‘Quantum Leap’ Review: NBC Reboot Gets Off to Shaky Start, but Has Promise

·6-min read

“Quantum Leap” has entered the “Peak TV” era of television, but while the new NBC reboot gets off to a shaky start, there’s reason to believe this new version is still worthwhile.

Airing from 1989 to 1993, NBC’s original “Quantum Leap,” starred Scott Bakula as Dr. Sam Beckett, a scientist who has invented time travel (via his secret project, Project Quantum Leap) and ends up getting trapped in time as a result of it. Sam’s particular brand of time traveling involved “leaping” into the bodies of various people through time and having to right certain wrongs throughout history before he could leap into the next. During Sam’s adventures, he would be aided by Al (Dean Stockwell), a colleague (who, to Sam, appeared as a hologram only he could see) who provided him with certain answers—courtesy of Ziggy, the Project Quantum Leap supercomputer—about the people Sam would be inhabiting and helping.

It was a high-concept series that provided a lot of questions, but given the era of television, wasn’t too concerned with providing a lot of answers. Its episodic nature meant that you could almost always just pop on a random episode of “Quantum Leap” and dive in with little confusion. No need to worry about knowing the backstory on a character Sam would leap into, as Sam would often be learning about that person at the same time as the audience.

So naturally, “Quantum Leap” was the type of old school series absolutely primed for a present day reboot or reimagining or whatever you want to call it. The new series is set 30 years after Sam Beckett’s disappearance, and it makes very clear that even with new characters to follow, it’s following up on the story provided in the original series, not undoing or redoing it.

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The new “Quantum Leap” is a new high-concept series that the current climate of television allows to actually delve into more big picture aspects beyond the story of the week, which is just one of the ways that this 2022 version differentiates itself from the original. The new show pivots from being the two-hander the original was, focused pretty primarily on the leaping component, instead to a more ensemble-based dynamic, flipping back and forth between Dr. Ben Song’s (Raymond Lee) leaping adventures and the Project Quantum Leap team he left behind. The team consists of Addison (Caitlin Bassett), who fulfills the role of Stockwell’s Al to Ben’s leaping scientist; Herbert “Magic” Williams, the boss of the operation and the one who will have to answer to the government about another scientist being lost to Quantum Leap; Ian Wright (Mason Alexander Park), who runs Ziggy, which has become even more advanced A.I. at this point; and Jenn Chou (Nanrisa Lee), the head of digital security for the project.

Turning “Quantum Leap” into an ensemble is one major change from the original, but the other big change is the fact that Ben’s decision to use the machine before it’s ready doesn’t just stick him in leap mode like Sam: He also ends up in the past (1985, for the pilot) with amnesia. While both Sam Beckett and Ben Song were already at a disadvantage due to leaping with no prior information, part of the conflict for this series is Ben also having to re-learn who he is. Which is where Addison comes in as his hologram. The amnesia aspect is an interesting wrinkle in the story, except for when it works in service of one of the show’s weaker parts — its desire to keep things mysterious and vague, specifically the reason why Ben decided to use the machine before it’s ready, without telling anyone. Why’d he do it? Well, he doesn’t remember!

When the series isn’t being vague, it’s making sure to reiterate exposition in ways that definitely show the bumpiness of pilots and worldbuilding. It’s one thing for the series to note that the team knew that memory loss could be a side effect of the time travel; it’s another to repeat it to a character who would already know that, only for them to essentially say in response, “I already know that, because I’m part of the show.” Expository elegance is not this show’s strong suit. At least not yet.

While Bakula and Stockwell truly were a dynamic duo in the original series from the very beginning, it does make sense for this series to branch out and see the fuller picture of what the team dynamic for a project of this magnitude would be. The way the pilot — which was written by Steve Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt — is structured, it has to squeeze as much of the full ensemble dynamic in up top (and with the bumpy exposition) before Ben’s disappearance leads to the division of labor and somewhat scattered interactions. Which means a lot of telling and not really showing how close this team is, not just professionally but personally — and difficulty buying when a character like Ian says they’re best friends with Ben, despite nothing of the little the audience is shown in their brief interactions early on would suggest that they’d even be friends at all.

At the same time, the potential for the ensemble and series as a whole does stem from the fact that “Blindspot” creator Martin Gero took over as “Quantum Leap” showrunner. (It will be interesting to see how the show looks post-Lilien and Wynbrandt’s pilot because of this shift.) Over the course of five seasons of “Blindspot” (also for NBC), Gero proved he could make a high-concept procedural gel — not just in terms of the procedural itself but the ensemble, as well as the action, humor and emotional beats throughout. The blending of tones was something the original “Quantum Leap” excelled at, and something from which the new one could really benefit. The pilot has small amounts of levity, but it could use a greater balance of that along with the stuff that works, like the earnestness that Lee brings to the role as the lead.

In fact, that earnestness — from the character, Lee’s performance and the show as a whole — is the one thing the current “Quantum Leap” absolutely has on its side, much like the original. A lot of the time, the story is leaping into people who aren’t “important,” but the show is making the point that their lives still matter. It’s a bit hokey, but that’s kind of the charm of “Quantum Leap” in the first place. The so-called “leaping” aspect is easily the strongest quality of this reboot right out the gate, which is exactly what you want to hear about a show called “Quantum Leap.”

So despite a shaky start, there’s enough meat on these bones to be cautiously optimistic about the show going forward.

“Quantum Leap” premieres Monday, Sept. 19 on NBC at 10/9c.

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