Hack Job

HBO’s Taxicab Confessions takes viewers for a ride.

On the rare occasion when I pry open my wallet and spring for a New York taxicab, the ride usually takes place in silence, whether because of language differences between rider and cabbie, or just a mutual desire for a moment of quiet in an always-noisy town. But to watch the eleventh installment of the ongoing HBO documentary Taxicab Confessions (Saturday, Feb. 5 at 10:15 P.M. ET), you’d think every cab whizzing by was jampacked with hot young couples and even hotter drivers trading raunchy anecdotes. And I mean really raunchy: a post-op transsexual describes the precise shape and color of her new, um, womanly endowment. A drunk Irish tourist grows nostalgic about the 36 double-Ds of a favorite stripper. A scruffy party girl gives her new love some (offscreen) oral service, then suddenly stops to sulk about her erotic rival:  “But what about Astro?” “What about Astro?” her boyfriend dazedly replies.

The format of Taxicab Confessions, dreamed up in 1995 by brothers Joe and Harry Gantz, is tantalizingly simple: affix a tiny hidden camera to the roof of a car for hire, pick up the oddest assortment of passengers you can find, and edit the results down to a fifty-minute, R-rated version of Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth. This show has developed a cult following over its decade of existence, with the last six installments filmed in Las Vegas. Saturday’s Taxicab Confessions is the first one made in New York since the city’s de-sleaze-ification by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and there’s a visible overcompensation at work, an attempt to drum up a spirit of nocturnal debauchery in a town that’s become more Friends than Taxi Driver. The cabbies drive around a New York City whose only geographical features are flashing neon signs (“Girls! Girls! Girls!”) and avant-garde strip clubs (oh, that bar where a near-naked Asian woman swims around in a giant fishtank? Nice place, right next to my tailor’s.)

The viral spread of reality TV has suspended this kind of vaguely titillating exercise in a strange grey zone, somewhere between cinema verite and plain old-fashioned porn. Grab a cab to your local video store, where you can find much better examples of both. … 10:24 a.m.

Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2005

Because of an unforeseen snafu with my TiVo® brand digital video recorder, I only just now got a chance to watch Conan O’Brien’s eulogy to Carson on Late Night last night. When I discovered it hadn’t taped, I went to NBC studios in Rockefeller Center and begged them to give me a copy of the broadcast, and boy, was it worth it. Despite, or perhaps because of, its touching awkwardness, Conan’s 12-minute tribute provided a telling glimpse into the generational gulf that separates boomers Letterman and Leno (born in 1947 and 1950, respectively) from slacker Conan (born in 1963), and the past from the future of late-night TV. Conan’s reminiscences of Carson were not, like Letterman’s or Leno’s, memories of professional comradeship and support; they were snapshots of a young comic’s brief, fleeting encounters with a distant, if benevolent, celebrity.

Visibly consulting his notes, the usually goofy Conan (for some reason, Conan is one of those celebrities you always think of by his first name—why is that?) grew quiet as he told a few anecdotes about his own encounters with Carson over the years, delivered in a shaky voice that at times seemed near breaking. One story involved a young Conan, as a writer on The Simpsons, being so awed when Johnny Carson dropped by to do a guest voiceover that he accidentally gave his hero the wrong directions out of the Fox parking lot. Another story described a birthday party for NBC chief Bob Wright at which Conan, then a fledgling talk-show host, was asked to drop by and “be funny” for a few minutes, only to be told that his standup act would be followed by an appearance by—gulp—Johnny Carson. Somehow Conan muddled through his bit, and later Carson gave him an invaluable piece of professional advice: “Be yourself. That’s the only way it can work.”

Conan ended by recounting a phone call he made to Carson last October, after he had just been named as Jay Leno’s eventual successor on the Tonight Show. He spoke of how “electrifying” it was, at the age of 41, to be called “kiddo” on the phone by the likes of Johnny Carson. Conan may still need some polishing around the edges, but you can tell a lot about people from the way they mourn, and based on the gentle gravity that he brought to the desk last night, his assumption of the Tonight Show post in 2009 may finally make that show worth watching again. … 1:20 p.m.

Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2005

NBC announced today that Medium, the network’s month-old midseason replacement drama about a crime-solving psychic, will be picked up for a second season (because of the show’s unexpectedly high ratings, there will also be an additional three episodes added to this season’s original 13).

