80’s nostalgia is big right now.
According to the science guys that’s down to a phenomenon known as the “Nostalgia Pendulum”, or “30 Year Cycle” — the approximate duration of time in which children of a particular decade grow up to become consumers and producers of the art that resonated with them most as youngsters. Think Netflix’s Stranger Things. Or Prime Video’s Paper Girls. Or ABC’s The Wonder Years reboot. In terms of TV production it also doesn’t hurt that the 80’s was an abundantly aesthetic decade, both visually and musically. There are just so many depths to plumb. Either way, this nostalgia pendulum is currently making everything 80’s cool again. At least until the pendulum swings our interest towards 90’s trends.
Which brings us to NBC’s new reboot of classic 80’s sci-fi series Quantum Leap. The original series ran from 1989 to 1993, and starred Scott Bakula (yes, he of NCIS: New Orleans fame) as Sam Beckett, a time travelling physicist who ‘leaps’ through time, taking over the bodies of other people from the past, so that he can “set right what once went wrong” i.e. correct historical mistakes from taking place. Guiding Sam from the future back then was Ziggy, a super A.I. whose weekly task it was to predict what Sam must do in order to leap out of his current timeline, and hopefully make the next leap “the leap that brings him home.”
Sam was also joined from the future by Hollywood stalwart Dean Stockwell’s Al Calavicci, a cigar smoking, womanizing, morally grey companion in hologram form who helped and hindered Sam in turn, but always remained a stedfast friend. Sam always helped the people whose lives he temporarily inhabited, even at the expense of ever returning home, and each episode offered a slice of drama, romance, sci-fi adventure, and often a dollop of social commentary to boot.
In NBC’s new reboot, it’s been nearly 30 years since Sam vanished. Now a new team led by physicist Ben Song (Raymond Lee), has been put together to restart the project in the hope of understanding the mysteries behind the machine and the man who created it. Ben has a theory (and a ton of new code for Ziggy) that will potentially stop leapers from jumping from person to person uncontrollably, offering a way back to the present day that might one day even be able to retrieve Same Beckett from the timeline, but trials, we learn, are years away.
Imagine everyone’s surprise when Ben sneaks out of his own engagement party to go upload the untested code to Ziggy’s mainframe and make a hasty leap into the past. While the team scrambles to understand why Ben made such a rash move, including his fiancee Addison (Caitlin Bassett), Ben finds himself in much the same predicament as Sam Beckett — stranded in the past, with no idea who is is, or how he got there. Did we forget to mention that time travel swiss-cheeses the mind? Because it does.
Ben’s first leap brings us to July 13th, 1985 (also the title of the pilot episode) which, as some shrewd 80’s nostalgics might know as Live Aid Day. While the world is transfixed by the multi-venue benefit concert (Did you know about 40% of the world’s population tuned in to watch?), Ben finds himself in the body of a getaway driver for a crew of twitchy trigger-fingered thieves. As Ben struggles to comprehend what’s happening, he is joined by girlfriend and fellow Quantum Leap team member Addison, a level headed army vet who we learn was supposed to lead the first time travel mission before Ben abruptly took her spot. Addison, in hologram form, like Al before her, now takes on the role of filling our reluctant hero in on who he is, and what steps he might have to complete in order to leap out of this particular timeline.
Back in the present day, the team scrambles to ease Ben’s transition. At the helm of operations is Herbert “Magic” Williams (Ghostbusters‘ Ernie Hudson), a career military man who now must answer to his higher ups who we discover will be less than happy once they learn about the breach of protocol. Why is Williams called Magic? We will unpack that particular nugget later this season. The rest of the team includes nerdy scientist Ian Wright (not the footballer but The Sandman’s Mason Alexander Park here in dowdy tweeds and nerd spectacles that let us know Ian is a top scientist!), whose role is to take care of Ziggy and to ask the questions we are all internally thinking, and dour digital security head Jenn Chou (Nanrisa Lee), who finds herself on high alert following Ben’s unauthorized trip.
Overall, Quantum Leap 2022 is a faithful adaptation of the original series in terms of theme and tone that kids who watched in the 80’s and 90’s are sure to appreciate… now that they are adults and watching with their own kids. There are callbacks to Sam and Al throughout (including a dedication to Dean Stockwell in the closing credits), making us wonder if a Scott Bakula guest star appearance might happen at some point down the line. (Let’s put that one on the wish list for now.)
The pilot episode also pumps plenty of energy into its opening episode: car chases, fist fights, tango dancing in black tie, and even some bomb defusing all showcase the show’s action-adventure credentials to would-be fans, along with Raymond Lee’s dramatic and comedic range. The story of the week similarly offers a familiar heartfelt beat that honors the original series.
Although fans may come for the explosions and the drama, they will surely want to stay for the core relationship at the heart of the show. However, it’s here some may feel let down, or worse, bored. In time, we may grow to love Ben and Addison, and discover their quirks and idiosyncrasies, but right now their previously established relationship and chemistry simply don’t live up to Sam and Al’s often contentious verbal sparring and moral debates, or Sam’s innocence vs Al’s world-weariness. Watching Ben and Addison’s exchanges almost feels like watching time-travelling Sam being mentored by hologram Sam. Every straight man needs a comedic counterpart, and in this version of Quantum Leap everyone is playing it a little too straight. Like everybody.
The pilot episode of any new show has an incredible amount of heavy lifting to do in terms of exposition, characters, tone, and direction. Quantum Leap 2022 has managed to successfully pull off just about everything with aplomb but for the most important element: the core dynamic between its two leads. Perhaps given time, these characters will leap off the page in a more interesting way. But for now, and maybe it’s just the pull of the old Nostalgia Pendulum, the 33 years old version of Quantum Leap still feels more charismatic and compelling than its present day counterpart.
Quantum Leap premieres Monday Sept. 19 (10-11 p.m. ET) on NBC.
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