[2 April 2013]
Quincy, M.E.’s fifth season finds Jack Klugman (in the title role) and friends doing what they do best––using science to help solve crimes. The series premiered in late 1975; the final credits rolled in early 1983. In that time the writers and cast turned out a high number of episodes that have dated rather well. Watching the 1979-1980 season more than 30 years after its first airing, it’s remarkable how many of the issues tackled in these 22 episodes are still relevant today and how well the series has aged.
Because it’s an episodic drama designed for network television the formula becomes apparent within the first episode: there’s a death, Quincy has to perform the autopsy only to discover that the actual cause of death was more complex or convoluted than he initially thought. Because of that he must convince others––his peers, his supervisor, the Los Angeles Police Department––to dig deeper or accept that he needs to dig deeper. Quincy, as is noted in more than a few of episodes included here, is as much a cop as he is a medical examiner, and whether that blurring of roles be right or wrong, he consistently gets the job done.
Besides, what choice does he––or the series itself––have?
(And, of course, he’s always right!)
Episode One: “No Way to Treat a Flower” (original airdate September 20, 1979) involves a teenager who dies after smoking some chemically treated marijuana and ends with the story of a young physician––A Martinez of Santa Barbara,, LA Law and Profiler fame––who may have mishandled the treatment of an gunshot victim. Along the way there are episodes that tackle drunk driving (“Unhappy Hour”), elder abuse (“Honor Thy Elders”), and a hospital that turns away patients who lack insurance (“For the Benefit of My Patients”). There’s also an episode involving performance-enhancing drugs (“The Winning Edge”) and one that tackles incest (“Nowhere to Run”).
The climate under which these topics are discussed is remarkable. Quincy is many things but overly preachy is not one of them; drug use among young people is treated as something of an inevitability, albeit one that should not be taken lightly; alcoholism is treated as the disease that it is and not a moral failing; incest is discussed in a frank light––with the admission that it is a more common problem than reported and that victims should not have to live in shame but, we also learn (at least in the context of this show), that there is hope that perpetrators might be rehabilitated.
True, some of the dialogue can clank and clatter as Quincy and colleagues spit out facts and statistics about big issues, but we watch on mostly because the issues, the performances, and the scripts are so compelling.
There are some run-of-the-mill plots as well––fraud and greed, normally the domain of Barnaby Jones crop up in “The Final Gift”, and there’s some muddled business about unethical practices in the horse racing world (“Dead Last”). Quincy also finds himself in some unlikely places––intervening in international politics (“By The Death Of A Child”) and on a diamonds caper (“Hot Ice”) and in pursuit of a D.B. Cooper-like scam (“The Money Plague”). Those episodes not only serve to distract us (at least slightly) from the show’s standard formula but also reminded us that, in the end, Quincy, M.E. is all about entertainment.
It also had a remarkably capable cast––Klugman is a fascinating actor. Not only does he inhabit Quincy entirely, he carries with him many physical gifts: the way he leans against other actors in scenes, gesticulates, or engages fully with his environment are all noteworthy as is his gift for being warm and funny. Quincy and his boss Dr. Robert Astin (John S. Ragin) often disagree but the tension between them is the source of both fine drama and some really great physical comedy. Sam Fujiyama (Robert Ito) may be Quincy’s second in command but Ito plays him like the important character he is––and Klugman and the others let him.
A number of actors offered notable guest performances in this season, namely Robert Loggia, Tony Plana, Barbara Tarbuck, and Melora Hardin.
Quincy, M.E. was really the first of its kind and viewing it today, when forensic dramas remain popular and plentiful, is a reminder of why it was popular in its initial run and why it remains worth watching.
There are no extras on this DVD set but having all 22 episodes is a reward enough.