Taxi: The Complete Second Season

Returning to a Reagan-era sitcom after a diet of current television is like watching a Mack Sennett two-reeler after seeing Deep Throat — the standards and attitudes are so antithetical that you can't believe that they exist in the same medium. Such is the case with Taxi, a "quality" program in its day that seems homey and innocuous by today's permissive standards; though it's a fairly solid cast and a smattering of good lines, it's so tied up in the straitjacket of its '80s format that it can't hit the high notes f its talented personnel are constantly reaching for. The show's bedrock character is Alex Rieger (Judd Hirsch), an affable 40-ish driver for the Sunshine Cab Company, and his sensible presence provides the planet around which the rest of the cabbies revolve — on the inner circle is relatively normal Elaine (Marilu Henner), who serves as moral reinforcement for the rest of the cast; out-of-work actor Bobby (Jeff Conaway) and second-rate boxer Tony (Tony Danza) provide lovable loser action, and "outrageous" antagonism arrives in the form of boss Louie DePalma (Danny DeVito), whose derision is as contemptuous as it is toothless and soft. The centre of Alex holds and nothing flies off — the show is so afraid of becoming wild that it pulls back into a comfortable but rigid structure. Some of the repression returns in the form of Andy Kaufman's Latka, a caricature/"foreign" mechanic who frequently lapses into a gibberish native tongue, and Christopher Lloyd's Rev. Jim, a disoriented acid casualty who makes whacko connections (and is consequently the best thing about the show). But these are character bits — they're trotted out for flavour and discarded when they threaten to dominate, when really they deserve separate shows of their own. There's craft to the enterprise, as it makes its look-alike episodes "warm" and "human," and to be fair the writing is about as good as one can expect in the confines of an unforgiving template. But the paranoid "let's not offend anyone" attitude makes the difference between reasonably sensitive fluff and smashing comedy that kills. No great farce was ever this polite and no great wit was ever this deferential to convention. Those who remember it from their childhoods might find it the sort of thing they'll like, but new viewers weaned on Seinfeld and The Simpsons will be left completely out in the cold. (Paramount)