The New Quantum Leap Series is a Steaming Pile of Creatively Bankrupt Bullshit

I absolutely adored the original Quantum Leap series. It was quirky, imaginative, emotionally honest, and breathtakingly original. It was buoyed by the considerable talents and charisma of its two leads: Scott Bakula, who played the time-traveling scientist Dr. Sam Beckett, and the late Dean Stockwell, who appeared as Al, Sam’s cigar-smoking holographic guide, and who regularly wore flashy and often hilarious suits that seemed to be designed by some insane tailor obsessed with clashing pastels. The original series had the guts to tackle social issues with emotional sensitivity, such as the audacious episode in which Dr. Sam Beckett leaped into a rape victim. It had the confidence to tinker with daring premises, such as Sam leaping into a chimpanzee in the early days of the space program. And this go-for-broke high-concept approach made Quantum Leap one of the most fascinating shows on television in the 1990s. It greatly helped that showrunner Donald Bellasario was smart enough to hire top-notch writers. And because Sam could leap into anyone, the show was essentially an all-genre production in a way that hasn’t quite been seen since — unless you count such amazing shows as Farscape and Fringe. Quantum Leap could be a goofball comedy one week or a trenchant drama the next. It was also not afraid to embrace juicy melodrama, such as the very fun Evil Leapers who were introduced in the fifth season. Above all, the original series had heart and passion and guts. And this is arguably why the series remains so well-loved today.

But now NBC, fueled by corporate greed and knowing full well that fans are easily manipulated and will bob their heads up and down over the most mediocre storytelling, has “continued” this series and completely destroyed what was once a must-watch show. The first episode is poorly written garbage made by vile mercenary hacks who have clearly not studied what made the original series so enjoyable and who have neither the talent nor the inclination to carry on with the inventive tradition. I mean, when Bakula himself has completely distanced himself from this series in the classiest way imaginable, you know that the producers of this hideous affair shit the bed and then some. Bakula, so integral to the series, dodged a bullet. I hope he sticks to his guns and isn’t involved at all with this amateurish and shoddy production.

In Dr. Sam Beckett’s place, we have a dull and manipulative clod by the name of Dr. Ben Song, played by Raymond Lee. While it’s great to see an Asian American actor as the leading man in a television series, Lee, to put it charitably, is a hopeless stiff. An actor who clearly doesn’t have the thespic range of John Cho, Steven Yuen, or Sandra Oh — all of whom would have been perfect as the lead here. He appears to be deeply uncomfortable in the role. And his character is established in the first episode as a man who betrayed his partner, Addison (played by Caitlin Bassett), by injecting some new code into the supercomputer Ziggy and leaping, leaving only a thoughtless video message for her. To add insult to injury, Addison has now taken the place of Al as the holographic guide. So that means Addison now has to watch her fiancé regularly get it on with people in the bodies he leaps into. And if the show is committed in any way to the original concept of “putting right what once went wrong,” then it has established a morally bankrupt and incredibly selfish man in Sam’s place. The original series had the good sense to leave Sam’s wife out of the picture. Since the paper-thin Addison doesn’t possess the temperament of a cuckquean, it’s doubtful that she wants to see her partner fuck other people in her presence. So in an attempt at gender parity, the showrunners have succeeded instead in creating a misogynistic scenario in which Addison is more in the role of victim rather than guide. And given how Quantum Leap lives or dies on this vital character dynamic, the new series has already painted itself into a disastrous corner. It certainly doesn’t help that Sam’s “Oh boy!” has been replaced with Ben’s “Oh shit!” Perhaps this is a subconscious act from the producers in which they are offering a honest assessment of the new show’s true worth.

