Not available for streaming; there are some pretty good deals on used DVD copies of the first season on Amazon.
Though “Substitute Father” is, by most counts, the season finale of the first season of Taxi (some sources disagree, and put the double episode “Memories of Cab 804” as the finale for some unknown reason), it doesn’t really feel like one. Seasons of ’70s sitcoms rarely had arcs to be tied up, so the goal with season finales was to just go out on a high note — nothing major.
The episode has a sitcom premise — Elaine leaves her son Jason (played by Michael Hershewe, possibly once notable for The Big Fix) with the guys when she goes out of town, and they all take turns playing fun-dad with him. Bobby takes him to breakfast, Tony takes him to his boxing gym, John takes him to a movie, Alex takes him to a Knicks game, and Louie and his mother take him to a wrestling match. But by the end of his stay with the group of them, he’s gone to so many sporting events that he hasn’t studied for the spelling bee he has coming up. (Yes, this is also, briefly, a spelling bee episode — one of the other spelling bee contestants, named Marilu Hartman, is played by Marilu Henner’s niece.)
The premise is standard, but the execution isn’t. Underlying all of the Fun Activities the guys are taking Jason on is their bachelor’s discomfort at interacting with a child, and actually liking it. After — spoiler — Jason loses the spelling bee because he didn’t have any time to study, Alex gives the guys a lecture about how selfishly they’d acted in wanting to play the brief father figure to this kid. (I guess it should be noted that Elaine is divorced, and her ex-husband doesn’t seem to be in the picture.)
It’s the kind of sentimentality note that Taxi relied a lot on throughout this season, but it pales in comparison to the Nick at Nite “What have we learned?” session over a 12-year-old (Alex: “That says eight years old.” Louie: “Yeah, and I bought it four years ago.”) bottle of Scotch the guys subject themselves to after Elaine takes Jason home. Is there anything worse than listening to young-to-middle-aged straight men talk about how they’d be great fathers? But somehow, it works, the whole thing. Maybe it’s only because of the musical number thrown in for our benefit at the end:
Or maybe it’s because it’s easy to see how long Taxi has come from the awkward, confusing pilot. And this season has been more misses than hits, but it showed some signs, very early on, of what it would and will continue to grow to be. “Substitute Father” is very much in a classic vein of Taxi episodes, though: the morality play. Every episode is, really, but the show hits some home harder than others, so much so that The A.V. Club dedicated a lengthy roundtable to this episode titled “Taxi asks, “How much of a sitcom needs to be comedic?”” Of the Nick at Nite final scenes, Ryan McGee wrote:
At the time Taxi aired, one simply had to call programs of that length “sitcoms.” But even by the time Scrubs was in full swing, there were plenty of programs taking the 30-minute slot and filling it with as much pathos, angst, anger, and sorrow as any hourlong drama. Are we inherently resistant to the type of moralizing in those final moments because of the execution or its very placement within an episode of Taxi itself?
Between the first and second seasons, the show makes a couple changes: upgrading stages at Paramount Studios because of a sound problem, according to Frank Lovece and Jules Franco’s Hailing Taxi: The Official Book of the Show, but also the departure of John Burns (Randall Carver), whom the writers never really fleshed out into a character. Carver told Lovece and Franco, “I found that after the first six, seven episodes my character wasn’t growing. It was in the writing, like they didn’t know what to do with him. They started fine, but that’s as far as it went. He was just there.” He voiced some frustration with the writers over the lack of direction they took:
John was the only character who [was new to] New York, and they should have played that up more. I mean, there are a lot of people from the Midwest who don’t know what it’s like to be in a big city. They should have explored John’s newness to living in New York City.… John fit in, but not really well.
Like John, though, Randall Carver was pretty mild-mannered about the whole thing. He told Lovece and Franco, “I look back, and I think I did some nice stuff in some really difficult situations and circumstances…. That year on Taxi was a great time for me.” But as Taxi grew, it had to trim the fat, as it were. According to the surely reputable IMDb trivia page for Carver, he’s a “real estate investor” in the San Fernando Valley, and once appeared in a “religious docudrama that sometimes turns up on The Trinity Broadcasting Network.”
“Substitute Father” marks the final appearance of Carver, and though he’s barely in it, it fits — he was barely in the show anyway. The episode feels like it fits as a finale in a similar way; no grand gestures, just drunken sulking about the absence of children, followed by a song. Go out on a high note.