Test Pilot #24: Quantum Leap
Debut date: March 26, 1989
Series legacy: Well-respected science fiction series with a (surprising to me) rabid fan base
It’s time for a new theme in the site’s most popular ongoing feature, Test Pilot. The primary reason I started this feature almost a year ago was so that I could have a solid excuse to explore television’s history and fill in some of the blanks in my viewing and critical experiences. From the beginning, I have wanted to talk about the differences between television programs from the past (whenever the heck “the past” is) and the present. The theme we are kicking off today tackles that primary issue head-on. With the 63rd annual Primetime Emmy Awards coming this September, I thought it would be fun, interesting and insightful to look back at the 43rd ceremony held 20 years ago. In particular, my guests and I will watching and writing about the five nominees in the Outstanding Drama Series category from that ceremony in 1991.
Not only is 20 years a nice round number to start from in the theme’s examination of where television drama has been, the quintet of nominees from 1991′s Drama Series category is full of generally well-respected but different series. At that time, Emmy voters considered L.A. Law, China Beach, Quantum Leap, Northern Exposure and thirtysomething the best that television drama had to offer. Hopefully taking a look at the kind of programs that the Emmy voters considered “quality” two decades later will shine a light on how the industry and the Emmys have changed — and how they haven’t. Do these series share any interesting qualities? Major differences? Do we have different expectations for greatness today? Is television as a whole that different as it was in 1991? These are the sort of questions and concerns I hope that we can investigate and discuss over the next 10 weeks and five entries.
And we’re back! The 2011 Emmys took place last Sunday and unsurprisingly awarded Mad Men as the most outstanding of all outstanding drama series. So I guess it’s fitting that my guest and I are here today to talk about a series that’s just like Mad Men: Quantum Leap. Wait. What? If someone put a gun to my head and asked me to guess the number of times Quantum Leap was nominated in the Outstanding Drama Series category, I would almost always say zero. In a Terra Nova situation where the earth has decayed and I’m sent to an alternate timeline, maybe then I pick one. But never, ever would I guess that Quantum Leap was nominated in the most prestigious of all Emmy categories THREE times (1990, 1991 and 1992). That’s three more times than The Wire, by the way.
You’re correct in guessing that my shocking reaction to this 20-year old news is related to the fact that I haven’t seen much of Quantum Leap and therefore cannot really, truly judge its quality. But that’s why I bring on cool guests who have seen these programs! Joining me today is Noel Kirkpatrick. Noel is the first two-time Test Pilot guest and so he’s been awarded with my deepest gratitude and two points on Klout (whatever that means). Also: I let him be my Facebook friend.* THIS COULD BE YOU. In any event, Noel is a MA student at Georgia State University, he’s one of the monsters of Monsters of Television and you can follow him on Twitter to get The Full Kirkpatrick as I like to call it. Noel, tell the people about Quantum Leap and Dean Stockwell’s silvery leather jacket:
*This is not true. We’ve been Facebook friends for like a year and I’m pretty sure I requested him.
Like the last time I participated in Cory’s Test Pilot feature (thanks for having me again, by the way!), I’m a pretty big fan of the series I’m joining Cory in discussing. Unlike Law & Order, however, Quantum Leap has a nostalgic place in my heart and mind as it is one solidest TV memories I have.
I never saw Quantum Leap when it aired (though I have very vague memories of being near a TV when the finale aired; but I was only 9, so even I don’t trust myself on this), but I did watch it in syndication. On VHS. You see, it aired on USA (before it was the original programming juggernaut it is today) in the morning/afternoons (sometime before or after their block of NBC comedies), and we taped it, along with my mother’s soap operas (which I also have vague memories of seeing episodes of). My sister and I would get home, we’d do our homework if we had any, play or do whatever, eat dinner, and then we’d watch Quantum Leap.
I don’t remember the years that we did this. I remember the series. I remember my mother, my sister, and me sitting on the couch, fighting over the remote, laughing at Al and/or Sam, and, depending on the episode, my mom pausing it to explain things some of the historical events Sam would leap in and out of (Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, second wave women’s liberation movement). I suppose, in hindsight, Quantum Leap was an early lesson in American history for me.
I say all this to give you some context about my relationship with the series, that I come to it now, not having seen an episode since the first DVD set was released in 2004 (my college roommate picked it up), with an immense amount of history and attachment, and that this is a series that was, I suppose, in some ways, foundational for my attachment to television.
So let’s talk about the pilot episode “Genesis.” The pilot is, in all honestly, is not how I would introduce someone to the series. Clocking in at a little over 90 minutes (without commercials), “Genesis” is bit of a slog as it attempts to figure itself out and put all the little bits and pieces that would become the series in later episodes (by the third episode, I feel like they had a grip on it, but certainly by the penultimate episode of the season things were on more of a solid ground).
And it’s all here, from Sam’s “Oh boy” (though this would move from the start of the episode to the end as he leaps into the next host), Al’s hound-dog ways, Ziggy’s mood swings, Sam’s Swiss cheese brain (do a marathon of the series and take a shot each time they say it, I dare you), Sam inadvertently referencing future events or ideas (Lamaze, anyone?), and, of course, Sam’s random skills set (he does have six doctorates, and probably a few medical degrees).
