During the opening credits of
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
fascinating" one? Or
maybe he meant "enter WHAT I FEEL IS the fascinating" one?
That’s not just meant as a nit-pick; 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.
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
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 sports writer 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 its 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.
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…”
“Chinaman in hell?”
Sam: “Quincy, that’s a slur against the Chinese. I keep telling you I’m
(shrugs) “What’s the difference?”
Sam will reply with a crack about Quincy
being an old curmudgeon, but its 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.”
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
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,
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
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Posted: June 7, 2005.