Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
Consider the establishing shot: so brief, so functional, so artless. Want to indicate quickly and visually that your story has moved to Paris? Nothing like a quick shot of the Eiffel Tower to the set the scene. (And if you want to make extra-sure that no one in the audience misses the point, why not a little caption that reads “Paris”?) I know some people can’t stand establishing shots, and think they’re lazy and pointless. They’re probably right. But I was raised on TV sitcoms, which turned those kinds of shots into a signature. Even if all a show’s producers were trying to do was to ease the transition between scenes, the little five-second pans across the exterior of the WJM offices or up the outside of Bob and Emily Hartley’s Chicago apartment building—nearly always set to a wistful, jazzy score—established not just the setting, but the sensibility. Those shots invited viewers in, beckoning with their motion and their cheery saxophones. If I have any control at all over my afterlife, I’d choose to spend eternity inside a Mary Tyler Moore Show establishing shot.
The sitcom Taxi had one of the greatest establishing shots in TV history, in its opening credits no less. Created by former Mary Tyler Moore Show writer/producers James L. Brooks, Stan Daniels, David Davis, and Ed. Weinberger, Taxi debuted in 1978, just as television audiences were largely abandoning urban workplace comedies for the jiggle-heavy fantasies of the fabulous wealthy. But the show still found a devoted audience who appreciated the low-key way Taxi built stories out of the money troubles and offbeat passengers of a small group of New York City cabbies, all while dealing more honestly and humorously with the indignity of a service economy than any American sitcom of its era. A personable cast carried the creators’ vision of a New York full of false hope, made tolerable by a network of friends. And then there was that Bob James theme song, “Angela,” so pretty and forlorn, playing over an endless, subtly looped shot of a cab crossing a bridge and never getting anywhere. It’s the whole mood and meaning of the show, conveyed in less than a minute.
That’s why the fourth-season episode “Vienna Waits” is so unusual. Taxi was rooted in its New York location, and by two fully realized characters: Marilu Henner’s brassy, sensuous, privately insecure single mother Elaine Nardo, and Judd Hirsch’s wry, compassionate working-class intellectual Alex Rieger. In “Vienna Waits,” Elaine walks into the Sunshine Cab Company one night and announces that her ex-husband has arrived unexpectedly and has taken their children off her hands for a few weeks, so she’s planning to take advantage of her kid-free time by jetting off to Europe. She wants Alex to come with her, but even though Alex has long made excuses for his job by saying that he has the freedom to come and go as he pleases, he hesitates. He claims, “The lesson of my life that nothing that sounds that good ever really happens.” But he’s also afraid that if he spends time in a romantic location with his best platonic female friend, they’ll fall into bed together and ruin their friendship. So he declines the invitation, until he hears, “Who didn’t clean the puke out of Cab 415?” over the garage PA. Cut to: an airplane taking off.
The trip goes awry for Alex right from the start. He tries to hit on a nice-looking woman on the plane, but she rejects him, and when he returns to his seat, he finds a handsome dude with a guitar sitting next to Elaine. So it goes throughout the rest of Europe. Alex and Elaine meet every day to write funny postcards to send to their friends back home, but then Elaine invariably leaves on a date with some fabulously wealthy or exciting man, while Alex pretends to have company—“There’s this Julie Christie lookalike I’ve had my eye on,” he says in London—but in fact goes back to his room each night to work on his Rubik’s Cube and weep.
“Vienna Waits” is a fast-paced episode. Both the leads are motormouths, and the action moves from one location to the next after scenes that run just a few minutes, connected by establishing shots. We start with a standard Taxi image of the Sunshine Cab Co. garage exterior (set to snazzy synthesizer music), and then move over the next 20 minutes through stock footage of the UK, Greece, and ultimately Vienna, in a nighttime shot that reflects the opening.
The further Alex moves from New York—and the confines of the garage, where he commands respect—the more uncomfortable and manic he becomes. He worries about everything: the pervasive smell of fish in a Greek bar, his dwindling funds, and his lack of success with the ladies. The three worries come together when Alex waits at that fishy Greek bar to meet a French woman who’s agreed to go out with him, then finds that she’s put off by the surroundings and by Alex’s resistance to her request that they check out a high-class casino. If nothing else, “Vienna Waits” niftily encapsulates the social dynamic of 1981, at least on the dating scene. It’s acceptable for a man like Alex to be on the make, complete with corny pick-up lines; and it’s acceptable for a woman like Elaine to enjoy the company of as many men as she can tolerate. The key difference is that because of Elaine’s gender, she can afford the high life, because she’s not the one paying.