I’m sure a lot of people are tuning into Medium (Mondays, 10 p.m. ET) because of the subject matter: The luscious Patricia Arquette is Allison DuBois, a character based on a real-life psychic who joins forces with the Phoenix, Ariz., police department to enlist the help of the dead in solving their own murders. Psychics are very hot right now (and Patricia Arquette always has been). But take it from a hard-boiled skeptic who can’t stand the whole woo-woo, paranormal, I-see-dead-people trend in pop culture: Even if you have no truck with unexplained phenomena, Medium is a really good show.

It takes a couple of viewings to understand what sets Medium apart from the paranormal herd: This is not really a show about extrasensory perception. Well, it is, but only in the sense that The Mary Tyler Moore Show was about producing the news. Being a police psychic is Allison’s job, a career she’s just beginning after an unspecified number of years as a stay-at-home mom to three daughters, and the show’s major conflict so far has been, not “Whodunit?”, but “I don’t know how she does it!” Medium is only superficially about using your dream life to track down criminals; really, it’s about the female struggle to have a home life while being taken seriously at work.

Of course, being taken seriously by your colleagues is all the tougher when they’re male homicide cops and you’re a cute blond housewife with no qualifications except for really, really good woman’s intuition. Allison’s not a sassy, self-assured psychic type, all crystal earrings and flowing robes—she seems almost embarrassed by her powers, which she’s only recently begun to harness and understand. But as the series progresses, she’s learning to take her natural talents seriously and parlay them into a successful, if offbeat, career. The first episode after the pilot was about Allison’s legitimacy crisis—after making a mistaken prediction at work, she began to doubt her powers, pestering her husband Joe (Jake Weber) with the question, “Am I just a fraud?” What made the question even more interesting: He didn’t immediately answer “No.”

Joe, Allison’s goofy rocket-scientist spouse, is the refreshingly polar opposite of most TV husbands, especially those on hourlong dramas aimed at women. You know the type: They always have to look like Mark Harmon, emasculated Ken dolls in neatly pressed chinos, and they have to be unwaveringly, boringly supportive at all times. Not Joe. He’s a lanky, shambling geek who looks and sounds a lot like early Barry Manilow and squabbles constantly with his headstrong wife about sex and childcare. Though Joe is impressed by his wife’s ability to divine what he’s thinking before he says it, he’s ambivalent, at times even sarcastic, about her new, high-powered job. He’s also not above being socially embarrassed when the question of what she does comes up at cocktail parties. I love me some Joe, and Weber’s fine interpretation of the character has inspired me to look up some of his earlier work in U-571 and last year’s Dawn of the Dead. Though the crime-centered plots of Medium move along briskly enough, what keeps me watching are the domestic subplots. Allison and Joe are unusual characters to come across on TV, precisely because they resemble people you might actually know.

An open memo to Medium’s writing team: Stay strong. Don’t let the good ratings go to your head; resist the temptation to turn Medium into a slick crime franchise or a hocus-pocus “psychic”-themed show. Keep the focus on Allison’s inner struggles, not the serial killer of the week. And please, please do not put Joe (mmm  … Joe) through the Mark Harmon-ization machine. … 2:22 p.m.

On last night’s Late Show, the first since Johnny Carson’s death, David Letterman pulled out all the stops. His guests: Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen and executive producer Peter Lassally. There was also a clip reel of several of Dave’s appearances on Johnny’s show, and vice versa. But the sweetest part was that every single joke in Dave’s opening monologue  was one that had been written by Carson and mailed to him over the past few months (a fact Letterman didn’t reveal till after the routine was over). Some of the gags were a little tired (“There are two things visible from space … the Great Wall of China and Donald Trump’s hair”), but at least one got a big laugh, about George Bush protesting something by chucking his “National Guard Spotty Attendance ribbon” onto the Capitol steps. After his standup routine, the constitutionally sarcastic Letterman embarked on an unusually lengthy, unscripted, and entirely sincere remembrance of Carson as “the guy you wanted to come home to” through Vietnam, Watergate, and the first Gulf War. “What a tremendous luxury, if you think about it,” he marveled, with great warmth and not a trace of Lettermanian sourness or Leno-esque showbiz piety, “to be tucked in bed at night by Johnny Carson.”

A few readers have written in saying, enough with the Carson nostalgia already, on to the next TV meme. Right. As Hamlet said of his father, “O heavens! Die two months ago, and not forgotten yet?” Johnny Carson died less than two weeks ago, and I fully intend to tune in to Late Night with Conan O’Brien tonight (the first new show since Carson’s death) and see how the man next in line for the crown remembers the king. … 7:42 a.m.