With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.
Quantum Leap has what might be the most infinitely flexible premise in television history. It’s also one of the most convoluted, especially when compared to the more-or-less straightforward dramatic and comedic plots that play out over the course of each episode. As an introductory voiceover painstakingly explains, Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) is a genius scientist who theorized that time travel is possible within a person’s own lifetime, and his first test of this theory sent his mind hurtling back to 1956 and inhabiting the body of another man. His only assistance comes from his best friend, Al Calavicci (Dean Stockwell), who appears as a hologram but can’t interact with the past that Sam now inhabits, and only Sam can see or hear him. Once Sam has leaped into someone else’s body, he can’t leap back out until he fixes some horrible crime or injustice—as the show puts it, until he sets right what once went wrong.
Quantum Leap has the trappings of a fiendishly complex sci-fi epic, but all of the show’s wondrous ideas—the time travel, the omnipresent hologram, the timeline-monitoring supercomputer—were all just a means to an end for creator Donald P. Bellisario. Indeed, the show features some of the most impressive defenses against continuity errors in TV history. Sam’s leaping means that his memory is like Swiss cheese, allowing him to forget or remember any memory or skill as the plot demands it, and the show’s explicit acknowledgement that time is constantly changing around Sam and Al is the immediate answer to any apparent incongruity.
The co-creator of procedural, frequently military-themed action dramas like Magnum P.I., Airwolf, JAG, and NCIS, Bellisario saw Sam Beckett’s time-traveling and body-leaping as a way to take the premise of the 1978 film Heaven Can Wait—in which Warren Beatty’s character dies and is given the opportunity to return to Earth in another man’s body—and make it workable as episodic television. The show substitutes science fiction for the explicit religious content of its inspiration, although Quantum Leap never shied away from the possibility that God was actually behind Sam’s seemingly uncontrolled wanderings through time. The show’s underlying mysticism could extend to the occasional supernatural elements like mummy’s curses, UFOs, and possibly a cameo from Satan himself, although it reached its fullest expression in the intriguing, frequently baffling series finale “Mirror Image,” which tries to answer some of the show’s biggest questions while raising a couple dozen more.
Every episode begins with Sam leaping into someone and ends with him leaping out. What happens during the hour in between could be quite literally anything—a comedy, an action drama, a crime caper, a horror movie, or a challenging social commentary—as long as it takes place between 1953 and the end of the 20th century. Only Doctor Who can boast a more malleable premise, but its ability to go anywhere in space and time is tempered by the fact that every story must find some way to incorporate the Doctor, who is essentially an interloper into whatever story he wanders. Quantum Leap, on the other hand, inserts Sam Beckett directly into the story, and while his presence alters the natural course of events—that’s rather the point of the show—he’s still playing roles that can be vastly different from those of his own experience.
Quantum Leap was arguably at its most effective when it forced Sam to walk the proverbial mile in the shoes of those forced to the margins of society, including a Jim Crow-era black chauffeur, a dockworker with Down syndrome in 1964, and a teenage girl about to go into labor, among many others. The show’s social commentary can occasionally feel creaky by contemporary standards, as the passage of two decades has revealed a few hidden, regrettable assumptions in its generally well-meaning progressive stances. Still, the show is seldom didactic, even when dealing with the most controversial of topics, and it generally strikes the right balance in portraying the plight of the downtrodden, even when said downtrodden people all take the form of Scott Bakula.
Quite a bit of the credit for that goes to Bakula himself, who consistently finds a way to capture the innocence—even saintliness—of Sam Beckett without ever making him boring; he projects a straightforward, unshakeable decency that complements the show’s overall tone. Bakula was helped in this task considerably by the presence of the show’s only other regular cast member, Dean Stockwell’s Al Calavicci. An incorrigible womanizer with a heart of gold, Al provides a counterpart to Sam’s Boy Scout ethics without ever losing sight of the show’s earnest, proudly uncomplicated sense of right and wrong. Quantum Leap is a show about doing the right thing, and although it frequently explored the complications of Sam’s time travel—particularly its impact on Sam, Al, and their loved ones—it never really questioned the essential virtue of its own premise. The result is a show that is very much of its time. It’s frequently cheesy and goofy, and to those not willing to suspend a considerable portion of their disbelief, it can appear to be just ludicrously silly. And yet those sillier elements are generally worthy trade-offs for all the remarkable places that Sam and Al go, and all the remarkable things they do once they get there.
“Genesis (Parts 1 & 2)” (season one, episodes one and two): Quantum Leap does an admirable job distilling its ridiculously complicated premise into a handy, 30-second summary at the beginning of every episode, and yet it’s difficult to fully get one’s bearings with the show without first watching the two-part première. The story, which finds Sam inhabiting the body of a doomed test pilot in 1956, is a relatively straightforward adventure by the show’s later standards, but it establishes all the frankly bizarre conventions that the show will eventually take for granted. This episode has to explain Sam’s incomplete memory, the difference between his physical appearance and his reflection, Al’s presence as a mentally linked hologram, just how it’s possible for Sam to travel through time changing people’s lives for the better, and, perhaps most crucially, why he would ever accept such a seemingly hellish existence. The second installment also features a shorter sequence in which Sam leaps into a baseball player on the final night of his faltering career. This sequence may seem like an unnecessary add-on, important mostly for a call Sam makes to his father in Indiana, but it helps establish the variety of situations that Sam will encounter on his travels. Not all will be life-threatening, but all will be vitally important to the leapees, even if not all are as immediately obvious as others.
