the writers a chance to get sillier once in a while. My only regret is that Kaufman's most abrasive and off-putting alter ego, the horrendous Tony Clifton, was fired during rehearsals for a guest appearance and ousted from the studio lot.

High concept comedy this isn't--the writers generally keep things simple and indentifiable. The season opener, "Jim the Psychic", has a skeptical Alex disregarding Jim's ominous premonition of his future while Louie becomes a nervous wreck. In "Tony's Lady", Tony gets a second job as a chaffeur and falls for his sexy new boss. "Nina Loves Alex" features a young female cabbie who becomes fixated on Alex until he can't stand it anymore. Episodes don't necessarily end on a big laugh, or work up to some emotional crescendo. They just end when the story's over.

One of the funniest episodes is "Take My Ex-Wife, Please", in which Louise Lasser of "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" appears as Alex's ex-wife, Phyllis, who ends up on a disastrous date with Louie. An excellent comedienne, Lasser applies her comedic skills to this modestly funny script and turns her scenes with DeVito and Hirsch into some of the best moments of the whole season.

Another memorable guest star is the adorable Carol Kane in the recurring role of Latka's girlfriend, Simka Dahblitz. In "Simka Returns", Latka becomes jealous of her growing infatuation with the more outgoing Vic Ferrari. "The Wedding of Latka and Simka", with CUCKOO'S NEST alumnus Vincent Schiavelli as the priest who performs the ceremony, is both touching and comically surreal as we observe the strange wedding customs of their native country.

Ted Danson guests as a flamboyant hairdresser who gives Elaine the most embarrassing hairstyle imaginable in "The Unkindest Cut." In "Tony's Comeback", Bubba Smith is funny as an ex-football player who encourages Tony to get back into the boxing ring. The great Martin Short plays a struggling TV programmer who takes advantage of Jim's psychic abilities in "Jim Joins the Network." In "Like Father, Like Son", Alex's estranged father returns in the form of venerable comic actor Jack Gilford and becomes his surprise romantic rival. Danny DeVito's real-life mom and his wife Rhea Perlman can be seen in other episodes.


In the two-part season finale, "The Road Not Taken", Elaine's indecision about taking a better job in Seattle leads to everyone recounting stories about various turning points in their own lives. Reiger is shown as an ambitious business executive whose career is derailed by his rebellious nature. J. Pat O'Malley plays the cab company's previous dispatcher who is forced into retirement by the devious Louie. Latka tells of the day he left home to come to America, and Tony reveals his first encounter with the shady side of boxing. Best of all, we get to see Reverend Jim as the bright, straight-arrow Harvard student that he was before he became a drug burn-out, with a young Tom Hanks as his stoner roommate.

The 3-disc, 24-episode DVD set from CBS/Paramount is in the original 4.3 full-screen with Dolby Digital sound and closed-captions. Episodic promos for all episodes are included.

The main thing I didn't like about "Taxi" originally, besides the fact that a lot of the jokes were lame, was my feeling that it was trying to appear deeper and more thoughtful than it really was. I still think a lot of the jokes are lame, but upon viewing TAXI: THE FOURTH SEASON, I've come to see the show as an often genuinely affecting combination of dumb comedy, naked sentiment, and grown-up sensibilities.

Buy it at Amazon.com

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