But if you really want to rescue the downtrodden, step into the bowels of the Sunshine Cab Co.
From 1978 to 1983, this New York grease pit doubled as purgatory for the cabbies of “Taxi,” a sitcom custom-made for binge watching in these somber times.
At first, the rodent-infested digs may not seem inviting. The only sign of life is a never-ending poker game. The vending machine stocks apples dating back to the Great Depression. The furniture could have been designed in a high school shop class. Its opening theme sounds like something Randy Newman wrote for a funeral.
The characters aren’t any more glamorous. Boxer Tony Banta spends far too much time on the mat. Aspiring actor Bobby Wheeler can’t even land a commercial. Dispatcher Louie De Palma is so morally corrupt, it’s a wonder he’s not on the city council.
Some of the most memorable episodes can trigger “This Is Us”-sized tears. I get goose bumps thinking about when driver Elaine Nardo has one last dance with the love of her life before he returns to his monastery, or when De Palma shares the shame he feels shopping for suits in the husky boys’ department.
The show’s creators had experimented with introducing melodrama to the sitcom format in the early ’70s. James L. Brooks and Stan Daniels came from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” David Davis co-created “The Bob Newhart Show.”
But “Taxi” dared to be more downbeat than any other network sitcom not set in Korea. The writers knew they could simultaneously pull at the heartstrings and the funny bone, as long as they had the right cast.
Boy, did they. Danny DeVito shows De Palma’s tender side just enough to let you know he’s got a heart, even if it’s beating under eight layers of sewage. Christopher Lloyd could have gotten away with making the spaced-out Jim Ignatowski a walking pharmacy. But with the subtlest of touches — a heavy sigh, a longing stare — Lloyd keeps reminding you that drugs haven’t completely snuffed the reverend’s inner light.
Much is made of Andy Kaufman’s role as Latka Gravas, a wide-eyed mechanic from a made-up country with bizarre rituals. At one point, he starts adapting multiple personalities. For me, the character was an awkward fit — like dropping Elmo into “Tiger King” — but it’s still a kick to watch Kaufman wedge his performance art into a prime-time network show. And without Gravas, there wouldn’t be Simka, his no-nonsense wife played by the magical Carol Kane. No one throws a fit with more spit and sizzle.
The show also gave some of today’s biggest stars an early chance to shine. A new kid named Tom Hanks steals one episode as an overdosed college student who has spent way too much time studying his lava lamp.
The show falls short in other ways, most notably its lack of diversity. You may grimace at the episode in which three white male regulars grouse about being discriminated against.
Please forgive them. If the constantly mistreated cabbies can give De Palma a hug, you can, too. Just make sure he doesn’t pick your pocket in the process.