It is hard to hate Quantum Leap, the NBC sci-fi series which debuted in 1989 and was canceled in 1993 after completing its fifth season. The show is so utterly well-meaning, following the lovably gee-whiz Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) as a scientist whose experiment “leaves him leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping that his next leap will be the leap home.” That just warms the heart, doesn’t it? On the other hand, Quantum Leap is very easy to mock, largely due to its remarkably earnest tone, with many “very special episodes,” like a sci-fi Blossom. Sam is fate’s grunt soldier, fixing broken relationships, saving one life at a time, and occasionally running into young versions of celebrities, e.g., Stephen King, Buddy Holly and Michael Jackson. However, he’s constantly faced with the prejudices of our past which leads to plenty of sermonizing. His best bud Al (Dean Stockwell) is always around for a reliable one-liner, but even he gets in on the sermonizing and turns out to have led an insanely eventful life, with an ever-growing list of prior careers and ex-wives. In general, there’s an awful lot of plot convenience to what Sam and Al turn out to be capable of. Plus, the mechanics of the time traveling component of the show are pretty wonky, and what they thought the future was going to look like was hilariously inaccurate.
Those are the types of things which really jump out at me every time I re-watch Quantum Leap. My love for the show has not faded, but my willingness to mock it has sure increased. There are plot holes and awkward moments galore as well as some simple reminders of how much TV culture has changed since Quantum Leap went off the air.
1) God or Fate or Whatever Sure Has a Sick Sense of Humor
Almost every single Quantum Leap episode ends with Sam being thrown into the deep end in a new and terrifying situation, forcing him to either sink or swim. That’s a pretty shitty existence, going from smiling earnestly one second to walking on a stage in front of a packed theater of people waiting to hear you play piano the next second. But boy did it make for good television. It’s one of the things that makes Quantum Leap so compulsively watchable, its every episode ending on a cliffhanger in which Sam has no idea what to do next and lets outs an exasperated, “Oh boy.”
However, if we ignore the part where this is a TV show with a story structure designed to keep viewers hooked, and think of the logic of the show’s own universe it becomes pretty apparent that God or fate or whatever the heck it was leaping Sam throughout time has a wickedly dark sense of humor. Seriously, why couldn’t Sam have ever been allowed to simply leap into someone sitting around their living room watching TV, with maybe their wallet (and thus a quickly accessible method of identification) laid out on the table in front of them? Nope, instead Sam got dropped into situations like this:
Is any of that really necessary for Sam being able to put right what once went wrong? Absolutely not. God or fate or whatever just really liked watching the poor bastard squirm.
2) Sometimes Sam & Al Just Weren’t That Bright
Al is “a hologram that only Sam can see and hear.” It’s right there in the show’s voice-over prologue. However, sometimes both Al and Sam seemed to forget that, the most egregious example being the time Sam tried to throw a pie at Al’s face in the season 4 episode “Stand Up”:
Sam usually gets the benefit of the doubt because, well, he’s damaged goods with his ultra convenient/inconvenient “Swiss cheese” memory. But Al? Was he just humoring his mentally compromised best friend, the way one might tolerate a “not quite right” uncle’s insistence that he did actually magically produce the 7 of hearts when doing a card trick? Was he just so caught up in the situation he forgot he was just a hologram? Or maybe is it just that sometimes Sam and Al appeared to have taken complete leave of their senses in the show’s effort for comic scenes between the two? Fine, it’s obviously the latter.
3) Some Innocent People Had Their Lives Ruined By Sam
For a show whose own series finale was shockingly bittersweet, Quantum Leap was built on happy endings. Most if not all episodes ended with Al assuring Sam (and by extension the audience) that everything worked out a-okay for all involved. However, when you think about it in some cases that doesn’t seem true. Case in point, in “Shock Theater” Sam develops multiple personality disorder as the result of being leapt into a mental hospital patient who immediately receives traumatic electroshock therapy (again, with God and his dark sense of humor). Sam keeps shifting back and forth between adopting the various identities of those he’d once leapt into in the past. To save his own life and maintain his connection with Al, Sam needs to have electroshock re-administered to him at a dangerously high voltage. He, while believing himself to be a mentally challenged man named Jimmy and thus slurring his speech, manages to pull it off by desperately pleading with the attending nurse, “If you don’t shock Jimmy Al go away.”
