Seasons 1 & 2 (1976-1978) (Universal-2005)
During the opening credits of Quincy, M.E., Jack Klugman is giving a demonstration of his job to a bunch of uniformed LA cops. With the theme music swinging in the background, he somberly intones, “Gentlemen, you are about to enter the fascinating sphere of police work: the world of forensic medicine.” Then he lifts the pall from a dead body and picks up a series of odd instruments as the cops one by one turn green and pass out.
As a kid I thought that was hysterical. Looking back at it as an adult, it is still kind of funny in a slightly obvious way. However, notice that in Quincy’s speech that there seems to be a word or two missing. Does he mean “the MOST fascinating sphere of police work?” Or perhaps “the ONLY fascinating” one? Or maybe he meant “enter WHAT I FEEL IS the fascinating” one?
That’s not just meant as a nitpick; it seems to be par for the course watching Quincy M.E. with nearly thirty years of hindsight. The show is enjoyable. Jack Klugman is an extremely likable lead character. The stories are well constructed. The show was a pioneer in the current rage for scientists as cops; Quincy was blazing trails for all the CSIs and Crossing Jordans currently dotting the TV landscape. Yet, as much as you enjoy it, it seems that there is something missing.
Quincy M.E. originally appeared at the tail-end of the long-running series of NBC Mystery Movies. That series was a running rotation of two-hour mysteries with a slate of recurring gumshoes, such as Peter Falk’s Columbo, Dennis Weaver’s Texas-lawman-in-the-big-city McCloud, the married crime fighters McMillan and Wife (Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James) and lesser remembered characters like Banacek (George Peppard), The Snoop Sisters (Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick) and McCoy (Tony Curtis.)
Quincy M.E. joined the Mystery Movies rotation in 1976, which ended up being the last year of that franchise. In 1977, the character of Quincy was popular enough to be transformed into an hour-long weekly series. It was designed as a showcase for Jack Klugman, who had recently finished a long run as slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison on the sitcom The Odd Couple. Much like his former role, Quincy is a bit untidy, obsessed with work, alcohol and women, a wisecracker, and a normal mensch. However, unlike Oscar, he lives on a dry-docked boat and is best friends with Danny (Val Bisoglio, who also played John Travolta’s angry pop in Saturday Night Fever), the owner of the local pub who has vague mob connections.
Quincy is also more than occasionally patronizing, self-righteous, and full of himself. He could not even imagine that someone else could be right and he could be wrong. It turns out that he’s always correct in that assumption (one of the fringe benefits of being the star). He feels it’s okay to harangue a grieving family into having an unwanted autopsy just to prove his point. He has no patience for suspects who feel sorry for themselves. “I asked you a question,” he yells at a Hispanic suspect who is sure he’s being railroaded by the cops. “You want to pour kerosene all over yourself, go ahead. You wanna light the match, be my guest. Don’t blame anybody else for the fire.” However, you know he will move heaven or earth to prove that same suspect innocent. He’s constantly lecturing doctors and police officers, demanding that they do their jobs up to his high standards. He’s always breaking the rules to make sure that justice is done.
Quincy is a continual thorn in the side of his bureaucratic boss, Dr. Astin (John S. Ragin) who spends almost all of his time arguing Quincy’s findings. Then Astin always has to apologize at the end of the episode and acknowledge Dr. Quincy’s value to the department.
Quincy’s best friend at the lab is Sam (Robert Ito), with whom he has a wonderfully pre-politically correct relationship. Quincy will casually make a joke about Sam’s Asian heritage, like this one from the pilot movie:
Sam: “We’ve got as much of a chance as a…”
Quincy: “Chinaman in hell?”
Sam: “Quincy, that’s a slur against the Chinese. I keep telling you I’m Japanese.”
Quincy: (shrugs) “What’s the difference?”
Sam will reply with a crack about Quincy being an old curmudgeon, but it’s okay, because we know these guys REALLY love and respect each other. Quincy also shows he’s human by mocking Sam for using technical forensic terms, preferring it when a fellow doctor blurts out that their findings are weird. “You see, that’s the way a scientist talks,” Quincy tells Sam. “Weird. That I understand.”
Quincy has a love-hate relationship with the police, particularly Lt. Monahan (Gary Wallberg), the gruff-but-good-hearted cop who mostly deals with the good doc. “Quincy, I wouldn’t have one regulation problem if it wasn’t for you,” Monahan bellows everytime the M.E. comes at him with one of his crazy ideas. By the end of the episode Monahan is grudgingly congratulating him for a job well done, and by the next episode Monahan has forgotten yet again that Quincy is always right.
Quincy also has the most understanding girlfriend in the world. Lee (Lynette Mettey) is a pretty stewardess, half his age and very perky. Quincy nearly inevitably cancels dates with her at the last minute to follow-up on something at work. However, Lee just continues to smile an “oh, that Quincy” smile, cook for him, clean for him and sand the deck of his boat. Even Quincy seems to find it a little disturbing, “She smiles at everything I do. Never complains. It’s driving me nuts.” About halfway into the second season, Lee has disappeared (no big surprise, it was about time she dumped the guy) and was replaced (for one episode) by Jenny, who is essentially a clone of Lee. She is also a stewardess (yes, we are still in the days when they didn’t insist on being called flight attendants), looks disturbingly like Lee, and also shares her doormat gene.
After Jenny takes off as well, Quincy pretty much plays the field, being an equal-opportunity flirt with nurses, students and a rape counselor played by Adrienne Barbeau. However, these women aren’t just people that he can date, they also help him solve his cases and push his causes. In one episode he enlists a pretty young intern named Laura (who had been one of his students just a year before) to help him hide a battered child from his abusive parents. Laura agrees, even though she knows it can cost her the job that she had been working towards for years. “It really doesn’t matter anyway,” Laura reasons, “I can just go back to the store and sell bras and pantyhose.”
Quincy answers, just a touch lecherously, “I’ll buy a gross if you’ll fill them.” They both laugh animatedly, which was the appropriate response to that kind of thing back in the pre-sexual-harassment era.
However, for a doctor with such an “aw, shucks, I’m just a normal guy” demeanor as old Quince, the lab was not just a prop. This show delved deep into the science of detective work and forensics as a way to commit and solve perfect murders. I can imagine the creators of C.S.I. being huge fans of Quincy, M.E., because their show is essentially a glitzier, more high-tech version of this series. There are lots of scenes of Quincy and Sam peering through microscopes and standing over dissection tables searching for some minute piece of evidence which will point to the killer. Thankfully, these dissections are always done discreetly below the camera range, which may make it less realistic than today’s shows, but it certainly makes it more comfortable to watch.
Still, with all its odd little quirks, Quincy M.E. makes for enjoyable viewing. The mysteries are clever, the lines are funny, and Klugman’s rumpled Hollywood-by-way-of-South-Philly charm always shines through. He keeps Southern California safe and he’s always right. If you can overlook the flaws, there’s something empowering about giving in to the cult of Quincy.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 7, 2005.