The new series also spends far too much time in the present day Quantum Leap Project, assembling a cast of tepid characters which include a nonbinary “architect” named Ian Wright (played by Mason Alexander Park with high camp) and Ernie Hudson reprising his role from “The Leap Home (Part 2)” as Herbert “Magic” Williams. Hudson, at least, has some fun with his role with big chewy lunges. He probably would have made a more interesting holographic guide than Addison. But Mason Alexander Park, because of the piss-poor writing, is reduced to yelling at DJs to play insipid song choices (“Come Dancing” instead of “Dead End Street”? Really?) and looking more like a thoughtless nonbinary caricature rather than an interesting three-dimensional character. Rather than keep the Quantum Leap Project secret, as the original series did, the mystery of the program is now needlessly revealed. And given how bereft of imagination this “continuation” is, the show’s producers have killed all the wonder that kept us rapturously watching three decades before. By keeping the show’s focus primarily on Sam, we were able to get to know him over time. And it also naturally guided the writers to mine the personal histories of their two central characters — often with emotionally moving results. (Who can forget the heartbreaking moment in “The Leap Home” when Sam sings “Imagine” to his sister when he leaps into himself and she knows, upon recognition of John Lennon’s telltale style, that he has to be from the future?) But because the new series now splits the story between Ben’s journey and the present day environment, we have less screen time with Ben. And with writing that is decidedly much inferior to the original series, the show is a veritable snoozefest and an insult to audience intelligence.

The other main problem is that, because a leaper can only travel within his own lifetime, Ben’s time range isn’t nearly as interesting as Sam’s. While Sam could inhabit the 1950s, the 1960s, and the 1970s, Ben can only go back to the 1980s at the earliest. And given the jejune and witless writing that now drives this colossal disaster, I doubt very highly that the writers will investigate, say, the collapse of the Soviet Union or the fall of the Berlin Wall. Their commitment to history is cheap nostalgia, seen in such obvious song choices as David Bowie and a-ha and memorialized further with a double bill of The Goonies and St. Elmo’s Fire seen on a movie theatre marquee.

The original series also had a sense of humor. I mean, the producers had to be funny given how goofy the conceptual hook was. But this new show is completely devoid of humor. In the original series, Al’s handlink had a number of weird squeaks and wheezes attached to it. And this brought a peculiar atmosphere to the series. But Addison’s tool is a generic circular device that can display holographic data in which there is no real commitment to sound design.

Change, of course, is inevitable. And reboots and remakes can work. Before the talentless Chris Chibnall utterly ruined the show, Doctor Who produced some of its best episodes when it returned in 2005. The American iteration of The Office is arguably better than the British original. Or what about Mad Max: Fury Road? Or Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica?

But based on a social media search I conducted last night, the fans have gobbled this truly terrible show up without question. And they are aided and abetted by dopes like Primetimer‘s Mark Blankenship, who actually had this to say:

Not every television show has to be an aesthetic breakthrough, because if everything were that compelling, then we’d never get the laundry folded.

This is anti-intellectualism. This is settling for mediocrity. Television, at its best, is art. And art has the duty to grab you by the lapels and not let go. Television isn’t something that should drone on in the background to alleviate lonely domestic duties. It should be about something.

And Quantum Leap isn’t about anything other than the need to fill up plutocratic coffers.

Fan entitlement now means accepting corporate “entertainment” without intelligence, craft, or wit and proclaiming this as “great” simply because you have some dim memory of the original series being great. It now involves surrendering your capacity to feel or to practice critical thinking. It involves possessing a Borg-like mind and becoming some slavish lemming to a corporate empire that does not give two fucks about quality storytelling and wants to take as much time and money from you as it can.

