“Louie Sees the Light”
Sitcom structure is a funny thing. Purely business-oriented in nature — how best to frame a scripted story around advertisements — it doesn’t always provide for the best route for the actual story of the episode to take. (Noah Charney has a good breakdown of the fairly rigid structure here.) And in most cases, barring Dan Harmon-like plot circles, that business sensibility doesn’t serve the format well; the best sitcoms are the ones that are able to make it invisible.
Sometimes, though, when everything clicks just right, the restraints of network television provide the perfect route for a story to take. See: “Louie Sees the Light.” I had forgotten how much Taxi relied on Danny DeVito-centered episodes in the first season. They’re right to lean on him as much as he does; he’s the best actor in the cast, and proves it in this episode.
The only plot in this episode focuses on Louie’s swift character arc (well, loop) from awful to nice to awful. He opens the episode by screaming at John over low cab fares, but in the midst of it, has to sit down in pain. (Notably, John is the most helpful of all the cabbies to him.) Later, when Louie learns he has to go into (routine, minor) surgery, he, having never been in a hospital before, makes an oath to God that he’d be a nice person if he made it through the surgery.
Surprise! He made it, and watching Louie struggle to be nice to people is the best acting job Danny DeVito ever did. When Bobby tries to get Louie to lose his temper by making up a terrible accident involving a company cab, Louie makes it through. An even better acting job by DeVito: when he learns Bobby lied, you can see the gears grinding in his head as he decides that he has to break his pact with God. (He strings Bobby up by his coat.)
But he’s still on the hook for this oath to God. He feels like he broke it by punishing Bobby, and obviously, Taxi cannot continue with a God-fearing fake-nice Louie DePalma. So the show puts Alex and Louie together at the bar, and the writers whip up some excellent pristine nonsense feel-good Alex monologue that both feels right in the episode, with those characters, and convinces Louie to go back to his old ways, without ever saying as much. It’s a perfect loop, anchored by a perfect performance.
“Elaine and the Lame Duck”
There’s something to be said when the two most memorable parts of an episode involve Louie spouting off Jewish jokes about Yiddish (do you know the difference between a schlemiel and a schlimazel?) and a young but still bald Jeffrey Tambor as a sweaty congressman. (Actually, this might make the episode sound more interesting that it is.)
Alex picks up Rep. Tambor and a date early in the episode, but his date clearly hates him. It’s not hard to see why — he’s, at best, really annoying. For some reason, Alex takes him back to the garage and sets him up with Elaine. You can see where this is going.
Or maybe not! In pretty stark opposition to the closed loop of the previous episode, “Lame Duck” ends with things seemingly progressing between Elaine and Tambor’s relationship, but he never ends up in the series afterwards. The episode is worth watching for a really odd, touching performance from Tambor (what else!) but maybe worth skipping for the 20th century gender dynamics brought violently into light.