Looking for definitive proof that some people seem to have more free time than is good for them? Observe a new wrinkle in video marketing: tapes of recent TV shows. Loved last Monday’s new episode of Northern Exposure (1990-92, MCA/ Universal, $14.98) but yearn to see the one where Maurice (Barry Corbin) discovers he has a half-Korean son he never knew about? No problem. It’s one of seven Exposures just out on videocassette. You say you’re sore that your favorite guy-jumps-into-other-people’s-bodies show, Quantum Leap (1988-89, MCA/Universal, $14.98), was canceled just months ago by NBC? Salve your wounds with five cassettes, each containing what a fan might consider a classic episode.
In many TV markets, the syndicated Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-88, – Paramount, $14.95) is shown more than once a week, but maybe you still feel you’re not being beamed up enough. Open wide, then: Thirty (yes, 30!) episodes of Next Generation are now inhabiting your space-time continuum.
One question: These series inspire devoted cult followings rather than casual viewers—and they’re the sort of cults that know how to program their VCRs. You’d think, therefore, that any Leaper, Trekker, or Northerner (Exposer?) worth his or her salt would have already taped scads of plum episodes, so is there a substantial audience for these collections?
Watching TV shows as video fare, you’re immediately aware of the way teleplays are rigidly constructed around commercial breaks. A typical Quantum Leap features a conflict that builds to a peak every 10 or 15 minutes—the rhythm of each episode is wearyingly monotonous. In this, however, it echoes the series itself: formula television with a terrible earnestness.
In every episode, our scientist hero, Sam (Scott Bakula), gets whizzed into a different person’s body in a different period of history, and in every episode, Sam alters history slightly for the better. His elderly black man teaches his 1950s Alabama neighbors a lesson in equality and civil rights; his sexually harassed 1960s secretary makes men more aware of the pain they cause. On video these positive-message dramas, with their mediocre special effects and flat, TV-industry camera work, seem doggedly sincere but excruciatingly obvious.
On the other hand, I appreciated the lack of commercials in the Star Trek tapes. As someone for whom the Next Generation character histories and the extraterrestrial lingo of the Trek mythos form a byzantine maze, I found that the brisker pace of a commercial-free, roughly 45-minute episode helped me concentrate on these satisfyingly knotty space operas. Patrick Stewart, as Captain Picard, is one of the few TV stars to carry the weight and substance of the movie stars we’re used to seeing on video; his booming voice and commanding presence bear up to repeated viewings.
Re-viewing on video, however, rips the delicate, spiderweb whimsy of Northern Exposure. Much of the charm of this series about the earmuffed eccentrics of Cicely, Alaska, arises from the dialogue’s philosophical non sequiturs and the twists and turns of the meandering plots. For example, in the episode ”Thanksgiving,” once you know that Cicely residents celebrate turkey day with a ”Day of the Dead”—finding holiday renewal in the remembrance of people and animals deceased-the show becomes a shaggy-dog story you’ve heard before, and therefore a bit too poky.
The same is true of the other Exposures on tape, particularly the pilot episode, in which Dr. Joel Fleischman arrives in Cicely. It’s clear that Exposure creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey hadn’t yet realized that the center of the show isn’t this whiny displaced New Yorker but the citizens who surround him. The series took off only when Fleischman became an equal among supporting characters.
But it’s easy to be tough on all these shows. No warm glow of nostalgia has had time to rise up around them, to make their appearance on videotape an event—like the return of long-lost friends. (You can catch these same Leaps in reruns on cable’s USA Network, for Pete’s sake.) Maybe when a show like Leap is as old as the Outer Limits episodes that are now quite genially dumb on tape, it’ll be easier to get off on its glaring flaws. Until then, they all should probably go down in the basement, to age a little. Northern Exposure: B- Quantum Leap: C- Star Trek: The Next Generation: B+