Waaaaaaaiiiiiiiit a minute here. I get that the historic period of the episode (specifically 1954) is meant to comment upon the early days of medicine in relation to mental health and conditions like multiple personality disorder or schizophrenia. In that way, this is Quantum Leap‘s own version Sybil. Al even references Sybil in the episode! So, none of the doctors or nurses truly know what the heck is going on with Sam. However, even though a perfectly timed dosage of electroshock at the same near-fatal dosage as the therapy that triggered the multiple personality disorder is what Sam needs it’s not necessarily what the person he leapt into needs nor is it medically advisable. In the course of the episode, the generally sympathetic nurse argues that 200V is a potentially fatal voltage, administering electroshock therapy twice in 48 hours could kill the patient, and that only doctors are allowed to administer the therapy, a fact confirmed by one of the doctors. Yet she is the one to administer elctroshock to Sam at 200V while the Doctor and orderly are arguing. This is supposed to be a big, heroic moment, but, wait, didn’t the episode establish that what she does could actually kill the patient? Yep, pretty effectively, too.
How do you think it’s going to go over in a Morbidity & Mortality meeting if when asked why she gave the patient a fatal dosage of electroshock therapy she replies, “He said if I didn’t do it his imaginary friend was going to go away”? She might end up a patient at that very mental hospital, oh irony of ironies, or at the very least mentally anguished, haunted by frequent “Why did I do it?” thought. However, even if the nurse had been wrong about both the voltage and frequency of treatment being fatal she still broke the rules by administering treatment, and is likely looking at some serious repercussions in her career. That is but one example of a happy ending being not so happy and an otherwise nice and decent person whose life was potentially screwed by Sam Beckett.
4) Al Totally Amy Pond’d a Poor Little Girl Except Even Worse
In the Doctor Who episode “The 11th Hour,” the Doctor encounters an adorable little Scottish girl named Amelia Pond. He promises to take her to the stars and on an adventure, but when he fails to return she had to go through years of therapy as no one believed her tale of a “raggedy doctor” who literally fell from the sky. The thing here is that, crucially, the Doctor did eventually come back, and he never intentionally misled poor Amelia. He just really sucks at getting time coordinates right.
So, what then, do we make of the final scene from Quantum Leap‘s season 2 episode of “Another Mother”? By this point, the only thing preventing Sam from leaping is Al’s need to say goodbye to the adorable daughter of the woman Sam leapt into. Falling into that kid/mentally challenged/animal spectrum of people who can actually see Al other than Sam, the girl had grown attached to Al and him to her. What proceeds is a genuinely sweet scene between a young child actress who mostly flashes her big white eyes at Stockwell as he promises to come back to see her again real soon.
Liar! Al can’t go back. He’s not really a time traveler who can just go anywhere he wants; he is linked to Sam’s brain and can only go to a place and time where Sam is present. Unless Sam leaps back into that family with the little girl, Al has no way of following through on his promise. That poor little girl probably had years of therapy after that, refusing to back down from her claims of a strange imaginary man from the future who was going to come back to see her any minute now, just you wait and see. “Oh, it was just an imaginary friend” they’ll all say, angering her even more. Of course, that imaginary friend may be the least of their concerns since that little girl will probably also swear up and down that for around a week mommy went missing and a nice man named Sam pretended to be her and dressed in her clothes.
5) Nope, You Didn’t Dream It – Al Really Did Rap in One Episode
Some things are so strange, so bizarre, so impossible sounding you can convince yourself over time that you simply made it up. For example, was Creed ever really a super popular band? That didn’t really happen, did it? Well, in the case of Quantum Leap re-watching it reveals that one insane thing you might have convinced yourself was but a fever dream of your’s actually happened. I present, with utter, utter regret, rappin’ Al from “Shock Theater”:
With Sam a bit busy being 12 different versions of himself, it is up to Al to right the wrong, and in this case it means teaching a man how to read. Why? Ah, who cares. Why does Al think simply teaching him a song about the alphabet will automatically guarantee his ability to read? Ah, again, who cares. The bigger issue here is simply what in the hell were they thinking by having Dean freakin’ Stockwell perform a rap song on a national television show in 1991? In fact, years later they included that song, “ABC Rap,” on the show’s official soundtrack meaning you can go buy “ABC Rap” on iTunes right now. Mercifully, M.C. Stockwell’s long-awaited rap album “Nozzles, Cigars & Bazoombas” never materialized
6) Sam Was a Man-Whore Cheating on the Wife Waiting for Him Back Home
Every Quantum Leap episode other than the pilot features a moment during the opening credits where we see a montage of Sam’s best kisses with woman from the show’s history to that point. Of course there’d be plenty of kiss scenes to show – the dude got some serious action as the show sought to appeal to Bakula’s female fanbase. It is also the natural by-product of an episodic show with a central male character who is both a lover and a fighter – he’s going to have a ton of love interests. The same thing was true of Kirk on Star Trek: The Original Series. But at least there was no woman waiting at home for Sam, no woman so despondent with loneliness she looks up at stars at night and imagines one of them talking back to her with Sam’s voice, right?