“The Color Of Truth” (season one, episode seven): Quickly recognizing that the show could be more than just a fun romp through America’s recent history, the creative team used the seventh episode of the show’s abbreviated first season to explore racism in ’50s Alabama when Sam leaps into the body of Jesse Tyler, the aging black chauffeur to the widow of a former governor. There’s a potentially patronizing subtext here in the idea that a well-meaning white man from the future has to control the body of a black man in order to effect social change, but the episode carefully works around this by never forgetting the larger social context, including an acknowledgment that Rosa Parks’ earth-shattering act of defiance will occur less than six months from when the episode is set. Sam is all for lecturing and haranguing people into change, and while his belief in people’s better angels is ultimately rewarded, the episode pointedly makes it clear that decades, even centuries of institutionalized racism won’t crumble just because of a few fiery speeches. The episode is most effective when Sam is confronted with all the simple things he takes for granted that are denied to him in this body, like being able to sit down for lunch at a diner or to drink from the nearest water fountain. As Al says, being a black man in ’50s Alabama is an inherently dangerous situation, and Sam can only begin to grasp that fact.
“Jimmy” (season two, episode eight): A fan-favorite episode, the story finds Sam Beckett in 1964 the body of Jimmy LaMotta, a young man with Down syndrome. Jimmy has the intelligence and functionality of a 12-year-old, which sets up a rather stark contrast with Sam, whose IQ is elsewhere given as 267. This seems like an impossible gap to bridge, but Al is unexpectedly passionate about helping Jimmy find a place in society outside of mental institutions. For reasons the episode leaves somewhat vague, Sam is uncharacteristically clumsy while inside Jimmy’s body, and that lack of coordination earns him plenty of scorn and bullying from those around him, particularly a nasty dockworker played by Michael Madsen. Much like in “The Color Of Truth,” Sam is repeatedly frustrated by the fact that he knows exactly what to do in various situations, and yet nobody listens to him—indeed, his own sister-in-law repeatedly pushes him away on the assumption he will only make things worse—because of his outward appearance. These difficulties are vital reminders that Sam is more than just a tourist in other people’s bodies, and they make his eventual triumph all the more moving.
“What Price Gloria?” (season two, episode four): Sam’s first leap into a woman’s body is a landmark for the show, although not in quite the same way as his leap into Jesse in “The Color Of Truth.” For all Sam’s initial shock about being a woman—not to mention Al’s deeply confused attraction to a beautiful woman who just happens to contain the mind of his best friend—the episode doesn’t go in for the full-barreled social commentary as it details Sam’s life as Samantha Stormer, a secretary who faces her fair share of Mad Men-style sexism in the corporate Detroit of 1961. Some of that is down to the visuals; it’s not really possible to take the very tall, quite masculine Scott Bakula seriously while he wanders the streets of ’60s Detroit in a succession of (theoretically) flattering dresses and high-heeled shoes, all the while on the verge of beating up the endless succession of men making sexist overtures toward him. Still, “What Price Gloria?” is more than just an excuse for some drag humor, as the episode zeroes in on the plight of Samantha’s roommate, who is foolishly convinced that her sleaze of a boss is going to leave his wife for her.
“Another Mother” (season two, episode 13): Since “What Price Gloria?” already dealt with Sam leaping into a woman, his leap here into the body of a divorced mother doesn’t focus too much on the differences between the sexes. Rather, the episode examines the difficulties of raising a growing family with minimal outside help; as Sam points out, leapee Linda Bruckner’s schedule is so insanely packed that he has no time left over to stop a horrific crime. Sam gets some relief from Al, as Linda’s youngest daughter is so naturally innocent that she can see the hologram—and, rather more disturbingly, the fact that her mother has been replaced by a strange man wearing her clothes. The episode is a real showcase for Dean Stockwell as Al, who shows a flair for parenthood as the little girl’s not-so-imaginary friend. Meanwhile, Sam tries to save Linda’s teenage son not only from a pair of murderous psychopaths but also the cruelty of the boy’s sex-obsessed classmates. Sam can call upon hidden karate skills without trouble, but his far greater challenge is figuring out how best to counsel a young man on sex, all while pretending to be the boy’s mother.
“The Leap Home (Part 1)” (season three, episode one): Although a cardinal rule of quantum leaping is supposed to be that one can never interfere with one’s own past, the show flagrantly broke this rule on several occasions, as Sam and Al repeatedly tampered—or, at least, tried to tamper—with both of their lives. One of the most effective such episodes is the third-season première, in which Sam leaps into his own body as a teenager on his Indiana farm. He immediately sets about trying to save his father from an early coronary, his brother from being killed in Vietnam, and his sister from marrying an abusive drunk; the latter is an especially difficult task, considering Katie is only 12 years old at the time of his leap. The episode plays up the heartbreak of wandering through time, as Sam angrily asks why he must always improve the lives of strangers without ever being able to help those he loves. But Al reminds him of what a rare gift it is to spend one more Thanksgiving with a family Sam thought lost forever, and it’s that sense of bittersweet but undeniable joy that suffuses and ultimately elevates the episode.