But the elongated nature of the episode, plus the need to map out a fair amount of exposition, makes everything feel a little bit scattered and just a trifle bit dull. Stakes for the main portion of the episode, with Sam as Tom Stratton, an ace test pilot for the X-2, never really come together for me. Admittedly, both Sam and Al aren’t totally sure what’s going on, so it’s understandable from a narrative perspective, but the pacing of that narrative just isn’t there.
Perhaps screwing up that pacing is the epilogue, which may be wholly responsible for my general dislike of the episode. The leap into washed out minor leaguer Tim Fox doesn’t do a whole lot for me, but it does give Sam a sort of lifeline back to his own history (which the series expands on in later seasons). Frustratingly, the talk on the phone with his dad never feels really earned, but does provide the necessary motivation for Sam to get into the swing (see what I did there?) of leaping.
However, the general structure of the series, “leaping from life to life, putting things right that once went wrong”, lends itself to this kind of unevenness. Some episodes are simply better than others, and that’s the nature of this kind of this sort of series. Each week is something totally different, and there’s a bit of fun in that, not knowing exactly what you’re going to get each week (aside from the brief tease at the end of each episode: “Sam’s in a dress! Sam’s a black man! Sam’s a chimp!”).
Happily, while I don’t feel like the narrative of the pilot works, the acting does. Scott Bakula, a relative unknown at the time, supported by Dean Stockwell who had been acting since 1945, play off each other with casualness that often takes some time to develop. Their interplay serves as the highlight for the pilot, as it gives Sam someone to talk to and connect with, and allows a tedious state of confusion to become interesting.
And it a pleasure to watch Bakula work through things. Yes, the excessive voiceover narration (I don’t remember there being that much, and it does eventually get significantly toned down) is a distraction, but the glimpses into Sam’s inner-world, especially as he initially tries to figure out what’s going on, is helpful. And I do enjoy the brief pause of familiarity, and then wonder at it, he gives as he utters the line “Doctor’s orders”, as if it were both the most natural and the oddest thing to say.
To return to that nostalgic couch above, even when I was younger, and perhaps less (or maybe more?) discerning, I didn’t like “Genesis.” It was never as fun or as interesting as many of the later episodes would be, even as it scattered all those elements across the episode. But maybe that’s just the breaks of watching something in syndication, and not necessarily from the beginning. Indeed, kind of like Sam’s leaping throughout his own lifetime, watching the series as I did originally, was sort of like leaping through the series’ lifetime. I just know that I didn’t start with “Genesis.”
And now, some thoughts from yours truly, as an individual who has seen approximately 20 minutes of Quantum Leap ever:
Why the hell was this ever nominated in the Outstanding Drama Series category?
Look, I don’t mean to be overly harsh. I know that the Emmy voters have made some weird choices over the years and I also know that pilots are not always indicative of what a series will actually become (and that voters didn’t honor the first season of Leap like it did the second, third and fourth seasons). But this isn’t the kind of series that I picture Emmy voters ever giving the time of day to. Much has been made about the Emmys’ aversion to science fiction or fantasy programming – outside of a handful of noms for X-Files and some love for Lost, there hasn’t been much to write home about – and it just feels so weird to me that of all the “great” series that fit the science fiction or fantasy designations, Quantum Leap is probably the third-most celebrated. X-Files, Lost, Quantum Leap. One of these things sure doesn’t feel like the other.
So seriously, why the hell was this nominated? There are surely a number of reasons for this, some obvious, some not. Based on my research, all indications are that Leap grew into a pretty solid, sometimes even great series in seasons following the first, which lines up with the years in which it was nominated. The other big factor at play here is that Leap was created by Donald Bellisario, who also concocted three-time drama series nominee, Magnum, P.I. Voters tend to support people who have had previous successes. And of course, we can’t forget that there was less “great” television (or television all together) on at the time. We’ve come a long way in 20 years.
However, the late 1980s and early 1990s are something of an underrated time for curious/interesting/cool Outstanding Drama Series nominees that weren’t obvious picks like St. Elsewhere and Murder, She Wrote. Beauty and the Beast grabbed a few nominations in 1988 and 1989, Wiseguy snuck in there in 1989 and Twin Peaks was nominated in 1990. Those three series have tons of critical love, but it is still moderately surprising to see that they were nominated. Maybe Quantum Leap was helped by this weird time where there wasn’t too much great stuff on the air that some of the more intriguing and interesting concepts could catch voters eyes. Throw in Bellisario’s profile and it makes some sense.
