After falling for his first non-“professional” girlfriend, Zena (Rhea Perlman), Sunshine Cab Company’s acerbic dispatcher, Louie (Danny De Vito), attempts to break off the burgeoning relationship by convincing her he’s back with his ex — Donna Summer. “We had a spat before I met you,” he says, “She’s always shaking it in front of other guys, and I told her, ‘I don’t want you moaning on records anymore!'” Zena, confident and smart, rejects the fantasy and confesses that she’s nuts about him. He’s just gotta deal with it.
And so Louie is suddenly a sensitive guy. It’s a typically funny and revealing moment in Taxi‘s second season, just out on an extras-free DVD. Already well-known for its sympathetic, credibly quirky characters, the series — winner of five Emmys and three Golden Globes during its run — here provides new challenges for Louie, Alex (Judd Hirsch), Elaine (Marilu Henner), Bobby (Jeff Conaway), Tony (Tony Danza), Latka (Andy Kaufman), and the latest regular cast addition, Reverend Jim (Christopher Lloyd).
Despite its comedic stylings, Taxi‘s real forte is drama. For every episode about bad dates and dueling cab drivers, there’s one about Elaine managing two jobs and a family, or Alex confronting the father he’s not seen in 30 years. This last doesn’t go quite as planned. Visiting his ailing father in the hospital, Alex prepares to tear the man down for being so lousy (he cheated on Alex’s mother, among other things), but ends up breaking down and confessing how much he needs his dad. Only the guy he’s confessing to is not his dad, who has been in the bathroom the whole time. It’s an obvious gag, but Alex’s reaction is surprising. Just as we prepare for the possibility of a happy, sappy sitcom ending, Alex walks out of the hospital room, realizing that on seeing his dad after so long, he still has nothing to say to him. In a few short moments, Alex’s rock-like demeanor crumbles and is also restored. His status as the company’s center, the guy to whom everyone brings even the smallest of problems, is now altered ever so slightly.
The other cabbies at the Sunshine Cab Co. rarely hesitate when looking for comforting shoulders, and if Alex isn’t around, they usually turn to Elaine. This season, though, Elaine exposes that, while she loves helping her friends, like Alex, her feisty demeanor also has chinks. Though her struggle as a single mother working two jobs (she works days at an art gallery) was established in season one, now it becomes a focus. In “Elaine Loses Her Marbles,” she reveals she’s not handling her many duties as well as she pretends. After she loses her cool at a gallery reception, Alex suggests Elaine visit a psychiatrist. And soon, we see a new side of Elaine, who confides to the doctor:
I’ll admit sometimes I feel like getting in my cab and driving and driving and driving and going some place where nobody knows me, and nobody wants anything from me. ‘Cause I just get so tired of being a grown up, you know?
It’s a discomfiting moment for Elaine, but more so for the viewer who is reminded of the very “real” hardships behind the laughs.
Elaine is also at the center of this season’s best episode, “Elaine’s Secret Admirer.” The happy recipient of a love poem from an unknown admirer, she rebuffs her colleagues’ jokes by quoting a line in the poem, “You [guys] finally got it through my thick skull that there aren’t going be any ‘castles in my life’.” When she learns that Jim wrote the note, Elaine is horrified, asserting that she’s “never been so embarrassed.” But at what is unclear — thinking someone else wrote the poem? Or finding herself so enamored of something “crazy Jim” composed? When Jim starts building that castle she so desires in her living room, out of the metal casing from his van, she rejects him. And yet he gets her — he knows what we know: “You’re the sweetest, most wonderful person,” she tells him as she’s pushing him out the door, metallic castle shimmering behind her. “Funny,” he responds, “there used to be a time when that was enough.”
Bobby is similarly developed in “Wherefore Art Thou, Bobby?” When an amateur actor (Steve, played by Michael Horton) he has taken under his wing wins the lead role in an Off Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet, a jealous Bobby decides to quit acting (“Making it as an actor,” he tells Alex, “is nothing but a bunch of luck”). Alex, though, knows he doesn’t mean it and in an effort to reaffirm in Bobby his love for acting, convinces Steve to run lines with him, leading to an incredible three-minute sequence as Bobby and Steve perform a section of the play for the cabbies. Suddenly, there’s a reason the slightly dim Bobby believes so strongly in himself as actor — he’s good (Conaway, incidentally, is phenomenal here). And the audience — who’d previously only seen him in commercials and a crappy soap opera — has reason to believe in him, too.
The emotional levels reached throughout this season are fascinating, not only in Alex, Elaine, Jim, and Bobby, and also Latka, who must decide if he can be with a woman his family dislikes, and Tony, who gives up his bachelorhood to care for an orphaned child (played by Danza’s own son, Marc Anthony Danza). The show’s second season continues to confront its own stereotypes and rethink basic sitcom structure to deliver disarming drama alongside its comedy.