Then the season 4 premiere (“The Leap Back”) happened, and we learn that bachelor Sam had changed his own history on a previous leap in the first season resulting in him having now actually been a married man this entire time. Knowing that from the get-go when re-watching the show makes a fun game out of, “I wonder how close Donna was to complete breakdown this week based upon Sam’s romancing of yet another woman.” To be fair, in “The Leap Back” Donna actually forgives Sam for his many, many infidelities because his memory loss meant he didn’t know he had anyone to whom he’d pledged to be faithful.
There was always a strange dynamic to sexuality on the show, in which Al and his consistent references to nice “bazoombas” and “gazonkas” was a horndog for Sam to admonish. Who the hell is he to talk, though? He fell in love with women sometimes at the literal drop of a hat, bedded them, and then left them high and dry for his next leap. Man, at least Al knew what he was. Sam? He was a total man-whore; he just didn’t know it.
7) Our Definition of Physical Fitness Sure Has Changed
Back in the day, Scott Bakula was what might best be described as man candy. His Sam Beckett was the consummate sensitive 90s male, not afraid to cry (and boy did it show) but tough enough to stand up for what’s right. So, obviously, the show featured Bakula shirtless…a lot. Like at least once every other episode.
Wait, that’s what qualified as a sex symbol back then? Don’t get me wrong – Bakula looks fantastic. He’s clearly in good shape. It’s just that nutrition and body shaping sciences have advanced so much that we now have constantly shirtless male stars of TV shows who look like this:
Advantage? Stephen Amell of Arrow. Well, I guess the true advantage goes to the viewer inclined to find such sights appealing as neither are in anything remotely resembling bad shape. Re-watching an older show like Quantum Leap centered around a male sex symbol shows just how much our image of that type of person is ever-shifting in response to the advances in abdominal muscle-shaping glory.
8) They Were Desperate For Ratings That Last Season
It’s always kind of sad when you see your favorite show trying too hard to get big ratings. However, sometimes when you watch older shows in syndication or on Netflix you may not be aware of it because your viewing is happening so long after the fact. But let’s look at what Quantum Leap did in its fifth and final season:
- Sam Leaping Into Dr. Ruth, Elvis, and Lee-Harvey Oswald Even Though He Wasn’t Supposed to Leap Into Historical Figures
- Sam Leaping Into Someone Working for Marilyn Monroe
- Sam Leaping Into the Civil War Even Thought He Wasn’t Supposed to be Able to Leap Outside of His Own Lifetime
- A Trilogy Focused Upon Sam Being the Father, the Lover, and then the Court Defender of One Woman At 3 Different Stages in Her Life
- A Trilogy Focused on the Concept of There Being Evil Leapers Out There Just As Sam is a Good Leaper
- Stunt-casting of Brooke Shields in an episode somewhat recreating the scenario of her film Blue Lagoon
- Sam leaping into a vampire
Some, if not most, of these episodes are pretty good. The trilogy focused on Abigail was admirably ambitious, and the concept of an evil yin to Sam’s not-evil yang was long overdue. However, taken as a whole it becomes pretty apparent they were ditching all of their old rules and just throwing everything at the wall in the hopes of getting the ratings necessary for a sixth season (epic fail on their part). Plus, they re-did their theme song – you know, their amazing, instantly hummable Mike Post-composed theme song. They made it oddly insistent and energetic in a desperate “Please watch our show, we have pep now” fashion:
Alas, they got themselves canceled.
But I really like Quantum Leap. Let’s end on a positive note. What is a good truth learned from re-watching Quantum Leap?
Most of Your Favorite Episodes Are Still Amazing
“MIA,” “The Leap Home,” “The Leap Back,” “Catch a Falling Star,” and many, many other beloved Quantum Leap episodes are still as good as they ever were.
What about you? Any things you’ve noticed upon re-watch? Liked the show but never actually went back and re-watched it? Let us know in the comments.
This post is partially a result of years of joking with my best friend Julianne. Click (or tap) here to check out her picks for Quantum Leap‘s 10 best episodes.