A single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
Hollywood, here’s your next “shared universe” pitch: a series of neo-noir mysteries, set in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. LAPD Sgt. Pepper Anderson works cases undercover. Officer Pete Malloy and his rookie partner Jim Reed patrol the streets. Paramedics Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto race crime-victims to the ER at Rampart General. Homicide detective Lt. Columbo doggedly tries to bait murderers into spilling their secrets. Private eyes Jim Rockford, Barnaby Jones, Frank Cannon, Harry Orwell, and Joe Mannix all hover around the periphery, making sure the authorities don’t put away the wrong guy or gal.
But here’s the big question: Dr. Quincy, or no Dr. Quincy?
Network television perfected the detective show in the ’70s. Around the same time that Norman Lear, M*A*S*H, and MTM Enterprises were classing up the sitcom, a slew of procedurals began dealing with crime, social divisions, and cultural transitions, with a rare subtlety and sophistication. Circa 1975, even routine mystery series boasted snazzy soundtracks, flashes of eye-catching visual style, rich characterizations, and career-best lead performances by showbiz veterans. Each one had its gimmick. Some shows were hard-boiled, and others lighter in tone. The heroes were sometimes slick, sometimes scruffy. And the vast majority were set in and around Los Angeles, which allowed the writers to tell stories about the rich and glamorous, the poor and scrappy, and the eternally rebellious children of the suburban middle class.
Quincy, M.E. arrived at the tail end of the TV-detective heyday, and ran for eight seasons, surviving through the genre’s transition into dumbed-down escapism at the end of the ‘70s (think Charlie’s Angels and CHiPs), then ending just as the television mystery genre took a turn toward the soft and inconsequential (think Murder, She Wrote). When Quincy started, it was in the mold of a Banacek or McCloud, following one colorful, stubborn crime-solver with his own unique skills—which in Dr. Quincy’s case was forensic medicine. But by the early ’80s, Quincy had largely become an issue-of-the-week drama, advocating for public safety, improved hospital procedures, and increased awareness of lesser-known diseases. While ’70s shows like The Rockford Files remain fairly popular because of the timeless universality of their “underdog P.I. outwitting the power elites” plots, Quincy, M.E. is very much of its time—and in frequently fascinating ways.
On December 1, 1982—in the middle of Quincy’s final season—NBC aired the instant camp classic episode “Next Stop, Nowhere.” A typical Quincy back then would open with some kind of avoidable deadly accident, which our cranky doc would declare tantamount to “murdah” (in star Jack Klugman’s best East Coast street-tough voice), as he launched his latest crusade. “Next Stop, Nowhere,” though, begins with an actual murder: A teenage boy named Zack gets stabbed in the neck with an ice pick, in the middle of a performance by a nihilistic punk band named Mayhem. The most obvious suspect for the crime is Zack’s girlfriend Abby (played by a 14-year-old Melora Hardin), who was messed up on pills at the time but left fingerprints on the weapon. But while the L.A. coroner’s office tries to isolate the source of a second print, Quincy and his psychologist girlfriend Emily Hanover (Anita Gillette) also suggest to the papers that the real culprit is that awful, awful music that Zack liked.
“Next Stop, Nowhere” proceeds along two parallel paths. In one, Abby hunkers down with her friend Molly (Karlene Crockett), who’s secretly the source of the second fingerprint. Knowing that Abby’s allergic to codeine, Molly slips her pills without telling her that she’s slowly poisoning her, hoping that her pal will die and that’ll close the case before the cops realize who was really holding the ice pick. But even before giving Abby the drugs, Molly’s killing her with peer pressure, by telling her constantly that to be truly hardcore she needs to ignore what any authority figure might say and just live her life as one non-stop howl of rage.
Meanwhile, the two doctors—Quincy and Hanover—carry their anti-punk words of warning to a Donahue-like local talk show, where they trade barbs with the members of Mayhem and their fans. The kids blame the older generation for wrecking the planet and pushing human civilization to the brink of nuclear war. Quincy owns up to those mistakes, but wonders why these punks don’t do what the hippies did before them, and try to work toward a positive change. Rejecting their parents’ values is natural, he and Emily argue. But they have to replace those values with something.
The punks and the docs never do resolve their differences. Quincy remains convinced that, “Whoever killed that boy was listening to words that literally cried out for blood,” and the episode ends with him and Hanover dancing to big band music and wondering why anyone would choose music that celebrates hate over love. And when Quincy tries to enlist the youths’ help in finding Abby before she dies, the scruffy, painted-up kids scoff, “This guy’s been zapped by the brain police!” and insist, “You’re the killers, man!” Luckily, one of Molly and Abby’s friends feels compelled to point the police in the right direction, which leads to a scene where Abby returns home to her worried mother, suggesting some tentative reconciliation.
