Thursday, February 10, 2011

Quantum Leap, Season 1: Putting the "Cheese" in "Swiss Cheese Memory"

Created by: Donald Bellisario
Starring Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell
Season 1 episodes written by: Donald Bellisario, Deborah Pratt, John Hill, Deborah Arakelian, Paul Brown, Scott Shepard and Tom Blomquist

Enjoying classic television on DVD is something best planned out ahead of time. Watching too many intense, downbeat shows in a row can be depressing, whereas too much time spent watching goofy, cornball humor can make a brain feel like its wading through a swimming pool full of half-frozen maple syrup. Therefore, having recently plowed through the entire runs of such context-heavy shows as Lost, the Battlestar Galactica remake, Babylon 5 and the complete mind-screw that is Twin Peaks, I've switched over to something more lighthearted and fun.

To that end, I'm currently watching a classic science-fiction series that aired on NBC from 1989 to 1993. It told the tale of scientist Sam Beckett, who, theorizing that one could time-travel within his own lifetime, stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished. He awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey was Al, an observer from his own time, who appeared in the form of a hologram that only Sam could see and hear. And so, Dr. Beckett found himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap... would be the leap home.

Yep, you guessed it: I've been watching Bonanza.

Just kidding. Obviously, it's Quantum Leap.

Watching Quantum Leap in 2011 is a bit like visiting an extended relative who's a bit out of touch with modern-day customs, who tends to wear embarrassingly outdated clothing and hairstyles, and who sometimes makes too many corny jokes that he seems to find a lot funnier than you do—but whom you have a great fondness for nonetheless, and whom you always enjoy visiting... for finite periods of time.

Created by Donald Bellisario, known for his work on Magnum, P.I., Airwolf, JAG, NCIS, Tales of the Gold Monkey and the original Galactica, Quantum Leap is a show that I have a great fondness for, and that I've often considered re-watching. In the early 1990s, I watched the series in syndication over and over again, though I'm unsure if I actually saw every episode, given that for some reason, I never watched any first-run episodes—despite the fact that the series was still on the air while I was obsessively watching the repeats. Go figure.

So now, two decades later, I'm finally enjoying the entire series on DVD in chronological order. But as I popped in the pilot episode, "Genesis," I worried that I might not still enjoy it. The late '80s and early '90s were not exactly a golden age for television. This was the same period, after all, that produced The Cosby Show, Growing Pains, Who's the Boss? and other painfully corny sitcoms. Would I find myself groaning loudly at the dated '80s sensibilities? Would I roll my eyes at the predictable plots and telegraphed conclusions? Would I frequently face-palm at the larger-than-life, Hollywood-ized depictions of past eras?

Well, I've watched the first eight-episode season over the past several weeks (nine, if you count the pilot as two episodes, as it's presented in syndicated form), and I'm torn. Do I still love the show? Yes. But were my worries justified? As it happens... also yes.

There's something about Quantum Leap that is very endearing. It could be the amazing chemistry between lead actors Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell, that is still as visible now as it was 20 years ago. It could be the tongue-in-cheek approach to Al's tacky 1999 fashion sense, with his brightly colored ties, clashing pant and shirt designs, flamboyant vests and always-present cigar. It could be the series' fish-out-of-water, Connecticut-Yankee-in-King-Arthur's-Court premise, with Sam never quite fitting into the lifestyles and eras of his hosts. It could be Sam's occasional brushes with famous historical figures. It could be the abundant use of humor in Al's over-sexed gawking at every woman in sight (and many others not in sight), and in the awkward situations in which Sam often finds himself. Or, heck, it could be the never-ending string of beautiful, Al-gawked women with whom on-again-off-again-prude Sam gets to fraternize in the bodies of other men.

I pick choice (f): All of the above.

But the unfortunate truth is... the show is sadly dated. The 1980s sensibilities ARE corny. The plots ARE predictable, and the conclusions telegraphed. And the past DOES often seem like a typical larger-than-life Hollywood production.

