The fifth and final season of Taxi came out on DVD a couple of weeks ago, and the good news is that although the fourth season DVD was brutally cut (completely ruining an episode based around Billy Joel’s song “Vienna Waits”), the new set eases up a bit. One musical sequence appears to have been cut, but two important musical scenes are intact: a musical number to Irving Berlin’s “Cheek To Cheek” from an episode called “Elaine and the Monk” (where Elaine… falls in love with a monk. It’s a good episode, but they were really stretching for ideas by this time), and a Stevie Wonder sequence at the end of the episode “Jim’s Inheritance.” The latter scene, where Jim gets a tape as the last gift from his dead father — along with several million dollars — is a good example of how to use pop music in a TV episode: the choice of music says something about the character, something unexpected about his father, provides a sense of resolution to their relationship, and allows another downbeat episode to have a moderately hopeful ending.
It’s also fun to look through the final two seasons of Taxi and see how much other shows have borrowed from it; because creator James L. Brooks and writer-producer Sam Simon went on to do The Simpsons, while Cheers was created by producers Glen and Les Charles and director James Burrows (their absence was a reason why the fifth season of Taxi is a little weak overall), the show’s DNA is all over almost every “smart” comedy produced from the mid-’80s onward.
The other interesting thing about the ’70s/’80s type of sitcom is how many bittersweet or outright sad moments there were. (One late episode of Taxi ends with Alex crying; no jokes, no message, just tears.) I’ve gone over this before, but because most TV drama wasn’t very serious or character-based up through the early ’80s, the genuinely dramatic moments tended to occur on half-hour comedies. As one-hour drama has become more dramatic, the pressure has increased on comedies to provide a contrast by being funny all the way through, but that’s one reason why you don’t always get the wild mix of styles and shifts of mood that you might get on even a lesser ’80s sitcom.