41. "Louie Goes Too Far," Taxi (1981)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 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 on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
Taxi's Louie De Palma raises the question of whether despicable TV characters are supposed to be consistently despicable throughout a show's run. "Louie Goes Too Far," in which the title character talks about his personal appearance in a most embarrassing way, argues for some flexibility on the issue.
Making the token asshole seem more symphathetic (or "humanizing" him) runs the risk that a series will be accused of selling out. Some viewers were not pleased with the mellowing of Archie Bunker and NYPD Blue's Andy Sipowicz, for example, and the entire run of the just-completed House was accompanied by fans' concerns that the title character would get less misanthropic. Then there are characters like Mary Tyler Moore's Ted Baxter, and both Michael and Dwight on The Office, who seemed to lurch in and out of decency according to plot demands.
Not that consistent assholery has such a good record. M*A*S*H finally had to get rid of Frank Burns because his horribleness was so one-note (and because supposedly good-guy characters were being so sadistic toward him). And I don't think many people are complaining that Parks and Recreation's Ron Swanson did not remain the jerk he was in the pilot episode.
Alex: Why do I feel sorry for that broken toilet of a man?
The role of Louie DePalma got Danny DeVito an Emmy and, somewhat surprisingly, the No. 1 spot on a TV Guide ranking of "Greatest TV Characters Ever" in 1999. In The Taxi Book, author Jeff Sorensen comes down firmly on one side of the "Is Louie redeemable?" question, criticizing a episode in which Louie shows some kindness toward Jim: "the writers forgot that the whole secret of Louie's character is that, underneath his tough exterior, Louie most definitely does not have a heart of gold."
So why would I pick "Louie Goes Too Far," the episode where he, for a few moments, is at his most sympathetic?
One thing that distinguishes Louie from other TV assholes like Frank Burns is that you can always see a likely reason for his obnoxious personality: his physical appearance. He's short, balding, and overweight (he must dream of being as attractive as George Costanza), and he's obviously had to deal with people mocking or ignoring him for all of his life. Worst of all, he just looks like someone who's going to say something nasty, so people undoubtedly have a negative reaction before he even opens his mouth. (It's related to the theory of self-fulfilling prophecies, which Lou Grant helpfully explains to Mary Richards in this clip, starting at around 3:10.)
Elaine: (shaken) There's this small hole above the sink in the bathroom. You know, just large enough to poke my finger through? And I know this sounds crazy, but I though I saw an eye behind it. Looking at me.
Alex: Nah. Come on, it's probably your imagination. Or a rat.
Elaine: (thinks a moment) Where is Louie?
"Louie Goes Too Far" begins with the rat in question justifying everyone's bad impression of him, first spying on Elaine as she changes clothes in the bathroom, then showing no remorse even when she threatens legal action. ("Fair enough," he tells the women's advocate helping Elaine to seek punishment. "Might I suggest a spanking?") After he's fired, however, he falls apart. Almost the entire second half of this episode is set in Elaine's apartment, as he desperately asks her to drop her complaint. "I can't leave here without my job!" he croaks in his Tasmanian Devil voice, before he has a panic attack and faints.
The great thing about this scene is that acting like a decent human being merges perfectly with Louie's self-interest. Is he faking the panic attack? It really doesn't matter. Elaine's price for giving his job back is for him to show some humility and empathy for other people, and she knows him too well to be fooled by fake sincerity. He stumbles for the answer awhile ("I was treating you like a sexual object," he kind of apologizes, "like something without a head or nothing!") before finally putting himself in Elaine's shoes and convincing her that he knows how it feels to be humiliated. It happens, he says, every time he has shop for clothes in the boys' department.
Then Elaine hugs Louie, and he reaches up to grab her ass. It's not a complete reset — I think Elaine's perception of Louie is permanently altered by his story — but we're reassured that he hasn't turned into Alan Alda.
• The B story, in which Latka's smarmy alter ego teaches Jim how to jazzercize, is a good argument against B stories on sitcoms. Mercifully, it vanishes after the first half of the episode.
• The script is by Danny Kallis, who went on to produce or co-produce a slew of family-friendly comedies, including The Suite Life of Zack and Cody (thanks to Jamie Weinman for pointing this out). In The Taxi Book, Jeff Sorenson writes that Louie's speech about shopping in the boys' department was based on Danny DeVito's real-life experiences.