What NBC has done here is a shameful calumny. By employing talentless mercenaries as writers and producers, it has committed a significant crime against True Art. (And I am willing to hold up several episodes of the original series as True Art — indeed, Quantum Leap was some of the best television in the 1990s.) The Peacock has taken all that was great about Quantum Leap and created a steaming pile of insipid shit that is the greatest possible insult to originality. And because most people’s standards have plummeted, Quantum Leap will undoubtedly be a huge hit, perhaps expanding and becoming as smug and as bloviated and as vapid as the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Cycles (FYE #3)

This week, we examine cycles. Are our lives and our culture locked within cycles? Are we aware of it? Should we be aware of it? Or is there a certain folly in paying too much attention? Our quest for answers has us talking with bike shop owners and a Finnegans Wake reading group. We reveal how Raiders of the Lost Ark caused two teenage boys to become consumed by a relentless cycle of remaking the movie they loved with limited cinematic resources. We also talk with Scottish novelist Ian Rankin about how he returned to Inspector Rebus and got caught up in cycles he couldn’t quite describe and Lesley Alderman, the author of The Book of Times, who shows us how being aware of time doesn’t necessarily preclude you from finding enticing new cycles of existence.


3a

Like Riding a Life

We begin our investigation into cycles by wandering around Brooklyn on a cold Saturday afternoon talking with various bike shop owners about how the cycles of life relate to their passion for bicycles. Our gratitude to Fulton Bikes, R&A Cycles, and Brooklyn Cycle Works for sharing their thoughts and feelings, which range from calmness to restrained anger. (Beginning to 4:11)


3b

Commodius Vicus of Recirculation

Every month, the Finnegans Wake Society of New York gets together in a Spring Street apartment and reads aloud a page of James Joyce’s cyclical masterpiece. And then they discuss the page, whatever theories they can find, for about two hours. Organizer Murray Gross tells us why it’s important to slow down. Other members tell us how they became unexpectedly married to the book. (4:11 to 10:09)


3c

Standing in Another Man’s Cycle

Are cycles a red herring? I spoke with the novelist Ian Rankin to get more answers. Rankin’s latest book, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, marks a surprise return to the Inspector Rebus series, which Rankin had closed out in 2007 with his 17th Rebus novel, Exit Music. Somehow Rebus eluded retirement and manged to cajole Malcolm Fox, the protagonist of Rankin’s new series, into the mix. This seemed as good a time as any to press Rankin on whether he’s caught in a pleasant cycle. Our side trips in this conversation include consideration of Anthony Powell, the A9 Motorway and its homicidal possibilities, Skyfall, 20th century policing instinct, and how men in their sixties get into fistfights. (10:09 to 40:15)


3d

Pardon Me, Do You Have the Time?

We meet Lesley Alderman, author of The Book of Times, a collection of time-related data that will make your more conscious of the clock than Christian Marclay. But we learn how being aware of the time doesn’t mean you can’t find enticing new cycles hiding behind the corners of your complex existence. (40:15 to 45:51)


4e

Raiders of the Lost Remake

It was 1982 and three twelve-year-olds in Mississippi decided to remake Raiders of the Lost Ark. This was before the Internet, before the movie had been released on VHS. These kids had to hustle. What they did not know was that their ambitious project would take up their next seven summers. They would grow up making this movie. We talk with Chris Strompolos, who starred as Indiana Jones in the remake, and Alan Eisenstock, author of Raiders, a new book documenting the remake. Was all the fun and youthful ingenuity a mask? Can a cycle of remaking beget a new cycle of remaking? (45:51 to end)


Photograph by Steven Sebring.

Loops for this program were provided by Psychotropic Circle, DextDee, and HMNN.

Follow Your Ears #3: Cycles (Download MP3)

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Review: Arthur (2011)

Let’s say you’re a billionaire in your mid-thirties. You spend one evening banging three princesses, but you have no recollection of the orgy that transpired. In fact, there are many fleeting women in your debauched and privileged life. You even describe yourself as a metrosexual. Your image is frequently in the tabloids. You drink. But for the purposes of this scenario, that’s not important. What’s important is this: One night, you have a choice.

Option (A) You can spend the night with a woman who is dressed in a metal outfit, and who is somewhat drunk but lucid. She’s hiding in your bedroom, and your bed incidentally is a magnetic platform. She would like to give you a night of carnality, one that you didn’t expect. She has a whip. She declares herself a cat.

