Why is everyone here just a little angry?" asks the newly arrived woman cab driver. It's a good question for a perplexing yet enormously promising new series - "Taxi," a comedy of malaise for an age of the blahs.
Certainly it isn't every day one comes across a funny new TV series with allegorical overtomes and a purgatorial setting. But these are unmistakable elements of the new ABC comedy which premieres tonight on Channel 7.
The four men who "created" the series, wrote the first episode and serve as executive producer - James L. Brooks, Stan Daniels, David Davis and Ed Weinberger - are emigres from the MTM comedy factory who moved to Paramount. With their kind of background and cumulative acumen, it's obvious that "Taxi" is not going to be back work.
Indeed, the quality of dialogue on the premiere is particularly good - not just rapid-fire gags or exchanges of insults, but lines that delineate characters and states of mind. It's the program's state of mind that seems most unusual, tending as it does toward the wistful, the plaintive and the downright melancholy.
Most of the action takes place in the garage where a group of New York taxi drivers await calls and dream of upward mobility, American-style. The garage is literally and symbolically a way station, a place out of which all the cabbies keep telling themselves they are soon to get - like the Korean War in "M*A*S*H," though this program is a lot subtler than that one.
In essence, the garage is Harry Hope's Bar, and each week one or more characters will fail to escape from it, try as they may. "Taxi" is about the essential hilarity of failure.
Unfortunately, the focus of the opener is on the "Iceman" figure - the one career cabbie in the joint - played by the insufferably inexpressive and uninteresting Judd Hirsch, who gets, incredibly, top billing on this program, apparently because he has two flop series behind him. Flops are very bankable in television.
The script has Alex Rieger, the Hirsch character, suffering belated guilt pangs over abandoning his young daughter when he divorced his wife 15 years earlier, so he hops in a cab - fairly easy under the circumstances - and drives to Miami to have a quick conversation with the girl at the airport, where she is between planes. This is an awkwardly contrived tale, an odd way to introduce a new series full of resident outcasts, and patently unconvincing as played in a blank funk by Hirsch.
However, those resident outcasts, daydreamers and members of the garage's mutual consolation society are obviously capable of generating rich comic interaction in stories to come, and the program has been cast with a stroke or two of brilliance.
Though short, fat, and confined largely to a wire cage, Danny De Vito makes a gigantic impression as the cab company dispatcher "Louis De Palma"; Marilu Henner dodges what would seem inevitable cliches as the sole, and naturally liberated, woman in the garage; Jeff Conaway will be a valuable contributor if he steers clear of the TV punk mannerisms evident on the premiere; and former boxer Tony Danza, as Tony Banta, could easily evolve into a male sex symbol of Travolta-Winkler proportion. He may also do for solid color T-shirts what Clark Gable did for no T-shirts at all, and the masculinity he projects is refreshingly affirmative and free of dumb-chic imbecility.
As good as these actors are, the show would still have a joyless air if not for Andy Kaufman as a semi-lingual immigrant mechanic named Latka Graves. Kaufman doesn't enter until Act Two of the premiere, and he's doing basically the same act - playing the achingly vulnerable living malaprop - that he perfected on NBC's "Saturday Night Live." But he has been beautifully integrated into the program an provides high-comedy punctuation just when it is needed.
At times "Taxi" stoops to the sentimental, and there's no trick to that. But at others it has the old-fashioned qualities of a well-made play, which for a sit-com is a step forward of the sort that Norman Lear took seven years ago with "All in the Family." Like that show, this new series goes against the prevailing comic grains of its time, especially the forces of harsh farce that now dominate ABC. And so it becomes more than a good, substantial comedy show; "Taxi" is also an unusually moving vehicle.