“Stand By Ben” finds itself in a very precarious position, sandwiched between a holiday-themed episode and a months-long holiday break. If we are to solely look at the macro plot of “Stand By Ben”, it would be easy to say Quantum Leap succumbed to the pressure and froze a little bit; in terms of narrative momentum, “Stand By Ben” offers precisely squat in that department. But, for an episode stagnating its story in both 1996 and 2022, “Stand By Ben”… well, stands as a textbook example of procedural storytelling, an hour that hums along with a well (if crudely) defined set of characters and a simple, but effective trio of scenes in the present developing Magic and Jenn’s relationship.
Though admittedly aimed squarely at my nostalgia center being set in 1996, “Stand By Ben” is nonetheless one of my favorite leaps in this first batch of Quantum Leap episodes – and particularly in its position next to the season’s most outlandish leap, with its existential musings, demonic visions, and other supernatural undertones. “Stand By Ben” is exactly as its title alludes, an effective, if superficial road trip adventure featuring some disillusioned teens.
And oh, how disillusioned these teens are; the backstories of Stacy, Leah, Roy, and Ben are all surprisingly dark for Quantum Leap – even if they are a bit predictable in their After School Specialness (you already know we’ve got a gay teen, a smart teen whose taken a bad turn, and a Troubled Teen as our core trio, with Ben serving up an essential side of Cruelly Realized Mental Illness). But it makes for effective table setting in establishing how hopeless these teens are, and how little the strange circumstances around their deaths meant to the world; nobody cared about the institution they ran from, or the obvious question marks surrounding the story given to the press about their supposed deaths from heat exposure.
As Ben slowly realizes how these kids have been abandoned by various mechanisms of society, his anxiety builds: he is trapped within the confines of space and time (paralleling nicely with the more tangential “stuckness” of Jenn and Magic, locked inside an elevator after the mysterious Janice hacks the joint yet again). With no wheels and no water, Ben very briefly starts to lose his grip – and offers a glimpse of a much darker, despondent version of Quantum Leap, one where Ben has to contend with potential failure, a new element I’m hoping the back half of this season contends with a bit more (which… more thoughts on that soon).
“Stand By Ben” doesn’t have the time to really latch onto this idea, but how it filters that hopelessness through its ragtag band of teens makes for a fun distraction, while the rest of Quantum Leap struggles to make “spinning on hamster wheel” a compelling narrative. Save for the brief scene of Ian freaking out about everything going haywire (a few scenes after mentioning the upgrades he made to Ziggy’s OS and the security system, a hilarious bit of flavor text I’m glad is subtly included), there’s really not a lot going on here except Magic giving Jenn a pep talk about her estranged dad – which might’ve been a more emotional moment, had it not taken place in a dark elevator lit only by red emergency lighting (evocative? sure. Able to effectively convey emotion? ehh, not so much).
One thing is very clear with “Stand By Ben”; Quantum Leap took the title very seriously, knowing it was the last scheduled to air in 2022 (and airing a full three weeks before Thanksgiving, meaning Quantum Leap‘s on a loooong break before it returns) – there’s a lot of reiterating and treading water here, though I’m grateful the choice was made so we could spend that time with Sienna Academy escapees. Once again, Quantum Leap quietly displays a versatility that’s really giving off some The Pretender vibes (which I will say yet again – is a very good thing) in its ability to tell different, satisfying stories about characters. More importantly, it does so with a dexterity of tone that made shows like Pretender and the OG Quantum Leap such great television in their heyday.
In an age of serialized storytelling being shoved into everything (with our without a fancy IP in the title), Quantum Leap is getting really proficient at satisfying those trends, while still retaining the old-school skills to deliver one-off stories – arcs that are shorter, and arguably richer, than what’s offered in so many of the bloated one-hour dramas airing on a dozen different streaming networks today.
Quantum Leap is a television show airing on one of the classic networks – and goddamnit, it knows it, and wears it like a badge of honor with episodes like “Stand By Ben”. TV doesn’t have to be flashy or transformative to be good; and as long as Quantum Leap continues to execute the stories of Ben’s leaps (and the larger story around it, though I do grow less interested in anything not related to Addison with each passing episode), it could really breakout in 2023 – which admittedly, I did not see coming.
- Quantum Leap is almost good enough to make me wonder if they can actually pull off the new Night Court in January. Almost.
- “I did it for you” is a bit of an anticlimactic phrase for eight hours of buildup… but we’ll see where it goes. Hard to judge (or get invested) when it’s so goddamn vague!
- No, I didn’t take the cheap route and compare it to The Breakfast Club. It’s not a good comparison – the aim of both stories and groupings are distinctly different, and is rather reductive (and pointless).
- “Stand By Ben” explores old idioms about teenagers – their idealism and selfishness, primarily – in ways that I really like. Stacy’s bumpy road to becoming a leader, Roy’s sobriety, Leah’s intelligence and self-reflections… there’s a lot to like about these teens, even if the delivery and performances ar a bit stiff at times.
- Ben’s incredulous “so we just escaped school?” was a great way to open this episode, and set expectations low for the unexpected twists of the story to follow.
- The 90’s references aren’t the greatest, but quite honestly – storytelling > historical accuracy/abiliity to make nifty references.