Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sunday Best: TV Dramas of All Time #18 - Quantum Leap

1989 - 1993

I have never seen another show like Quantum Leap.

It is science fiction, but only when it really wanted to be.  The genius of the show was that you had a completely different show from week to week.

The show was about Dr. Sam Becket (Scott Bakula) who tried to time travel within his own lifetime.  So he would "leap" into the lives of different people not knowing how or why.  But he realizes that he could not leap again until he "set right what once went wrong."  With the help of the holographic projection of Al (Dean Stockwell), he would enter get into all manners of adventures.

And depending on who he leapt into, the show was alternately funny, tragic, scary, thrilling, melodramatic, or romantic.  One week you would be watching a mystery.  The next you would be watching a rom-com.  The show allowed for endless possibilities.

And all of this was anchored by the show's leads.  Bakula, I always thought, was underrated and overlooked for his performance as Sam.  He had to be the same person pretending to be a different person believably each week.  Not only that, but he had to be able to change tone on a dime, which he did amazingly.  The same is true of Stockwell who was usually there for comic relief.  But when the moments came for dramatic gravity, he brought it with great effect.  The chemistry between the two of them is incredible to watch even to this day.

Not only that, but there was a strong nostalgia factor.  Yes, there were episodes where he encountered horrible moments in history (e.g. the Watts riots, JFK's assassination), but there were also moments of joyous memory of songs, styles, and the general spirit of some bygone days.

And I was always appreciative of how the show portrayed the Catholic Church.  Sam sometimes made some questionable moral decisions, but when he dealt with the Church, like the times he became a priest, it was always treated with great respect.  (Of course it raises the question of the validity of the sacraments he performed, but that is a discussion for another time).

And the show could move you.  It could inspire.  It could break your heart.  In fact, the very last line of text in the final episode might be the saddest thing on any TV show ever.

"The Color of Truth"

This was the first episode that carried with it a gravity outside of itself.  The earlier episodes were more personal.  This touched on something a bit bigger.  Sam leaps into the body of a black man during segregation times.  I think this was the first time the show really tapped into the idea of seeing the world from a different perspective not only for Sam but for the audience.  I think the producers realized here that they could use the show, not as a vehicle for moralizing, but as a mode in which to transport the consciousness of the audience.  We come to learn more about the human condition by walking a mile in someone else's shoes, and Quantum Leap was now exploring this.

"Lee Harvey Oswald"
This is actually a very good episode.  Sam leaps into several moments of Lee Harvey Oswald's life leading up to the assassination.  In this episode Sam begins to have his personality merge with Oswald's making him more and more personally connected to committing this horrible murder.  But it was also clear that this episode was a bit of a stunt, trying to tap into the renewed interest int he assassination from the film JFK.  And it also smacked a little of desperation to bring up ratings.  After this point, they became more and more desperate to draw in viewers and it showed.

The danger with jumping into history, particularly those moments involving social issues, it is easy to devolve into preachiness.  Which this episode completely did.  A good story will unveil its theme organically, not hit you over the head.

"Shock Theatre" and "The Leap Back"

There are so many fantastic episodes that I feel like I am giving short shrift to them.  But the best of all was the two-part cliffhanger and resolution here.  In the first part, Sam leaps into a mental patient who receives shock treatment.  This causes Sam to take on the personalities of the different people he has been.  This might be one of Bakula's best moments as he shows his incredible range.  Here he is not Sam pretending to be these people, but he actually becomes those characters.  The next episode involves Sam returning home and switching places with Al, who is now leaping.  But when Sam's memory returns it is so moving.  And then when he makes the choice he makes at the end of the episode, it might be one of the most heroically tragic moments in television.  I get emotional just thinking about it.  Great episode.


As I said, I have never seen another show like Quantum Leap.  It was such an under appreciated gem that never really found its audience.  But if you have had the pleasure, check it out.  The show is designed very much like an anthology so most (not all) of the episodes you can watch in any order.  Check them out and enjoy.


  1. You got me interested.

  2. I liked QL when it didn't take itself too serious.

    The QL brain trust made another under appreciated series, The Pretender. A great idea undermined by perfunctory writing. A dark conspiracy setting that veered away from The X Files paranoia into Highway to Heaving sappiness.

    1. I also like The Pretender, but I don't think it lived up to its full potential.

  3. Every Frame a Painting The Spielberg Oner.
    (Language Warning)

    Anytime I shoot my mouth off - rub my nose in this video.

    Fear the Walking Dead finally kicked in.

    1. I saw this video, but thank you for sharing it. I love his artistry with the camera. There is so much that goes on in even his crowd-pleasers like ET that it is often overlooked.

      Let me know if Fear the Walking Dead is worth the watch. I'm waiting to binge watch.

    2. I've overlooked Spielberg's craftsmanship due to his mawkish choice of material.

      I had a prof who believed we learn skill and develop craft. Art will take care of itself. Nothing beats solid craftsmanship.

      I've been using The Strain as a template for charting Fear the Walking Dead. It seems set to cover the the same territory inflected in its own way.

    3. FtWD improves with re-watching. The devil is in the details and TPTB are meticulously tending to their craft.

      And like TWD it takes place in more or less real time. More in A Roll than B Roll. It throws off my cinema sensibilities.