“Raped” (season four, episode six): Perhaps the show’s most daring social commentary, Sam leaps into a woman who was raped by her date, who just happens to be the mayor’s son and a beloved hero of the community. Unlike “The Color Of Truth” and “Jimmy,” both of which explore bigotry and prejudice from the safe remove of three decades’ worth of distance, “Raped” is set in 1980, just 11 years before the episode aired. Because Sam leaps into Katie McBain’s body after the rape is committed, he can’t know for sure what exactly happened. Still, he steadfastly trusts Katie’s initial report that she was indeed raped, even when the entire community slanders her and, worse, her family members waver in their belief in her. More than any other Quantum Leap story, this isn’t really Sam’s story at all—it is Katie’s, and so the episode takes the unprecedented step of bringing her into the hologram imaging chamber alongside Al so that she can testify at the trial, with Sam repeating her words for the benefit of those in 1980. Sam’s repetition eventually drops out of the scene altogether, leaving only Katie’s heartbreaking monologue about what happened to her that night.
“The Wrong Stuff” (season four, episode seven): Of all the show’s format-shattering experiments, none can really compare to the unabashed craziness of “The Wrong Stuff,” in which Sam leaps into the body of a chimpanzee. For his only non-human leap, Sam finds himself part of the early days of the space program, wearing a diaper and living in a cage while scientists gather the vital data that will make the Mercury missions possible. On the surface, this seems like it should be one of the show’s silliest entries, and yet Quantum Leap once again shows its respect for the mistreated and marginalized. Sam’s chimp host body, Bobo, is slated not for a trip into space but rather for a scientifically and ethically dubious experiment that will kill him and the chimp that loves him. (Fine, this episode is still a little silly.) Sam’s respect for all life is on frequent display here, as he saves not only Bobo’s future mate but also the misguided scientist who would have killed both of them. Also, this episode features a chimp shooting a gun, which is really more than enough to recommend it.
“Lee Harvey Oswald” (season five, episodes one and two): The fifth season saw some significant revamps to the show’s increasingly well-worn formula. At the behest of studio executives concerned about the show’s somewhat flagging ratings, Quantum Leap began featuring more historical celebrities, with Sam leaping into Lee Harvey Oswald, Marilyn Monroe’s driver, Elvis Presley, and, perhaps most remarkably, TV psychologist and sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer. While these episodes were necessarily more gimmick-driven than the typical Quantum Leap episode, they were arguably just an extension of Sam’s already long-established penchant for messing with and sometimes shaping history; he did inadvertently foil the Watergate break-in in the show’s third episode, after all. The fifth season’s two-part opener is probably the most successful—and certainly the most epic—of the episodes featuring historical celebrities, as “Lee Harvey Oswald” finds Sam leaping into various different points in the life of the (alleged) presidential assassin. It’s a tense, frequently disorienting story, as Sam uniquely finds his own personality blurring with Oswald’s, and the story’s unexpected final twist offers a reminder that Quantum Leap’s history isn’t necessarily the same as our own.
“Deliver Us From Evil” (season five, episode seven): One of the more controversial elements added in the final season are the Evil Leapers, a mysterious group sworn to set wrong what once went right. This is a goofy idea, even by Quantum Leap’s generous standards, especially considering that the Evil Leapers are quite happy to refer to themselves as “Evil Leapers.” This introductory episode is a sequel to “Jimmy,” as Sam returns to one of his favorite hosts only to discover that things are inexplicably going wrong at the LaMotta household. The reveal of Alia, a second leaper, is originally played as one of the greatest moments in Sam’s life, as he has finally found someone who can truly understand his absurd, impossible existence. This whirlwind, time-crossed romance is just a misdirection, but it’s key to why Quantum Leap is just about able to make palatable the later scenes, in which Sam reels off high-minded, metaphysical speeches about the nature of good as a necessary counterweight to evil. Even when the show is at its most mystical and abstract, it never forgets the human side of its premise. Sam Beckett may be a saint, even an angel, but the show deeply feels the loneliness of his existence, which adds a necessary layer of emotional betrayal to the otherwise insane concept of Evil Leapers.
And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Star-Crossed” (season one, episode three), “So Help Me God” (season two, episode nine), “The Boogieman” (season three, episode five), “Future Boy” (season three, episode 13), “A Hunting We Will Go” (season three, episode 18), “The Leap Back” (season four, episode one), “The Play’s The Thing” (season four, episode 11), “A Leap For Lisa” (season four, episode 22), “Killin’ Time” (season five, episode five), “Mirror Image” (season five, episode 22).
Availability: The complete series is available on DVD. The series is also currently streaming in its entirety on Hulu, most episodes are available to stream on Netflix, and paid downloads are available via Amazon and iTunes.