“The Play’s the Thing”: September 9, 1969
Original airdate: January 8, 1992
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Whether he’s leaped into a man or woman, there are few things as droll as watching someone treat Sam as a sex object. His innocence and touch of shyness—both of which serve as perfect foils to Al’s more freewheeling sexual appetite—create instant humor when he’s cast as an object of lust. When Sam is a beauty pageant contestant, an arguably cute hit man or a male exotic dancer named “Rod the Bod,” Quantum Leap dials up the slapstick. It’s all in the chase: when pursued, Scott Bakula bumbles, stammers, blushes...and thoroughly charms us all.
In “The Play’s the Thing,” he becomes Joe Thurlow, the extremely fit and pretty lover of Jane Linhurst. He leaps into her comfortable bed in the fall of 1969, and has just enough time to be grateful that, for once, he’s not in handcuffs or a gunfight before Jane pounces on him for what is obviously Round Two. Sam’s playing bashful when Jane’s thirty-something son from Cleveland bursts in on them with his pregnant wife in tow. The son, Neil, is appalled: the age difference between Joe and his Mommy is fifty years.
Sam, naturally, has no problems with the age gap, taking the first opportunity to point out that older men marry much younger women all the time, with nobody batting an eye. Once he’s convinced that Joe and Jane are in love he’s all for it, but Neil sees him as a jobless, opportunistic mooch who’s going to break his mother’s heart. He disinters a well-off family friend to woo Jane back to Cleveland, and gets busy trying to undermine her faith in the dream that brought her to New York: the possibility of a singing career.
Every time Sam tries to make peace, he instead makes things worse. He bets Neil that Jane can wow a crowd with her singing, and she gets too nervous to perform. He insists he’s not unemployed—he’s playing Hamlet off-Broadway—and invites them to see the show. That night his director, in a desperate bid to save the show, sends the cast out on stage nude.
The cringe factor is in the stratosphere as Sam performs Shakespeare without a stitch on, in front of his lover, potential stepchildren, and smarmy romantic rival.
In the original history, this was too much for Joe: he refused to give Hamlet his naked all. The show folded, and Jane went home to Cleveland forever. But Sam’s triumph over stage fright brings an unexpected and off-beat reward...the chance to become a spokeshunk for Boxer Boy jockey shorts.
The lion’s share of Sam’s leaps bring him into a small circle of everyday people. They aren’t famous, or wealthy, and the tragedies he prevents are very personal: they affect individuals, families, and small communities. In season five, the show begins to diverge from this pattern: he kick-starts Elvis’s career, gets entangled with the Kennedy assassination and works for Marilyn Monroe. For the most part, however, the Quantum Leap creators considered it a point of pride that they weren’t changing the big historical events of the twentieth century.
The not so ordinary heroine of this episode is Jane—a role played with verve and a real sense of joy by Penny Fuller. In her, most of us can see our mothers and grandmothers: she has been, for thirty years, a dutiful mother and wife. Since her teens, she’s done everything conventional society expects of her. It is only now, as a widow whose son is independent, that she has made the move to New York in search of something for herself. And even so she isn’t sure, deep down, that she’s entitled to any kind of glamorous reboot.
This is something many women struggle with, even today...believing they’re permitted to not only have emotions but to want so-called “selfish” things like attention, success and artistic fulfillment.
Sam, of course, is heroic in support of Jane and indifferent to the judgments of her family, society, and even Al (who has the gall to call Jane “long in the tooth” despite his relentless girl-chasing). Sam champions Jane’s right to sing and to love Joe, even when she’s just about given up. And when he succeeds they remain ordinary people: Joe never wins an Oscar, and Jane never gets a Grammy. Their prize, modest and yet priceless, is the happy, fulfilling life that Jane longs for.
Part of the contrast in values between Sam and Al, of course, is generational. Sam’s a sensitive modern guy, Nineties-style. Al—though he’s quite liberal in many ways—is hard-wired with the attitudes of the Forties and Fifties. This gap becomes even more apparent when I get to the question of homophobia in Al’s beloved Navy, next week, in “Running for Honor.”
A.M. Dellamonica writes novels and short fiction and teaches writing online. She is passionate about environmentalism, food and drink, and art in every form, and dabbles in several: photography, choral music, theater, dance, cooking and crafts. Catch up with her on her blog here.