A man gets into a taxicab. Or a woman gets into a taxicab. Or a man and a woman, or a man and two women get into a taxicab. The cab pulls away, the driver says something like, "So how are you doing tonight?" and a conversation starts.
Apart from the odd sex act, that's pretty much all there is to "Taxicab Confessions," the Emmy-winning HBO hidden-camera documentary series, which returns to TV tonight. It is only the 11th episode since its debut in 1995 (two more follow over the course of the coming year), which is not very many in TV terms, but a lot as compared with, say, "Star Wars" movies. And it has made its mark, having been parodied on "Saturday Night Live" and "The Simpsons," two clear signs of cultural penetration.
Notwithstanding the simplicity of its premise, and the lurid promise of its title, "Taxicab Confessions" is a serious show, unexpectedly deep and poetic and moving. Its appeal may be voyeuristic -- "It seems like it's going to be, you know, an 'HBO cha cha' show," says Sheila Nevins, who shepherds the network's documentary division and helped develop the series, but its heart is pure, its overriding theme the search for love.
Produced by brothers Joe and Harry Gantz, the series recalls Walker Evans's surreptitious subway portraits of 1938 to 1941, in which the photographer strove to be an invisible, neutral recorder. It's not that the series takes no point of view; obviously it takes the point of view that these are stories worth telling, and in so doing automatically lends them dignity, where many reality shows seek mainly to strip dignity away.
"Taxicab Confessions" reserves judgment, and in giving undoctored airtime to an array of characters, apparently mainstream or deceptively marginal -- people whom TV would normally either ignore or exploit -- it reminds the viewer that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy. It is possibly the most spiritual and the most sensual show on television.
Save for a sequence in which a woman talks about her experiences on 9/11 and its effect on her firefighter ex-boyfriend, tonight's edition is fairly upbeat and comical: A couple of Irishmen discuss their misadventures during a blackout; a young man relates how his girlfriend would take calls from her mother while they were having sex; a mother, daughter, and son-in-law compare and contrast their courting; a young man expresses his love for his transsexual girlfriend, who muses ruefully on female limits.
"There's something about a cab, in which you either get in off the cold streets into a warm cab or off the warm streets into a cool cab, and the only eye contact is through the rearview mirror, and you have a friendly driver, and if that driver provides an open ear, and you have a story to tell, it's amazing how people will tell that story," Harry Gantz says.
The new edition returns the show to New York City, its original location. The Gantzes shot for several years in Las Vegas because the New York Taxi & Limousine Commission under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani "didn't like our show; they thought it was too R-rated, or too hard-R-rated. And under the guise that it wasn't safe -- whatever that meant -- we couldn't get a permit to shoot." (They chose Vegas as an alternative in part because Nevada, like New York, is a "one-party consent state" -- legally, only the driver has to know the conversation is being recorded, though for it to be aired requires everyone's knowledge and consent.)
When a new mayor and a new taxi commissioner took office, the city let them return.
'JAG' star Elliott leaving CBS drama
"JAG" star David James Elliott will leave the CBS military courtroom drama at the end of the season, and will develop projects at ABC. For the past 10 years, Elliott played pilot-turned-lawyer Lieutenant Harmon Rabb on veteran producer Donald Bellisario's drama, which, after a rocky start on NBC, has enjoyed a long, successful run on CBS and spawned the hit spinoff "NCIS.'
No decision on the future of "JAG" will be made until late spring. But in anticipation of a possible departure by Elliott, Bellisario is introducing a new character, Navy Lieutenant Vukovic, a JAG attorney, to be played by Chris Beetem. He will make his debut as a series regular in an episode slated to air Feb. 18.
Elliott, meanwhile, has inked a one-year deal with ABC and its sister studio Touchstone TV to develop series projects.
O'Donnell to star in Fox drama pilot
Chris O'Donnell has been tapped to star in Fox's untitled drama pilot about a successful lawyer who has a nervous breakdown and teams with a mentally disturbed lawyer with an anger problem. Together, the two represent people with all kinds of issues, not just legal ones.
Last year, he starred in a comedy pilot for CBS called "The Amazing Westermans," which didn't make the network's roster.
ZAP2IT.COMTalk of the dial
10 a.m. WBIX-AM (1060) -- "Stu Taylor on Business." Guests: Jason Hommel, silverstockreport.com; Joanne Trainito, the Chocolate Haus; Eric Brown, life liberating strategist; Jill Fleming, "Thin Choices."
Noon WBNW-AM (1120) -- "The Brass Ring with Gina Ghioldi." Guests: Brad White, founder of Midnight Pass, Inc. and Sharper Image Brainchild; Donna Sheehey, founder of Zoomin Groomin Mobile Pet Spas; Dr. Diane Pomerance, author of "Animal Companions and Their People."
Other radio highlights
11 a.m. WUMB-FM (91.9) -- "Mountain Stage." Guests: Guster, Robert Lockwood Jr.