It’s not hard to understand why “Next Stop, Nowhere” has been so well-remembered over the past 34 years. (Indie-rock heroes Spoon even commemorated it with a song, “Quincy Punk Episode.”) Alarmist, reactionary agitprop nearly always has some kitsch value: from Reefer Madness to whatever ripped-from-the-headlines atrocity the latest Law & Order spinoff confronts. These kinds of push-backs against a changing culture are even more entertaining when the source of their ire is something that doesn’t really merit fear-mongering: like role-playing games, or punk rock.
Add to that TV and cinema’s misappropriation/misunderstanding of punk in the early ’80s, which was always good for a laugh. When the Minutemen sang, “We learned punk rock in Hollywood,” they were talking about the bands they saw in L.A.’s clubs and the kids they hung out with in the streets—and definitely not the entertainment industry’s broad-stroke representations of the movement. The producers, directors, writers, and costume designers who drove past punks on their way to the studio apparently felt a lot like Quincy, who muses, “Why would anyone want to pretend every day is Halloween?” To the establishment showbiz squares, the look of punk was all torn clothes, spiked hair, bizarre makeup, and (for some reason) bandanas. And the sound of punk was all screaming and snarling—toned down just enough to meet broadcast standards.
So it goes with Mayhem in “Next Stop, Nowhere.” The band’s sound is way too clean for L.A. hardcore, and the lyrics are an exaggerated version of shock rock, with lyrics like, “Saw a blind man, took his pencils,” and “No garbage like the human race.” Mayhem’s general attire and demeanor seem inspired by West Coast punk legends Fear, although the songs—which urge listeners to “give up, give up”—have a lot more in common with Suicidal Tendencies, a band that was still a few months away from recording its debut album at the time.
Here’s the thing, though: Compared to a lot of other depictions of the punk scene in the mainstream media at the time, “Next Stop, Nowhere” isn’t that egregious. The rigid ideology and relentless hopelessness of the young audience is way overdone, but those characters do at least express a coherent punk ethos, and don’t just represent generic “rebellion.” Credited screenwriter Sam Egan got a lot of small details right: the slam-dancing, the little x’s that Zack carved into his arm, and the kids’ stubborn insistence that, “We don’t just look different, we are different.” Though cartoonish, the poseur-hating punk rage here is a lot closer to the kind seen in the Los Angeles alt-comics classic Love & Rockets….
… than to the version that advertisers and image-makers tried to co-opt a decade later in the wake of Nirvana.
There’s even some prescience in the episode’s talk show scene. Just over two years after “Next Stop, Nowhere,” Senator Al Gore’s wife Tipper founded the Parents Music Resource Center to pressure record labels into warning consumers of objectionable content in popular music. The PMRC’s focus was on sex, drugs, and violence, and members of the group popped up on talk shows like Oprah to make their case. I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee—the Gores’ home base—and I have a distinct memory of sitting in the audience for a local public affairs TV show where a PMRC representative read aloud the track-list for Suicidal Tendencies’ first LP, sounding every bit like Dr. Quincy as she clucked her tongue over the title “Suicide’s An Alternative.” (If only she’d known that the song called “I Shot The Devil” was really named “I Shot Reagan,” or that the one that begins “I Saw Your Mommy…” goes on to say, “… and your mommy’s dead.”)
What all those real and fictional punk-hating busybodies failed to grasp was that some of the music’s more excessive messages functioned as an escape valve for ordinary teen angst, giving kids a chance to shout and shake among friends. Some of it also served as a kind of initiation, weeding out who was hard-edged enough to join the tribe and who couldn’t hack it. And some of it was just funny. (That first Suicidal Tendencies album for example is hilariously dark, and purposefully so.)
On the other hand, what “that goofy Quincy punk episode” mockers miss is that the show really was trying to grapple with something worrisome, happening just outside the studio lot. The spiky-haired teenagers and flippant young adults in “Next Stop, Nowhere” are painted as cartoonishly naive and short-sighted, but while that’s an exaggeration, it’s not based on nothing. Sometimes, when faced with the aggravating certainty of an inexperienced, self-centered younger generation, their elders can’t help but try to shake some sense into them.
“Next Stop, Nowhere” isn’t that bad as a moralizing 1980s television social-issue melodrama—especially when stacked up against the competition, which back then was mostly made up of overwrought TV movies and painfully unfunny and idealistically earnest family sitcoms. Quincy, M.E. always remained well-acted and genuinely entertaining, with a reasonable grasp of its own subjects and a unique slant, however extreme.
This episode though is so far removed from what Quincy was in its early seasons, when it was still mostly a show about a quick-witted womanizer who sweated every case down to the last detail. The best mystery series back then were like this: character-driven and puzzle-driven, with no interest in making every episode a symposium on topics of the day. Yet they still captured their times remarkably well. Columbo and Rockford found out a lot about what was happening at their particular moment in Los Angeles by traveling around the city, asking questions. Quincy, on the other hand—especially post-1978—never visited a part of L.A. that he didn’t think he could improve, block by block, and case by case.
Next time… on A Very Special Episode: Survivor: Borneo, “Pulling Your Own Weight”