Option (B) You can spend the night with a woman who dresses in a childish polka dot dress, one whom your butler Hobson (played by Helen Mirren, who is phoning it in here) rightfully describes as “Minnie Mouse.” The second woman is nothing less than timorous. She marvels over the Pepe Le Pew cartoon playing in your private screening room. This woman, unlike another woman once played by Liza Minelli who stole ties and smoked cigarettes and encouraged mischief and dressed interestingly, is about as hot and dangerous as a dying titmouse squiggling in a glue trap.

Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure that most men – unless they are gay, shy, highly introverted, or celibate – would choose Option (A). But Arthur, played by Russell Brand in his 2011 incarnation, chooses the second option.

Why doesn’t the Arthur remake work? Well, we can accept toothless director Jason Winer’s complicity in this implausible story logic. After all, Winer cut his teeth directing episodes of Modern Family, a television series so toothless that it did not included a moment in which its gay characters, Mitchell and Cameron, kiss on screen during its first season.

Yet when one considers that screenwriter Peter Baynham — a man who has worked alongside such accomplished comedians as Christopher Morris (The Day Today), Steve Coogan (It’s Alan Partridge), and Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) – was involved, then it becomes necessary to pinpoint the insufficient hackwork of these scabrous sellouts.

Let’s say that you’re a calculating studio executive who misunderstands human nature (or a craven screenwriter known named Peter Baynham bending at the knees when offered a large bag of cash). Your mind is likely to come up with sentiments along these lines:

ROMANTIC COMEDY = WOMEN AUDIENCE
WOMEN AUDIENCE WANT NICE GIRL TO WIN
1981 SCRIPT HAS FEMALE CHARACTER
FEMALE CHARACTER IS APPEALING, BUT NOT ENTIRELY NICE GIRL
GEEK MOVIES = MONEY
WOMEN AUDIENCE = MONEY?
NICE GIRL + GEEK STEREOTYPE = MONEY + MONEY
SANITIZE ALL QUALITIES THAT NOT = NICE GIRL
????
MAKE MONEY MAKE MONEY
$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Unfortunately, in your pursuit of money, you fail to comprehend that none of your reworking makes any fucking sense. Your decision to rethink the elements of the original Steve Gordon script that worked so well (an alcoholic wastrel discovers that love encourages his dormant empathy and pro-active behavior; he is more true to himself and doesn’t feel as alone) becomes something illogical (a wastrel, who is kinda alcoholic and not terribly active at anything, discovers that people will do his bidding with or without money).

Consider the beginnings of the two films. In the original, a drunken Arthur (Dudley Moore) rudely accosts two prostitutes from the window of his Rolls-Royce. We see that his chauffeur Bitterman also has to suffer through his terrible jokes, but isn’t merely a doormat. He actually resists Arthur’s commands. (Indeed, this inversion of class expectations was one of the reasons the originalArthur was such a hit.) Director Gordon is careful to instruct Moore to have his glass of scotch arched upward during his exchange with the prostitutes. Visually, we understand that this man has a drinking problem. Emotionally, based on Bitterman’s actions, we understand that he may be a decent guy when he’s away from the hootch. In the remake, Bitterman is seen squeezing into a Robin costume, with his paunch pushing out (thus, unlike the original film, establishing a lack of dignity). Arthur is dressed as Batman. The car that Bitterman drives isn’t a Rolls-Royce, but the Batmobile. What does this say to the audience? Visually, we have no clue that Arthur is an alcoholic. He comes across more as a spoiled brat and we can only find sympathy in the character through Russell Brand’s enormous energy. Emotionally, we are invited to laugh at Bitterman’s willingness to do anything to appease his master. (Just imagine the comic potential of Luis Guzman, the talented fast-talking character actor who plays Bitterman in the remake and who is needlessly wasted, upbraiding Arthur in ways that only the audience can perceive!) And because the character relationship is so predictable, we have little reason to care.

