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Ahead of its time: Remembering the 5 most progressive episodes of ‘Quantum Leap’

From the segregated South to same-sex taboos, Sam Beckett’s time travels wrestled with more than mere physics.

Quantum Leap

Even if it had never tackled a single social issue in its entire five-season run, Quantum Leap still would’ve made for must-watch sci-fi TV. But thanks to creator Donald Bellisario and a team of ambitious writers, Dr. Sam Beckett’s ever-shifting time trap came with more than just a dorky fixation on the mysteries of theoretic physics.

With the full series now airing as part of the network’s nostalgia-themed SYFY Rewind on Fridays, longtime fans and newcomers alike could probably use a primer to divvy up QL’s many ingenious ideas into easy-to-manage bites. We’ve got our all-time favorite episodes covered here and the most important canon episodes, too… but with nearly 100 leaps to make in total, it only scratches the subatomic surface of all the big themes that Sam (Scott Bakula) and holographic sidekick Al (Dean Stockwell) found themselves addressing on their era-spanning travels.

Benefiting from a timeline that threw our heroes into one set of social values after another, Quantum Leap achieved the tough feat of directly confronting heady issues without ever mistaking its sci-fi trappings as a preachy pulpit. Even amid period prejudices of the racial, gender, and class variety, Sam always found a way to work with the hand he’d been dealt — and of course he always left the past better than he’d found it.

Think of our short list, then, as just a sampler of the sort of societal snafus that Sam’s late-1980s sensibilities were tasked with setting right. With an all-new Quantum Leap reboot heading to NBC this fall, they’re sure to jump back into the spotlight, as a new generation leaps straight into the teeth of humanity’s never-ending cycle of self-defeating hang-ups.

“The Color of Truth” (Season 1, Episode 7)

The premise of righting wrongs took on early shades of larger social themes at the tail end of its first season, with Sam finding himself in the body of Jesse Tyler, an elderly Black chauffeur to the widow of a former Alabama governor. This wasn’t the comparatively progressive present-day South, though: Sam had time-jumped to the sweltering summer of 1955, right on cue to swap places with his host as his granddaughter suffers a racially motivated attack.

Complicating things is Sam’s ostensible main mission: Saving the governor’s wife — a product of her time who nevertheless sees past the bigotry of the pre-Civil Rights world that’s shaped her views — from an impending train wreck. At every turn, local prejudices impede his efforts; so much that it’s actually Al, somehow breaking through in his holographic form, to scare the governor’s wife away from the train tracks in a last-second swerve from destiny.

Throughout the episode, Sam (as Jesse) and his wealthy white patron debate their differing social views, with Sam’s time-advantaged grasp of the future informing his advice that a governor’s widow should use her social standing to nudge the racial equality timeline along faster. Though the episode often draws comparisons with 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy, the movie actually came out after the episode aired — though the stage version that inspired the film was probably well known to Quantum Leap’s creative team.

“What Price Gloria?” (Season 2, Episode 4)

Fans had been waiting for it, and sure enough, Season 2 brought the payoff — Sam finally leapt into the body of a woman. The show softened his obvious shock by at least letting him answer to his own name: His temporary host was Samantha Stormer, an attractive corporate secretary in the early 1960s who couldn’t make it through a workday without uncomfortably waving off the sleazy come-ons of her womanizing auto company boss.

“What Price Gloria” even found a subtle way to point out that advanced technology can’t be confused with the idea of true human progress. Not only does Samantha’s boss leer at her, but even Al — observing from his advanced 1980s holographic perch — can’t stop casting lecherous looks and sexist little asides that, let’s face it, felt totally on brand for Al. Caught in the middle was Sam himself, making broken-record admonitions for Al to focus on helping with the mission instead of cartoonishly ogling Samantha.

