“Reverend Jim, A Space Odyssey”
Not available for streaming; there are some pretty good deals on used DVD copies of the second season on Amazon.
There is so much to say about Rev. Jim Ignatowski, Taxi‘s best and most important character, that I fear focusing on the negative serves little purpose beyond harping. And yet. The episode built around Jim’s second appearance on the show, after green card-marrying Latka to a prostitute last season, feels so clumsily-built and misshapen that it’s a wonder that it turned out so well, and so well-remembered, and a testament to the skill of the cast. (There’s an uncomfortable running joke about Latka getting lost in Harlem and learning jive, too, but that’s not really a testament to anything besides white privilege.)
The first act, which is entirely too long, is dedicated to reintroducing us to Rev. Jim. If we’d forgotten, we now know that Rev. Jim is the friendly neighborhood addict who is just functioning enough to make the affluent-in-relation cabbies (well, mostly Elaine) feel for him. That doesn’t manifest itself in a particularly pretty way. In an opening scene deeply uncomfortable to me but largely casual for the characters, Elaine peppers Jim with questions like, “Have you ever thought about doing something with your life, like getting a job?” and “Don’t you ever feel like you’re wasting your life?” Jim responds to the latter with:
Me? No, no. I have function in life. I stand for something. Not everybody stands for something, but I do. I am the living embodiment of the ‘60s. Everything that came along, I went with. Even if I didn’t know what it was, I went with it. Did a lot of drugs, probably not nearly as much as you think I did…. I did the other stuff, too. I spent a year of my life making a macramé couch. I went to all the big events. I was at Woodstock.… I did it all. I wore flowers in my hair, meditated for hours on end, chanted. I was finding God all over the place, and he kept ditching me.
As good a mission statement as any, and a hell of a comeback. (And it defies Andy Daglas’ assertion in a This Was Television roundtable about the episode that Jim doesn’t “fit in the with the undercurrent of melancholy permeating the rest of the show.”) Still, Elaine “can’t believe he’s happy this way, getting high all the time,” and pushes Tony, Bobby, and Alex into helping her help him get a job driving a cab with them. They settle on cab driver as the job they’ll help him get because they ascertain, without having any real information, that Jim has no skills or education.
The character — not the execution — of Jim feels like it stems from animosity towards hippies, or druggies, or whatever the term was then, on the part of the show’s writers. Without Christopher Lloyd’s brilliant performance, Jim could have easily been a caricature, a burnt-out junkie worthy only of pity and shame, not a regular cast spot on a network sitcom. “We wanted to do a ’60s drug casualty,” Jim Brooks, the show’s co-creator, told Frank Lovece and Jules Franco for their Hailing Taxi. Lloyd’s skill elevated the role from parody and ably replaced Randall Carver’s milquetoast John in the cast.
I’ve gone this whole time without addressing the scene that made this episode both great and famous. Here it is:
It’s a perfect scene, and not at all denigrated by the following one, which is several groans-worthy. It’s a little diamond in the rough, and entirely justifies any revisionist thinking about this episode over the years. Watch the scene again. It’s worth it.
“Nardo Loses Her Marbles”
Taxi being released in the 1970s meant that most of the attitudes towards women of that time found their way into the show. Elaine being the only woman on the show meant that she had to be every woman the writers could think of, and eventually, one writer figured out that they had put too much on her. “Here I saw a woman who works at night driving a cab, who works in the daytime at an art gallery, and who has two small kids besides,” Earl Pomerantz, the episode’s writer, told Lovece and Franco. “At a time when women were trying to do everything, she was trying to do more than everything. It seemed like a very theoretical lifestyle that didn’t fit into normal standards of behavior. So I decided to examine what that’s like.”
Apparently, what that’s like is having a breakdown at an exhibition at the gallery (check out a brief appearance from Mary Woronov as an artist), then coming onto Alex when he’s driving you home and needing to be told, by a man, that you need therapy. Elaine’s strong will and her acceptance of therapy — after being rejected by Alex, on the grounds that she’s not well — don’t mesh, one of many examples throughout this episode. Pomerantz didn’t even write Elaine a new episode — he just re-upped the formula from the first Elaine-centric episode the show ever did, as Les Chappell noted on This Was Television.
Bad enough having Alex be able to take the good guy role for not having sex with someone clearly in a less-than-stable state of mind — the episode ends on a sour note of Alex regretting his decision to not take advantage of Elaine after she wears a dress she likes. And this was OK to put on TV within recent memory!