But ultimately, Quantum Leap was probably nominated in the biggest of all the Emmy categories for being more conventional than not. The pilot, despite all its cumbersome and sometimes tedious exposition about quantum physics and Swiss cheese brains, is short on plot and more reliant on the quirks of putting a character in a different time and life. From what I can understand, Leap’s trajectory as a series doesn’t deviate from this formula too much. Each week (for the most part), Bakula’s Sam jumped into the body of a new person and therefore jumped into a brand-new set of circumstances. That gave Quantum Leap free rein to become a different kind of series each week, tackling different genres, tones and historical events with ease. It’s basically an anthology series with two characters tying everything together. Presumably, this made the series easy to understand during the voting process and also made it seem like a somewhat fresh way to tell stories on television. In that regard, it’s not unlike the first season of Lost, a season that was mostly driven by conventional plots and character development told with a dash of stylish mystery and an appealing flashback structure. Of course, the first season of Lost is the only major sci-fi or fantasy series to win the Emmys’ biggest award. The lesson, as always: If you’re a sci-fi/fantasy series and you want to win or even be nominated for Emmys, the less plot complexity, the better.
In any event, Quantum Leap feels both like a product of its time and a relatively timeless idea. The opening moments of the pilot with the depictions of “the future” that is apparently supposed to be 1997 made me laugh for much longer than they should have and this episode doesn’t have quite the pacing, style or urgency that an opening effort in 2011 would. As Noel addressed above, this pilot is entirely too long and too slow for what it is trying to accomplish. Even after Sam is acutely aware that something is off, the episode takes its sweet, stubborn time actually getting there and then has the gall to extend things further by throwing Sam into an epilogue that rings somewhat hollow despite Bakula’s best efforts. Generally, it just feels like events are moving at three-quarters- or even half-speed for most of these 90 minutes.
However, it is funny that Noel mentioned that he originally came to enjoy the series by watching syndicated airings on the USA Network, because I could absolutely see a 2011 version of Leap that looks a lot like this version airing on USA, if that decided to produce something with more science fiction elements. If not, Leap would certainly fit in with Syfy’s brand of merry, mostly easygoing brand of heroes.
Sam Beckett is totally a Character-with-a-capital-C-because-we’re-USA. Bakula brings a nice combination of emotional weight and light comic timing and is basically the sole reason that this pilot is just passable and not overtly dreadful. The pilot takes too much time getting around to Sam’s little moment with his stand-in 1950s wife, but Bakula does a tremendous job in the scene and does more quality work in the conversation with his character’s father near the very end. The first moment is much more earned than the second – which is unfortunate since the second is supposed to have more impact on the character – but both scenes are highlights of this problematic pilot. The lumbering pace of the majority of the episode doesn’t allow for much real levity, but I’m guessing that Leap eventually allowed Bakula to have fun within the premise’s framework (Seeing him in drag in the opening credits tells me this is true).
Although it is probably discussed too often in this opening episode, Leap does an okay job of setting up its premise. Like everything else, the biggest problem is that the episode takes too long to get to the pertinent discussions and then keeps cutting away from Sam and Al’s brainstorming sessions so that it can focus on other, mostly weaker beats. But if this were a USA or Syfy series, Leap’s “just go with it” kind of premise, explanation and mythology work well enough. This pilot sets up the weekly story engine and provides larger, broader questions that can be addressed later – it does its job. Sometimes in weak fashion, but still.
And like most USA Network or Syfy pilots, Leap (presumably) ends up getting much better very quickly. Heck, if the 2011 version did air on USA, the excruciatingly long running time fits right in to how they develop, produce and air pilots!
The biggest thing I wanted to point out with Quantum Leap and “quality” is that the discussion is all about context. In the time in which the series originally aired, Leap’s ability to merge sci-fi elements with an easily understandable weekly anthology/procedural story engine surely seemed at least a bit novel and different. Amid a sea of stringent procedurals filled with our favorite stock vocational tropes, Leap probably provided a nice breath of fresh air and that might play a major role in why the series has such a fervent fan base. But shift time forward 20 years with the likes of Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Justified and The Good Wife catching our attention and things like Lost, The Sopranos, The Wire, Friday Night Lights, Deadwood and 24 just leaving our rearview mirrors, Quantum Leap doesn’t look as impressive, novel, innovative, complex. It feels like a USA Network product.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’d like to think that many critics and scholars find value in the kind of escapist, but not mindless fare that USA Network and Syfy provide, even if they don’t quite match the scope, ambition or overall quality of series that make their way onto HBO, FX, Showtime or AMC. If Quantum Leap were made today*, there’s no way it would be nominated in any of the big Emmy categories. But oddly, it would probably be even more popular than it was back then.**
*I’m probably giving someone at Universal Television Studios a lot of motivation to make this happen. For that, I’m sorry – kind of. Quantum Leap feels like a series that could be easily remade – heck Journeyman basically did so a few years ago – and I would probably, no definitely watch it. Any names immediately coming to mind for the lead role? Zachary Levi is probably too on the nose isn’t it?
**Sure, I just mentioned Journeyman and well, it was a failure. However, four counter-points to that: First, the writer’s strike killed any and all momentum it had started to build up. Second, 10 p.m. on Monday is a terrible timeslot. Third, it did “terrible” for NBC, not a cable network that would have lower expectations (though only slightly considering NBC’s current state). Fourth, it was on NBC. There’s no way it was going to work.
Conclusions on legacy: Bad pilot notwithstanding, Quantum Leap presents a fun, fine premise that could easily find success in today’s television landscape