Russell Brand shouldn’t be blamed here, but he will if this movie tanks hard at the box office. The wild anarchy that made Brand such a draw as Aldous Snow in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek is only here in spurts. Consider one moment in a prominent candy bar (deliberately unnamed to discourage product placement), where Brand, dressed in a gummy costume, is briefly seen swigging a flask while entertaining children. That split-second moment might have inspired some inappropriate comedy, but company man Winer (the Zack Snyder of comedy?) doesn’t want to upset his soul-sucking overlords and keeps Brand on a leash.

Even accounting for these limitations, Baynham’s script and Winer’s direction just isn’t capable or courageous enough to give the talented Brand an opportunity to develop a character. In the original film, Moore’s overbearing laugh always signaled to the audience that Arthur was drunk, and how Moore often drifted into lucidity. This careful telegraphing suggested a good-hearted man beneath the excess. The 1981 Arthur was brazen enough to drive to Queens while drinking from a brown bag. No such disastrous pro-active behavior from the 2011 Arthur, who has to be driven everywhere and doesn’t even know what Outlook is.

Yes, both films feature a moment in which Arthur hands his love interest a check and she rips it up. But the 1981 Arthur learns from that moment, while the 2011 Arthur does not. It’s understood in the 1981 version that Arthur will let Linda (the Liza Minnelli character) pursue her acting ambitions through her own initiative (the underlying assumption is that both Arthur and Linda will love each other outside of Arthur’s wealth, because they accept each other; Arthur is still a drunk at the end). But in the 2011 version, Arthur actually purchases Naomi’s dream, which is to become a published writer. I won’t even get into the film’s laughable ignorance of the publishing world, which had my moviegoing companion (a publishing reporter) and I howling. Let’s forget all that. If you’re a woman who has worked long and hard on a manuscript and has seen it accepted rather swiftly for publication, and you discover that the man trying to woo you (a man, incidentally, who has lied about having a fiancee) has had his company purchase your manuscript, can you honestly forgive him for deflating your shaky sense of meritocracy? (It doesn’t help that Naomi is played by the thespic cipher Greta Gerwig. She’s nothing less than a smiling doormat expressing nothing less than enthusiasm, even as Arthur downs loads of alcohol. She reminded me just how annoying Bonnie Langford was as the chirpy and clueless companion Melanie Bush on Doctor Who.)

Class, which guided the original Arthur, has been largely dispensed with. In 2011, “working class” means visiting a woman who lives off the elevated subway line. (The beauty of the original Arthur is that the rich only needed to mention the subway to taint it.) The 1981 film also allowed Bitterman to drop Linda off in front of her apartment complex, so that she could fool her neighbors and Bitterman could play mock chauffeur. This moment allowed both Linda and the audience to parse the frivolous nature of wealth. By contrast, the 2011 remake uses inflated excess as the basis for its romance, with Arthur wooing Naomi by closing off Grand Central and having a dinner at a table surrounded by rosebuds, with acrobats bouncing around on another level. What’s for dinner? Dispenser candy. If that isn’t romantic enough for you, then consider the many permutations of SpaghettiOs (never named, presumably because the studio couldn’t get Campbell’s to agree to shell out the chowder for product placement) that Arthur and Naomi eat for dinner.

The original Arthur offered a perfectly reasonable fantasy that one may find a comfortable adulthood while also keeping the inner child alive. By contrast, as the childish menu options I’ve cited above suggest, the remake is about how one’s adulthood is defined by being nothing more than a passive and entitled child. It’s a troubling sign that the Comic-Con geek mentality has crept into mainstream romantic comedy. What the filmmakers don’t understand is that fantasies must have some element of reality in order to persuade. But Arthur, much like its protagonist, gives nothing to the audience. It is a spoiled movie written and directed by spoiled people who deserve to be sent to the poorhouse.