"I know you, Quincy. You drive by a cemetery, and your hands begin to itch."
There will undoubtedly be comparisons made between Universal's new-to-DVD Quincy M.E. - Seasons 1 & 2 and the more recent CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and its spin-off, CSI: Miami. Certainly Universal is eager to make the comparison, the jacket art calling Jack Klugman's medical examiner "the Original Crime Scene Investigator." Really though, Quincy M.E. was like most of the crime-solving shows of that era, modern-day equivalents of the 60-something-minute B-movie mysteries that studios cranked out throughout the 1930s and '40s. When television came along, the Charlie Chans and Sherlock Holmeses gave way to small screen sleuths like Colombo and McCloud in the 1970s. Universal, which had produced its fair share of budget-conscious mysteries in the '40s, was a well-oiled TV factory by 1976, and the best of their series (or rotating line-up of TV movies, as the case may be) hold up well today.
Columbo, certainly, remains popular all over the world, and was so long before the advent of DVD. Expensive laserdisc sets were made available in Japan, and of course Wim Wenders would acknowledge the character's popularity in Germany in Wings of Desire. Popular but less enduring was Quincy M.E. (1976-83), which like Columbo began as a spoke on the rotating NBC Mystery Movie wheel. Four 90-minute shows were aired in 1976-77, the Mystery Movie's last season. Actually, that omnibus ended mid-season, in January 1977, but Quincy didn't miss a beat, soldiering on as a standard hour-long series with the first regular episode airing just a month after the last of the TV movies. Seasons 1 & 2 are really more like two half-seasons smashed together, with four mini-movies and 13 hour shows, all of which aired during the 1976-77 season.
Quincy M.E. follows forensic pathologist Dr. Quincy (Jack Klugman) - like Columbo, Quincy has no other name - as he uses cutting-edge science to solve unsolvable crimes, and to play Devil's Advocate in "open and shut" cases. In most episodes he's aided by long-suffering assistant pathologist Sam Fujiyama (Robert Ito), long-suffering boss Dr. Asten (John S. Ragin), and long-suffering LAPD Lt. Monahan (Garry Walberg). Quincy also spends a lot of time at the local bar, Danny's, run by long-suffering pal Danny Tovo (Val Bisoglio). Unilaterally their sole function is to fight or put up with Quincy's outrageous theories and social irresponsibility.
Where Columbo's success rested on a combination of star Peter Falk's unendingly entertaining portrayal of that title character and a sure-fire formula that, with care, could be milked ad infinitum, the secret of Quincy's success fell almost entirely on star Jack Klugman's shoulders.
Klugman's Quincy is an unstoppable dynamo, a one-man army fighting the system, like Charles Bronson's character from the Death Wish movies, only instead of a .45 Quincy's got a mouth. Armed with wild theories, forensic evidence and, especially, with his own intensity, Quincy sanctimoniously badgers and screams and whines through clenched teeth. Neither Quincy nor Klugman for that matter is one to do things half-measure. Quincy is a fidgety workaholic, antsy even when on vacation or aboard his dry-docked boat in Marina del Rey.
Klugman's Cagney-esque intensity (in the good sense), where even the most innocuous scene is played at a "10," is its main appeal, and nearly crosses over into camp. It's part of the character rather than hamminess on Klugman's part, entertainingly over-the-top and not unlike William Shatner's Captain Kirk on the original Star Trek series. Maybe it's no surprise then that 15 years before Quincy both Klugman and Shatner were among the most popular and sought-after actors for anthology dramas, both usually playing everyman roles (Shatner the WASP-ish young and handsome type, Klugman the more ethnic, down-and-out urban sort).
The scripts are better than the genre's unimpressive average for mid-1970s TV. And it deserves points for incorporating real procedures and topical issues of evidence admissibility, police and hospital procedures, etc. Some of this material was inspired by notorious L.A. County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Noguchi, whose name is invoked occasionally.
Busy, familiar character actors like George Wyner, Richard Libertini, William Windom, William Daniels, Ivor Francis, and Woodrow Parfrey give the shows a cozy air of familiarity. Kim Cattrall and Jamie Lee Curtis make what may be television acting debuts, while hapless Bob Crane makes one his last.
Video & Audio
Quincy M.E. looks good for its age in bright, clean transfers presented in their original full-frame ratio. For the most part the images are free of dirt and wear, and have not been time-compressed. No complaints here. The mono sound is equally acceptable for its age, with optional subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. Menu screens note the original airdate, and include a brief plot summary and representative photo. The 17 shows are spread out over six sides on three discs. There are no Extra Features
The 1970s was a pretty dire decade for American television. Columbo, though imperfect itself, was a rare exception, a Quincy is a not-bad companion. It's not a great show, but Klugman's enjoyable performances and okay scripts raise this above average.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.