“Shut It Down,” a two-parter centering on a union-management dispute between Louie and the drivers of the Sunshine Cab Company over cab safety (after Tony’s brakes give out and he’s forced to crash to stop his cab [he forgot about the emergency brake]), features a big first for Taxi. While it’s not the first mention of a union or a “shop steward,” it is the first time that the show seriously engages with the concept of organized labor, even though it’s one of the few semi-realistic portrayals of the working class on American network TV and aired during a time union popularity, though down from its peak in the 1950s, was still significantly higher than it is now.
In its depiction of labor, it stands in stark contrast to the TV of today. Earlier this month, Wesley Morris wrote in a New York Times Magazine essay about depictions of class on TV,
People working for minimum wage or doing manual labor [have become] the province of reality television shows like “Dirty Jobs” and “Undercover Boss,” which has company executives pretend to be employees. More than once, the revelations and class disjunction that emerge from the ruse have made me cry.
(Another first: Unless I’m mistaken, Part Two of “Shut It Down” features the first joke from Louie about Judd Hirsch’s large nose for the show, something it would it would return to uncomfortably often. I had the opportunity to ask Hirsch, who is Jewish, about the jokes in 2014; he assured me that they were scripted, and that Danny DeVito was not ad-libbing offensive Jew-nose jokes.)
The union plot is fairly straightforward: The cabbies elect Tony shop steward, who, dumb as he is, is immediately bamboozled by Louie’s bargaining tactics of saying nice things to him, and is immediately voted out of office. Elaine is voted in in his stead, and after attempting to negotiate with the owner of the company, declares a strike.
Alex, as ever, is called on by the show’s writers to make Louie vulnerable; the tactic used this time is religiously guilting Louie into negotiating with the cabbies. (It’s difficult to imagine a slimeball like Louie being swayed by Italian Catholic guilt on TV today, which is kind of quaint.) But when Elaine comes in to negotiate, Louie introduces new terms: He’ll concede to all their demands…if she goes on a date with him. A ha-ha cutesy sitcom moment, you may think, until you remember literally everything about it: He’s her superior, he’s holding her safety and the safety of all her coworkers above her head, and also, he’s Louie. When she accepts the conditions and reminds him of the position he’s put her in, she asks how it makes him feel.
Louie looks down, and then stares up into her face with an awful gremlin grin. “Horny as all get-out,” he says.
Unsurprisingly, part two of the episode finds Elaine in panic mode. She doesn’t come to work the day of the date, and when Alex goes to check on her, he finds her chugging whiskey out of a blender. (As we learn later, it’s to top off some valium; Louie: “I thought something like that could kill a person.” Elaine: “So did I.”) When Louie arrives, looking presciently like a young version of Danny DeVito’s Penguin from Batman Returns, she locks herself in her room. When she emerges, she’s dressed in several coats and visibly sickened by the evening in front of her.
Louie takes her to a garish Polynesian restaurant where he hands her a script of how the dinner conversation should go. (Elaine: “You have beautiful eyes.” Louie: “Thank you.”) He all but forces her to dance with him, which looks about exactly as pleasant as it sounds. But the worst of the episode is saved for last, when Louie insists on walking her to her door. He goes on and on about how she should put out a little for him since he spent so much money on her.
What is remarkable about this episode is that Elaine isn’t portrayed as being taken advantage of, though she clearly feels she has been. She and Louie are somehow portrayed as equals, both deserving their say in the matter, despite the issues laid out above. And so when he convinces her to give him a little peck goodnight, he “jumps” her, in the word of Hailing Taxi, and rolls around on the floor with her visibly trying to shake him off. It’s a horrendous, violent moment in the show, and the episode ends exactly on that note. It wasn’t originally supposed to; Mark Jacobsen, the writer of the original draft of the episode (and the New York magazine article the show is based on), told Hailing Taxi that the episode was originally about Tony “learning about and espousing Marxist philosophy, and eventually recanting.” Though that sounds like an amazing episode, it’s understandable why the writers took a different path. It’s not so understandable why that path had to include victimizing the only female character on the show.