Quantum Leap is the best and most binge-worthy television series of all time, and here’s why — it delivers the perfect blend of the familiar and the fresh with each and every episode. Narrative shows almost exclusively feature the same cast in the same place going through relatively similar stories — cops are going after bad guys, doctors are saving lives, etc — while anthology shows typically maintain a general tone through new stories and characters. Quantum Leap marries the two formats into one meaning the show can shift from comedy to drama to suspense to genre thrills from one episode to the next, all while maintaining a warm and engaging story line carried through its two lead characters and entirely new supporting players.
If you’re not yet familiar with the basic premise of Quantum Leap, prepare to be teased into wanting to watch the show immediately. Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) is a physicist working on the development of time travel. He believes it should be possible to travel back and forth within one’s own timeline, and with outside pressure mounting, he decides to step into his quantum accelerator for a human trial. It works, and he’s immediately thrust into the past — and into the body of someone else. His own memory is sometimes “Swiss-cheesed” by the process forcing him to quickly get brought up to speed by a hologram only he can see and hear of his friend and lab partner Admiral Al Calavicci (Dean Stockwell). The bigger challenge, though, is figuring out whose body he’s occupying… and why.
The crux of the show comes down to this, as spoken in the opening narration each episode: “And so Dr. Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.” Sam and Al quickly reach the conclusion that he’s there to fix a moment in someone’s life, and once that’s complete he automatically leaps out again. The hope is he’ll return home, but something other than their lab computer is controlling the journey meaning each successful mission sends him into someone else’s body in some other time and place. Creator Donald P. Bellisario struck gold with this pseudo anthology format after delivering more traditional narratives with the likes of Tales of the Gold Monkey (1982-1983), Airwolf (1984-1986), and Magnum, P.I. (1980-1988) — and yes, it is one of life’s great missed opportunities that we never got a crossover episode with Sam leaping into Thomas Magnum.
These “missions” can be as small and simple as helping a bent boxer go straight or ensuring that a local rock ‘n roll radio station stays on the air, or it can be far more serious as he deals with race relations, spousal abuse, murder, and more. It shares some DNA with The Incredible Hulk (1977-1982) in this way as Sam helps people, moves on, and hopes to ultimately help himself. Most of the stories and characters are fictional, but the series does a great job touching on historical events and real-life people too, sometimes in surprising and creative ways. It’s easy enough for those inclined to discount and dismiss the series as merely sci-fi fun, but when its storylines focus on humanity’s darker truths and this country’s shameful history it’s never sugarcoated. Sam doesn’t always succeed in changing things as sometimes what he wants to fix isn’t the reason he’s there, and it’s that reality that’s returned to more than once as he tries to affect his own family’s past.
While the majority of the episodes are stand-alones, two recurring themes run throughout — first, the lab back in Sam’s present is working to bring him home, and second, Sam himself is hoping to change his own family’s history. That latter thread finds real heart and heartbreak in season three’s two-part premiere in which Sam leaps into his own teenage self and scrambles to stop his sister from eventually marrying an abuser, his father who he knows will die of a heart attack years later, and his older brother who’s heading off to Vietnam where he’s killed. None of these are the reason he’s even there, and Sam is forced into some tough calls. Similarly, the friendship between he and Al is shown to have emotional roots well beyond the entertaining banter they share during missions, and all of it works to deliver a show that hits all the right notes from one week to the next.
Quantum Leap has the benefit of telling an ongoing story across multiple seasons while also delivering a fresh adventure each episode. Where many shows continue a vibe with the same story beats by design, this one drops its lead character into a wholly new person each episode with stories that range from the comedic to the dramatic to the suspenseful to the historical to the casual to the intense to the time he jumped into Lee Harvey Oswald to the time he influenced Stephen King to the introduction of an Evil Leaper to the chance to save his own brother’s life to the tragic love story that is his wife waiting at home in the future for a husband who might never return. It’s just the best.