“Double Identity,” November 8, 1965
“Fortunately, I had help.”
With most new TV series, seeing the pilot is like going on a first date. It may go well, and you might like what you see, but viewers don’t really know the other party yet. There are pockets of awkwardness, maybe a few “What’s going on there?” moments. If you’re lucky, you come away with high hopes…but, possibly, also a few reservations. Still, you give it another try, then another, and each week it all gets a bit more promising.
Then—often quite suddenly—things click. The storytelling comes together, you start to feel comfortable with the set-up, the characters’ backstories emerge, and this, finally, lends charm to their various quirks. At last, the show has stopped bending over backward to impress you and is simply ready to be itself.
“Double Identity” wasn’t the first mostly comedic Quantum Leap episode. It wasn’t the first time Sam and Al really came together as a time-fighting team. But this is the first-season episode when the series began to let its hair down. From the it’s-embarrassing-to-Sam splashdown, when he all but catches his Leapee (Mafia hitman Frankie La Palma) in flagrante, through to the final, trivial, alleged point of the Leap (a Bingo call) this episode is a joy to watch
Quantum Leap’s premise and Sam’s lost-in-time predicament could have led its creators to offer audiences a one-sided diet of angsty episodes, replete with darkness and woe. And even “Double Identity” isn’t mere fluff—like many a great comedy, it is wrapped around a core of blackness. Amid the amusing Mafia hijinks is the ugly reality of what we now call stalking: Teresa is the desired love of Frankie’s boss, Don Gino, who is determined to keep her…and who has deadly minions available to watch her every move. Still, cuddly assassins and feminist sensibilities despite, this one is a comedy.
This chameleon tendency of Quantum Leap is another of its great strengths. Every dark episode offers a few laughs, and every season has a few all-out gigglefests. It is this same balance of darkness and light that Buffy would so completely master in its early seasons.
Even if “Double Identity” wasn’t tightly plotted and hilarious, even if it didn’t feature the luminous Terry Garber as Frankie’s would-be girlfriend, Teresa Pacci, even if it didn’t pit goofy Mafia buffoons with a hair dryer against drunken frat boys with, well, beer, against the entire East Coast power grid, the episode also features one of the absolute must-not-miss moments of the series, because it’s the one where Sam sings for the first time. Scott Bakula’s assisted-by-Al rendition of “Volare,” in Italian, is endlessly rewatchable.
Al’s contribution, meanwhile, is linguistic: Italian’s not one of Sam’s many languages, and Al saves his friend’s life simply by telling him what to say to the Don when he’s got a razor to his throat. He puts words in Sam’s mouth and Sam repeats them, forced by circumstance to believe that Al has the situation in hand.
“Double Identity,” ultimately, is all about trusting others with your life. Teresa has to work out whether she can count on the smooth-talking Frankie, Don Gino has a pathological fear of betrayal (understandable, in his line of work) and Sam is obliged to put his faith not only in Al’s impeccable Italian but also in a hare-brained scheme hatched by Ziggy the computer, whose goal is, of course, to get him home. As its story unfolds, we see that the show too has begun to trust its viewers, to believe we are comfortably along for the ride, and perhaps even ready to move forward from the “kind of seeing each other” phase into the beginnings of a deeper relationship.
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.