70. "Reverend Jim, A Space Odyssey," Taxi (1979)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
"Reverend Jim, A Space Odyssey" is a slightly overrated episode of a somewhat underrated (or forgotten) sitcom. Taxi is a favorite of TV critics, but its ratings on user-driven sites like imdb.com are pretty lousy. One reason is surely that it's a very theatrical sitcom, and TV comedies since then have become more cinematic. But as I've already pointed out, Taxi differs even from most 1970s multicamera sitcoms in its reliance on guest stars. I don't mean stunt casting, like Brad Pitt on Friends or Britney Spiers on How I Met Your Mother, but episodes that revolve completely around a character who never appears again.
Technically, "Reverend Jim" revolves around a newcomer to the regular cast, not a guest star, but if Christopher Lloyd had declined to join the show, this episode could have run without any changes and not look out of place. It was one of several episodes in which the cabbies show some kindness to an outsider who seems adrift — such a failed politician (played by Jeffrey Tambor) in "Elaine and the Lame Duck," or an overweight woman with poor self-esteem in the show's third airing, "Blind Date." I almost picked "Fledgling," with Paul Sand as an agoraphobic artist, for this list, but "Reverend Jim" is undeniably the more memorable episode, thanks to Lloyd's performance and the legendary "What does a yellow light mean?" scene.
Bobby: (helping Jim to fill out a driver's license application) Mental illness or narcotic addiction?
Jim: Now that's a tough choice...
Not only is the drug-addled, free-wheeling Jim a funny character, but he's an endless opportunity for double takes from the other characters, since they never seem to know whether to pity the guy, get angry, or envy him. When the cabbies run into him at a bar (having met him once before, in "Paper Marriage"), they hesitantly try to steer him in the right direction.
Tony: (irritated by Jim's reminscing about the 1960s) You know the only reason guys like you got to stay home, protest, and get loaded is because guys like me were over in Nam doing your fighting for you! What do you say to that?
Jim: Thank you!
Tony: (unable to think of anything else to say) You're welcome.
Reverend Jim is something of a forerunner to "hipster doofus" Kramer, as I wrote in my Typology of Stupid Sitcom Characters, but of course Taxi is a much warmer show than Seinfeld. In contrast to cab driver Tony's befuddled acceptance of Jim, I can imagine George Costanza assaulting the pothead with something like his "You know, we're living in a society!" outburst in "The Chinese Restaurant."
Not only is Taxi a counterpoint to Seinfeld, it's an opposite to The Andy Griffith Show in its insistence that human decency is not limited to small-town America but can be found in fast-paced cities like New York (even if you have to put up with a lot of Louie DePalmas to find it). Taxi operates on the principle that a random meeting in, say, a bar can turn one's life around. That's a very optimistic thought for lonely or shy people (I can testify). And it's why so many introverts, perversely, choose to live in big cities with lots of forced interaction with other people. But there will be more on this topic the Top 100 list continues...
Jim: Hey, everything I take is by doctor's prescription! Everything! (thinks) Though finding the right doctor can be difficult.
• The website This Was Television discusses "Reverend Jim, A Space Odyssey" in this roundtable. Les Chappell comments:
I think this is the funniest of the episodes we’ve seen so far and certainly one of my favorites, but it’s also an episode that seems somewhat lacking in the pathos we’ve had in earlier weeks. Most all of Taxi we’ve seen so far has a definite undercurrent of melancholy, that these people are damaged sorts getting by the best they can, but in all instances there’s a sense that they know this. By contrast, Jim doesn’t seem particularly bothered by his state of affairs, and the cabbies don’t feel as committed or invested in his struggles as they’ve been before—Tony’s openly disparaging of his chances to pass the test.
• Also see "Louie Goes Too Far" at No. 41.