Stop me if you’ve heard this one. I watched a lot of television growing up. A lot of what I remember watching was Saturday morning cartoons and movies taped off of the TV. Some of it was sitcoms and syndicated shows filling otherwise empty summer days. The rest of it was the prime time programming that my parents would watch at night. We didn’t have cable. We would gather in the living room, around our lone television set, and watch whichever of the seven available channels that offered the best option. My formative years were influenced heavily by TGIF and Cheers. We watched Home Improvement, Murphy Brown, and ALF. Doogie Howser M.D. and The Cosby Show. (That one aged very well.) I can’t hear the phrase “How ‘bout those Mets?” without remembering an episode of The Wonder Years where Kevin cheated on a test. I take the subway almost every day and am reminded of Night Court. I recall one evening when I was getting a bit older. Late grade school maybe. I laughed at a risqué joke. I don’t remember the joke, or even the show that produced it. I do remember my mother asking me why I was laughing. I countered by asking her why she was laughing. We were all content to leave the question unanswered. But I digress. The point is that, through this family ritual, I was exposed to lots of shows that I otherwise would not have watched. One such series was Quantum Leap.
I would argue that one of the great things about our “nostalgia culture” is that almost every bit of media that many of us grew up with is now readily available for purchase. (My wife, citing a lack of shelf space, would strenuously disagree.) Last year I received the complete series of Quantum Leap on Blu-ray. I finally sat down to begin re-watching it a couple of months ago. It didn’t take long to come to the following conclusion: We badly need this show back on TV.
There was a lot about it that I either forgot or failed to pick up on in my youth. The premise of the series, if you are not familiar, is Scott Bakula’s Dr. Sam Beckett being leaped around in time (within his own lifetime) by an unknown force basically assumed to be God. He temporarily replaces a seemingly random individual, charged with the mission of changing history for the better. Once Sam has done so, he is jumped into another person in a different time and place. Rinse and repeat for five seasons. It was often funny, frequently compelling, but also deceptively insightful.
Star Trek is famous for its “message” episodes. They would make a point about racism or social injustice or what-have-you, but it would be presented as a conflict between aliens, written in such a way as to be obvious what they were talking about, but ambiguous enough to get by network censors. (The Star Trek franchise is something I mostly discovered on my own, through evening syndication. I’m all about that TNG life.) Quantum Leap doesn’t get the same kind of credit, but its messages were no less important.
The main difference between the two approaches is in the execution. Where Star Trek was a parable, Quantum Leap was visceral. Captain Kirk made you think. Sam Beckett made you feel. Sure, there were plenty of episodes where he leaped into a cowboy or a mobster or a disc jockey. Those were fine and entertaining. The silliness usually transitioned into something dramatic and heartfelt. They were good. The most striking stories, though, were the ones where he found himself as a housewife in the fifties, or a black man in the segregated south, or someone who was mentally challenged. Through his eyes, we got to see what life is like for people who are not in positions of relative power and privilege. That kind of perspective would be really useful right now.
The world has never been lollipops and unicorns. The United States of America, which I strongly believe to be the shining beacon for the world that our cultural identity says it is, has never been a utopia. We’ve had bad times. We’ve made progress. But we are slipping. Our country, and our world, seem to be dividing. Strongmen are telling people that they should be afraid of people who don’t look like them or live like them, and too many are listening. Simple facts don’t seem to matter anymore. Something has to give.
Another product of the “nostalgia culture” which I referenced earlier is the glut of television show reboots. If there is anybody who deserves that treatment, it is Dr. Sam Beckett and Admiral Al Calavicci. Star Trek is back, but it isn’t what it was. There is no time for allegory in the dark and gritty futurepast. We need Ziggy.
And here’s my #HotTake. If such a reboot were to happen, it is likely that the main protagonists would be cast as women and/or people of color. It’s a trend borne of our desires (culturally) to be less exclusionary, and make roles available to talented peo-
ple, regardless of what they look like. Quantum Leap, being a progressive show, would likely lean hard in that direction.
I think that would be a huge mistake.
A lot of the division in the so-called first world comes from people who look like me. The message, therefore, has to come from people who look like me. Scott Bakula, like me, is a white man. The reason that I found those episodes so powerful is that I could identify with him, and, therefore, identify with the persecuted person that he was inhabiting. It’s the Trojan horse that gets past the defenses. Jesus preached a message of love and respect for everyone, but He came to us as a man that looked like the people He was preaching to. A lot of them listened. For good or ill, that is human nature. So I say get the most diverse group of talented writers, producers, and showrunners you can find. Write some compelling stories that speak to the challenges that our country and our culture are facing every day. Put it on Netflix, or Disney+, or wherever. But cast the star as an attractive white guy.
We need Quantum Leap, now as much as ever. I wait with bated breath for the day when Sam Beckett steps back into the quantum leap accelerator. Until then, I can only look around at the events unfolding around me daily and say “Oh boy.”