Alex eventually does run out of money in Vienna, where he meets Elaine again in a restaurant as she’s on her way out on another date. She offers to cancel her plans, buy him dinner, and even take him to bed, and while Alex resists for a minute or two, he’s too emotionally drained from his bum Euro-trip to hold out forever. The episode ends with the two old friends “going for a walk”—and then, naturally, with an establishing shot.
Taxi was an ensemble show, but the rest of the cast barely figures in “Vienna Waits.” Vain, luckless actor Bobby Wheeler—played by Jeff Conaway, who’d asked to be reduced to guest star status in the fourth season—doesn’t appear at all. Nor does elfin mechanic Latka Gravas (played by conceptual comedian Andy Kaufman). The other principles appear only briefly in the opening scene: Tony Danza’s kind-hearted, soft-headed ex-boxer Tony Banta; Danny DeVito’s loutish dispatcher Louie De Palma; and Christopher Lloyd’s disengaged acid-casualty Jim Ignatowski. It was a bold move to sideline those more colorful characters in favor of Taxi’s two most grounded. By the early ’80s, TV audiences had largely given up on watching motley losers trade existential quips, so on Taxi, the weirdoes fought with the straights for camera time, and often won. Still, the world of Taxi was so well-built by 1981 that all it took was just a brief glimpse of Tony or Reverend Jim to remind the audience that they were still around, even if the only memorable moment any of them has comes when Louie lasciviously suggests that Elaine should see the Sistine Chapel “the way Michelangelo saw it.”
“Vienna Waits” is still unmistakably a Taxi episode. Listen closely (or even lightly) and you can hear James Brooks’ telltale honking laugh in the background whenever Alex says something funny. And though Alex is quippier and less even-keeled than usual, his humor’s never unrealistically broad. It fits what author Jeff Sorensen wrote about the show in his 1987 appreciation The Taxi Book, that “The characters in Taxi often seem to be caught unawares as they go about their day-to-day lives.” Taxi was based very loosely on a 1976 Mark Jacobson New York magazine article, though Brooks and his co-producers have claimed that they had an idea for a show about cab drivers a few years before Jacobson’s article appeared. Taxi was never high-concept or gimmicky. Much of the comedy on the show worked cumulatively, as the characters delivered lines that were only funny because of what the audience already knew about them.
That works in the favor of “Vienna Waits” in two ways. First off, Taxi fans had spent three years getting to know Alex and Elaine. In an era of sensitive sitcom heroes like M*A*S*H’s Alan Alda, Judd Hirsch played a sweet guy with a deep pragmatic streak, masking an almost criminal lack of ambition. (Sorensen says of the character, “The thought of Alex briskly and confidently striding into a room seems hard to imagine.”) Alex himself says in the show’s first episode that while all the other drivers at Sunshine have big plans for their lives, “I’m the only cab driver in the place.” Meanwhile, prior to taking on the role of Elaine, Marilu Henner had been a bombshell model, appearing in underwear ads. (“People saw a lot of me, but only bit by bit,” Henner says of her early career.) And yet as Elaine, according to Sorensen, “We never get the feeling, as we do with so many young actresses, that she is convinced she’s gorgeous.” The dynamic between the two—confident cynic and self-doubting sexpot—was unlike any other relationship on TV at the time, and throwing them together even for a night was like fulfilling a what-if fantasy for every “pals only” male-female couple who might be watching.
Yet Taxi viewers also knew that whatever happened between Alex and Elaine would be for one episode only, and wouldn’t change the dynamic of the show. Although sitcoms began to take a turn to the realistic in the ’70s, that extended as far as the occasional reference to events from earlier episodes. There were very few “arcs” per se. “Alex and Elaine” was no “Sam and Diane” or “Ross and Rachel.” Outside of the occasional flirtation, there was never any expectation that they’d get together and live happily ever after.
The same could be said of the show as a whole. When asked by Sorensen why Taxi didn’t prepare for a big finale episode in its last season—after it was clear they weren’t going to be renewed—producer Ian Praiser said, “It would have been much too convenient if everybody’s own dream came true in one episode. Even if the cab company had gone broke, the drivers would’ve only gone on to another cab company. And so the story would’ve continued.”
It’s in keeping with the ethos of Taxi that something as significant as its male lead and female lead having sex would be treated as no big deal, and wouldn’t lead to anything in the episodes to come. Life rolls on, unchanging—that’s what Taxi was all about, and to large extent, that was the show’s appeal. All viewers needed was the briefest glimpse of the outside of a New York City garage, and we knew who would be in there, and what they’d be up to.
Note: This episode was named for the Billy Joel song “Vienna,” which Elaine mentions at one point, and which plays briefly—at least in the version that I watched as a kid. All the Billy Joel references and music are missing from the version that’s on DVD, because of rights issues. But I see the title, and I still remember.
Next time on A Very Special Episode: Blue’s Clues, “Occupations”