In HitFix's new feature 'Waxing Episodic,' we reflect on an episode of television we'll never forget.
Before he ever played Doc Brown, I was a raving Christopher Lloyd fan.
We all have shows we love unreservedly. There are many TV shows that are important to me for many reasons. Many of my favorite shows are from recent years as television has hit a certain kind of stride, but the only reason we are where we are with television now is because of series that have pushed things forward in the past. There are shows that I love for single elements or single performances or even single moments.
With “Taxi,” though, I love the entire thing. Top to bottom, start to finish, I think it's one of the greatest shows to ever appear on television, and even trying to explain all the things I love about it would be a Herculean undertaking. So maybe it's better that I focus on just one episode of the series, one that sums up so much of what I love, and one that came surprisingly late in the run of the series.
It was their second-to-last episode before the show went off the air in 1983, and by that point, Reverend Jim Ignitowski had become a major part of the show. When Lloyd first showed up, he was an occasional supporting character, and what I immediately loved about him was the contrast his childlike innocence and openness and the overt counterculture stuff like his non-stop drug use. In some ways, he posed a problem for the writers as he became more popular since he and Latka Gravas (played by the late great Andy Kaufman) both served similar storytelling functions. They were each the innocent, the naive, the sweet amidst an ensemble of fairly different types. But the comic opportunities with Jim were so rich and Lloyd was so good that they couldn't resist.
Here's an example of one of the best early uses of Jim on the show, a comedy scene as meticulously built as Abbott and Costello's “Who's On First?” routine.
As the show wore on, Jim inherited money from his dead father, Latka got married, and many other changes were made to the core ensemble. They even switched networks for their final year. Lots of sitcoms, especially in the '70s, would limp into the home stretch with casts that barely resembled the casts they began with, but it felt to me like “Taxi” went down fighting. They were still turning out very good work and they managed to keep most of the cast in place. By that point, they knew the characters so well that they could build episodes where a simple set-up then just allowed them to respond in form. That was the pleasure of it by that point, and “A Grand Gesture” gave ample room for that.
By this point, Jim was rich from his inheritance. As the episode opens, there's a bum (Tracey Walters) in the garage looking for handouts, and Louie (Danny De Vito) tries to chase him off. Jim stops the guy, though, and gives him $1000 cash. Walters is deeply moved by the gesture and leaves, and Alex (Judd Hirsch) goes nuts at Jim. He tells Jim that he can't give his money away, and threatens to call the lawyer who represents his father's estate to try to cut Jim off to keep him from hurting himself.
Jim explains that when he gives cash away, it's an entirely selfish thing. He does it because of how it makes him feel when he sees that joy. Alex is unconvinced, but Jim makes him a deal: he'll give each of them $1000 to give away, and if they aren't convinced by the experience, he'll stop doing it forever. For me, the thing that pushes this particular episode over the top is the scene where we see how Tony (Tony Danza) chooses to give away his $1000, and a big part of that is because of the performance by guest star Scatman Crothers.
Scatman Crothers is one of those guys who never played a false note. He simply was, every single time he appeared in anything. You never caught him acting. He never pushed too hard. He just lived in the moment, perfect and real, and somehow, more than almost any other actor I can name, he knew how to play a scene just right to really emotionally destroy the audience. In the episode, he's an old friend of Tony's, a guy who lives alone and who spends a lot of time watching TV. In the conversation they have when Tony shows up, it's clear that TV matters to him. It's the way he connects to the world, and he does it through this tiny black-and-white set.
When Tony points out to him how bad “Gunsmoke” looks on the TV, Scatman asks, “What did I ever do to you?” And I love that Crothers isn't playing for the laugh. He's playing it real. He's an old man who doesn't have tons of money, and here's this guy poking at one of the few things that gives him pleasure. When Tony reveals this big beautiful new color television and sets up, Crothers is so beautiful, so real in his reaction, and I think when he finally speaks, it is impossible to not feel something. Listen when he tries to tell Tony what it means to him. Crothers is so raw in that moment that's it more of a sound than any specific words, and it tears my heart out every single time I see it.
I watched “Taxi,” and I keep rewatching it, because of the way it could mix humor and heart, sometimes making you laugh even as you're wiping tears away.