'Bonanza was never like this': Quantum Leap and Interrogating Nostalgia

Research output: Contribution to Book/ReportChapterpeer-review


Quantum Leap first aired in 1989 and ran for five seasons ending in 1993. Though the show was not initially a commercial success by its third season it had gained a large enough audience to run for two further 22-episode series. Since its original airing, Quantum Leap has remained a favourite in syndication and a cult following has arisen surrounding the show with rumours persisting to the present of either a feature film spinoff or a televisual reboot . The show’s success suggests that something about central character Dr Sam Beckett’s adventures chimed with the late twentieth century U.S. viewing public. Interestingly, critics including Denis McNally and Lynette Porter have attributed this success, in part, to Quantum Leap’s evocative repackaging of key moments of twentieth century U.S. history (the assassination of J.F.K., Vietnam, Watergate) or use of famous figures (Michael Jackson, Dr Ruth, Marilyn Monroe). This element of Quantum Leap, which creator Donald P. Bellisario termed the show’s ‘kisses with History’ (qtd in Blocher), might suggest that the programme relied on the simple recreation or re-staging of recognisable historical markers for its appeal, what Frederic Jameson called the ‘complacent play of historical allusion.’ (1988, 105) symptomatic of ‘postmodern nostalgia films’ (1991, 18) such as Rumble Fish (1983) and Back to the Future (1985) or indeed television shows including Happy Days (1974-1984). However, this chapter will attempt to argue that rather than just being an example of the simplistic nostalgia that was considered to be ‘holding sway in the 1990s’ (Hutcheon) Quantum Leap offered a decidedly more complex and surprisingly nuanced critical reading of historicising processes indebted to contemporary postmodern debates. In particular, I will explore how Sam’s ongoing quest to revisit and ‘put right what once went wrong’ during significant points of crisis in U.S history embodies a postmodern process of engaging with history that ‘(while still implicitly invoking) nostalgia undermines ... assertions of originality, authenticity, and the burden of the past, even as it acknowledges their continuing (but not paralyzing) validity as aesthetic concerns’ (Hutcheon).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTime on Television: Narrative Time, Time Travel and Time Travellers in Popular Television Culture
EditorsLorna Jowett, Kevin Robinson, David Simmons
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages12
ISBN (Print)9781784530136
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2016

Publication series

NameInvestigating cult TV


  • Television
  • Quantum Leap
  • Fredric Jameson
  • Postmodernism


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