It’s fascinating to watch this episode of Taxi, about Latka’s struggles with immigration laws and being an undocumented worker, in 2015. Were this episode to air now – and with Latka’s ethnic background most likely not white – there would be a huge conservative negative reaction online. (There may have been too in 1978, for all I know, except for the “online” part.) So many aspects – a main character being an undocumented worker overstaying his visa, the other main characters helping him organize a sham marriage with a prostitute to evade immigration officials – would immediately be pounced on by conservative groups, not the least of which being Donald Trump’s nativists.
And yet it plays so casually here, with only a slight bit more gravitas than your general episode of Taxi, which is already a morality play most episodes. The b-story – Louie turning Latka into the feds, Latka refusing to talk to him, Louie making a grand gesture to apologize (After offering him $1, then $2 for his forgiveness and the line “I don’t understand why he won’t forgive me! All I did was turn him in.”) – is tied in directly with the main plot, and the show hits much less of those regular sitcom beats. It’s shaggier – it feels kind of long, too? – and a little darker. But most importantly, it introduced who may be the most important character in the show, Rev. Jim Ignatowski, brought in to officiate the paper marriage between Latka and Valerie, the prostitute.
As discussed previously, Louie is the id of Taxi, its internal engine that keeps things moving – and telling that the most selfish person is the one who decides where things go in this universe. But if Louie is the id, then Jim is the open, bleeding heart of the show, whose warmth keeps the show together perhaps longer than it was meant to. Christopher Lloyd’s (Doc Brown from Back to the Future!) portrayal of Ignatowski, a burnt-out former hippie lazing about the neighborhood bar, is fully-formed in its introduction.
And he’s great in this episode. It’s always fun watching the show’s sitcommier characters interact, and Jim and Latka’s brief back-and-forth is one of the funnier things that’s been on the show so far. “Paper Marriage” felt the closest to what I know the peak of Taxi can be. It was nice to see.
- Latka’s student visa ran out. He was here studying and now has to run from the law for it.
- Louie: “Latka’s the poodle I never had.”
- Valerie, on her way out to see a client after the wedding, throws the bouquet; Alex catches it. Marriage in someone’s future 😉 ? (No.)
- This episode also marks the introduction of Jeff (J. Alan Thomas), soon-to-be Louie’s assistant, and the only recurring character of color on the show.
Most sitcoms about people living in Manhattan give the characters unreasonably large, swanky apartments. Not Taxi; John and Suzanne live in a studio and share a pull-out sofa bed. After getting married one month and two episodes ago, the young couple are already threatening to break apart because they can’t afford to both pay their rent and go to college. This episode is the darkest yet of the show, but I appreciate that Taxi allowed for its characters to be as broke as a real twentysomething couple in college.
After a disastrous dinner party in which they’re only served salad and Alex steals two of Latka’s prepared lines, Alex decides to loan the young couple $2,500 to help them along. Far more than the previous John and Suzanne episode, in which the writers tell us about them instead of showing them to us, the writing for this episode is excellent. The scene in which they discuss whether or not they can morally take Alex’s money is one of the best things the show has done yet. It’s emotionally honest and well-acted by Randall Carver and Ellen Regan, and the episode’s director, James Burrows, lets the moments between characters breathe.
It’s interesting, though; could this episode exist today? In between 1978 and 2012, the price of college increased twelve-fold. It’s impossible to imagine a world in which someone could pay for school and pay rent in a Manhattan apartment on a cab driver’s salary today. I guess it’s nice to look back on episodes like this and think that it used to not be so hard, even though it seems impossible to John and Suzanne.