In "Genesis," Sam finds himself in the body of U.S. Air Force pilot Tom Stratton, in the year 1956, after his time-travel experiment goes wrong, causing him to become lost in the past with a fractured recollection (or "Swiss cheese memory," as Al often calls it) of his own pre-leaping life; and then baseball player Tim Fox, circa 1968. The introductions of Sam and, later, Al are fascinating to watch all these years later, but one thing I'd forgotten is how tedious Sam's narrations were in the very beginning. The writers and actors had yet to find their footing at this point, and so his inner thoughts are at times awkward. What's more, neither Stratton nor Fox have lives that are all that interesting, making the two-part pilot somewhat lackluster. Still, the potential for something great is clearly there, in spades.

Luckily, the writing improves over the remainder of the season, as Sam becomes sleazy 1972 English professor Gerald Bryant and meets Donna Eleese (Sam's future wife, as we'd learn in a later episode, portrayed by an astonishingly beautiful young Teri Hatcher), and inadvertently exposes the Watergate scandal; Kid Cody, a boxer in 1974 whose contract had been purchased by nuns looking to raise money for their church (not one of the series' high points); "Doc" Young, a veterinarian on a ranch in 1956, in whose form Sam would help young Buddy Holly write the lyrics to his hit song, "Peggy Sue"; gangsters Frankie La Palma and Don Geno Frascotti (a rare double-leap, during which Sam causes the North East Blackout of 1965, leaving 30 million people without electricity); Jesse Tyler, a black man facing racism in 1955 while serving as the chauffeur of an elderly Southern woman (basically, Quantum Leap's version of Driving Miss Daisy); Cam Wilson, a dorky teenager in 1961 with an abused sister and a crappy car (during which Sam teaches a very young Michael Jackson to do the Moonwalk); and Nick Allen, a Humphrey Bogart lookalike working as a gumshoe detective in 1953 (a violation of the show's premise that Sam—born in 1954—could only travel within his own lifetime... but, hey, he got to make out with Babylon 5's Claudia Christian, so I doubt he minded the bad physics).

Quantum Leap does, ultimately, stand the test of time, in that it's still fun to watch. But whereas I was able to breeze through my rewatches of Lost, Galactica, Babylon 5 and Twin Peaks without coming up for air, I find that the same is not true for Quantum Leap, which I've been viewing at a much more leisurely pace—an episode here and there, as I have time. Much more than that, and I find that my eyebrows end up threatening to roll right off the side of my head. It's partly for that reason, in fact, that my momentum on this blog came to a grinding halt after only three entries—the thought of having to write about Quantum Leap on a daily basis made me cringe.

Or, as Sam would say: Oh, boy...



  1. Well said! Bellisario was a hack, and the era was crap! But it's better than most that was released back then to hypnotize American audiences.

  2. cf: Original BSG "Experiment in Terra" which DPB was an EP on, I think, by that stage.

  3. Joe: I don't know that I'd go as far as to call him a hack, seeing as he was responsible for some great TV over the years. But yeah, his writing style doesn't well stand the test of time.

    Duggy: I can certainly see a Bellisario influence on "Experiment in Terra." I love the original BSG, but the Terra episodes tend to be corny, in my opinion. (Granted, the original BSG was almost always corny.)

  4. I fondly remember catching episodes of Quantum Leap when it was first airing, and have always wanted to watch the complete series.

    The cheese factor is not something I remembered, though. In fact, I practically recalled it as a hard-hitting, sci-fi drama! My enthusiasm is significantly tempered, but hopefully I can Tivo some episodes.

  5. True, BSG was full of corn. Of course, the Terra stuff was because they ran out of cyclons and they'd beaten them too many times... but space nazis...? In my unmade-SF travels, it seems that Galactica 1980 more responisible for QL: following on from the Starbuck episode it would be found that he was working in this roll for the Ships of Light... and thus a new direction for the series.

    I don't recall QL being hard hitting SF drama, rather a drama anthology series with SF trimmings to tie it together.

  6. Duggy: That's how I remember Quantum Leap--a drama first, sci-fi second. But it turns out... it's more like a drama first, a big pile of cheese second, an even bigger pile of corn third, and sci-fi a distant seventh, behind sex, soapbox proselytizing and humor.