Then there’s the task itself, which finds Sam (as Samantha) saving Gloria, her best friend, from committing suicide after being rejected by an already-married man — and not just any man, mind you, but the only one who’s ever made Gloria feel like a real somebody. With Gloria poised on a ledge and threatening to jump, Sam convinces her there’s more to life than landing the right fella. Talking Gloria down isn’t enough to secure Sam’s next leap, though: That only comes after he shocks her flirtatious, would-be male paramour by revealing himself not as Samantha the secretary, but as Sam Beckett, the man…and throwing a well-placed punch that (hopefully) delivers a dose of newfound respect.

“Jimmy” (Season 2, Episode 8)

Sam’s medical background comes in handy from the jump in “Jimmy,” an episode set in the blue-collar 1960s that puts Sam in the shoes of a young man (Jimmy LaMotta), whom he quickly assessed is afflicted with Down Syndrome.

Most of the people in Jimmy’s life look at him either as an inconvenient obstacle to their own happiness or, even worse, an easy target for scapegoating and bullying. That’s where guest star Michael Madsen came in, playing a complete jerk coworker down at the docks where Jimmy’s family had gotten him a job — all part of a last-ditch effort to prove his independence and prevent him from being committed to an institution for life.

With few people in Jimmy’s corner, Madsen’s character takes advantage, pinning a workplace mistake  — one caused by his own dyslexia — on Jimmy. In the end, the ruse comes to light and Jimmy’s job at the docks is saved. More importantly, though, Jimmy finds his moment to shine, performing CPR on his kid brother (with a little assist thanks to Sam’s medical know-how) after Madsen’s frustrated dockworker pitches a tantrum that knocks him into the drink. It’s two wins in one: Jimmy shows a heroic side and keeps his brother alive to forge a brighter family future.

“Good Night, Dear Heart” (Season 2, Episode 17)

Even though it’s essentially a clever murder mystery, "Good Night, Dear Heart" has a lot going on in the background of its late-1950s New England setting. Sam, by this point in the series totally comfortable with sliding into his next new persona, leaps into the body of Melvin Spooner, a small-town mortician and coroner who begins to suspect that a poor immigrant girl’s suicide is actually a sinister product of foul play.

A relative nobody within this close-circle community, the victim could easily get lost in the seismic wash of impoverished immigrants who don’t have anyone to speak for them. But Melvin digs deep into the girl’s personal past, uncovering a forced abortion, an ex-lover with a murder motive, and, in a pretty heady twist for its 1990 TV slot, a same-sex secret crush who turns out to be the real killer.

Unlike a lot of Quantum Leap episodes, “Good Night, Dear Heart” ends with a funeral; not a life saved. But Sam uncovered a lot of local prejudices on his way to uncovering a murder that no local could be bothered to chase, and writer Paul Brown, crafting a layered mystery with tons of social subtext, scored the show an Edgar Award for Best Episode in a TV Series.

“Raped” (Season 4, Episode 6)

If the title isn’t enough to suggest it, “Raped” dared to tackle the way society sometimes tries to divert its eyes from tough truths — especially when someone with status is the one who stands accused. Edgy even by Quantum Leap standards, “Raped” found Sam leaping into the body of Katie McBain (Cheryl Pollak), a date rape victim who must testify against a respected local scion (the mayor’s kid) whom no one wants to acknowledge as that kind of criminal.

Beset with tons of social tropes that target real-world issues surrounding accused rapists and their alleged victims (including subtly crummy suggestions of the “she-had-it-coming” variety), Sam’s task is to prep the real Katie for her big court date as she faces down her seemingly untouchable attacker. Al informs Sam that Katie’s case never made it to trial in the original timeline, meaning the mayor’s kid remains free to wreak further abuse — but in a new twist for the series, things cut away to the imaging chamber to show the real Katie unloading her precise memory of events while Al takes careful mental notes.

None of it’s enough to swing the case Katie’s way, and her attacker goes free anyway — only this time, Sam’s there when the goon comes back around to force himself on Katie a second time. Fists fly and the cops come running, permanently averting a bad future for the creep’s future victims and — more importantly — giving Katie a newfound faith in both herself and in a system that, for once, found a way to mete justice to the kind of privileged people who typically manipulate things from behind the scenes.

For a full rundown of all the Quantum Leap goodness leaping to SYFY Rewind, check out the full schedule here.

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