NBC-Peacock’s rebooted “Quantum Leap” is halfway into its second season now, and the latest episode was another high mark for this enjoyable series, as Dr. Ben Song (Raymond Lee) leaps into an 18-year old Korean-American kid working with his brother in his father’s shoe store at the onset of the Los Angeles Riots of 1992; an event I can still vividly remember as if it happened last week. The rebooted sequel series returned in September, with a short season of episodes completed just before strikes in the entertainment industry (which I fully support) brought new film/TV productions to a halt.
This season opened with Ben’s disappearance leading to a forced shutdown of project Quantum Leap. After clandestinely hacking back into the AI Ziggy, project engineer Ian (Mason Alexander Park) was able to locate Ben’s signature across time, and Quantum Leap was reactivated. While no time has passed at all for leaper Ben, three long years have passed for his reunited support team. In that time, Ben’s grieving fiancée Addison (Caitlin Bassett) has moved on; finding solace with a new boyfriend, whose government influence helped to reactivate the project.
In this latest episode, “One Night in Koreatown,” we also learn that project leader Herbert “Magic” Williams (Ernie Hudson), a Vietnam veteran admiral and former Navy SEAL turned admiral, struggled with alcoholism after believing he’d lost Ben just as his late predecessor (and friend) Al Calavicci lost Dr. Sam Beckett 25 years earlier.
“One Night in Koreatown,” April 29th, 1992
Written by Benjamin Raab and Deric A. Hughes, and directed by Tamika Miller, “One Night in Koreatown” sees Ben (Raymond Lee) leaping into an 18-year old Korean-American named Daniel Park, whose Korean-born father, Jin (C.S. Lee, of “Dexter”) and brother Sonny (Danny Kang) run a family-owned Los Angeles shoe store.
It’s April 29th, 1992; the day of the Rodney King trial verdict—the injustice of which triggered six-days of rioting in Los Angeles (and surrounding counties). Ben quickly surmises the significance of the date, as he’s met by his new hologram observer, Magic (Ernie Hudson), after requesting that his ex-fiancée Addison (Caitlin Bassett) no longer assume that role.
Note: My late father worked in Los Angeles during the L.A. Riots, and I was working in a retail department store an hour or so east, in a nearby county. The Riots reached inland to much of Southern California, not just Los Angeles. Both my dad’s plant and my own store had to close early the night the Riots broke out. Several nearby shops down the street from my store were also vandalized with broken windows and graffiti. I still remember my dad’s stories of avoiding police barricades on the way home from work. I’ll never forget seeing the panoramic skyline of gray smoke looking west from my then-girlfriend’s apartment. It felt downright apocalyptic.
Ben also learns that his ‘father’ Jin is very intolerant of certain customers, namely a young Black teenager named Dwain (Benjamin Flores Jr.), who’s friends with Sonny, who seems to be in some sort of secret transactional partnership with Dwain. This ‘bad influence’ on Sonny only stokes Jin’s prejudices. Jin kicks Dwain out of the store. Meanwhile, Jin, Ben, Magic and Sonny watch the store’s TV set, which reports that riots have broken out all over Los Angeles. While Ben urges Jin to close the store early, the older man refuses; insisting that the police will protect them. Magic tells Ben that their lives are in danger if they stay, according to the original history.
Note: I almost didn’t recognize actor C.S. Lee from “Dexter,” another series I used to watch and enjoy before it became unwatchably awful. Lee played Vince Masuka, the perpetually horny Miami PD forensics expert who was a walking Human Resources nightmare. In this episode, the chameleonic Lee uses a thick Korean accent with a stern, conservative manner that makes him entirely unrecognizable from Vince Masuka.
Soon, store owners are on rooftops with shotguns, seeking to protect their wares from angry mobs of looters coursing through the city. One of Jin’s customers is a working nurse and single mom named Luisa Rojas (Analisa Velez), who only stopped in to grab a new pair of shoes for her next shift. Asking if she has a car, Ben hopes she can give them a lift to safety, but Luisa’s car has already been vandalized, and is inoperable. Complicating matters, Magic tells Ben that Dwain will be shot by the police if he’s caught on the streets—something he knows firsthand, without the aid of Quantum Leap’s supercomputer Ziggy. Knowing that Dwain and his ‘brother’ Sonny are in danger, Ben steps out to retrieve them both.
Note: I still remember news images of the Riots flooding TVs at the time; images of shop owners on rooftops with rifles was very common, as was the sight of LAPD officers using often draconian means to stop the violence, before many cops retreated altogether. It was a time where there were no clear cut ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’; just a lot of angry, desperate people.
As police and rioters both flood the streets, Ben is able to find Sonny, and together they both locate Dwain. Ben learns that Sonny and Dwain are in a secret partnership to design custom athletic shoes together—a potentially lucrative enterprise that will prove prosperous for everyone involved, including the Park family. Ben’s leap-persona ‘Daniel’ is also hiding a secret; he’s secretly joined the Marines against his father’s wishes. The police have followed Dwain into a dark alleyway, and Sonny and Ben help to hide him. Magic shows up to offer guidance, but is triggered by the presence of the armed policemen, and has to step out of the leap. Fortunately, the guns-drawn police are ordered to “fall back,” due to the geometrically expanding scale of the emergency. Ben takes Dwain back to the store, while Sonny goes off to find supplies for them to shelter in place…
Note: The character of Sonny, who presumably had to loot a few stores himself to obtain supplies needed for sheltering in place at the shoe store, is an example of how not all L.A. Riot looters were ‘bad guys’ or ‘criminals’; many were simply desperate people afraid they might not be able to obtain vital food, medicine or other supplies if martial law was declared (an idea floated around at that time). You see the same pattern with people panic-shopping for supplies before an expected weather crisis, except that their stores usually remain open long enough for them to complete their purchases. More recently, we saw this in 2020 with people panic-shopping for toilet paper (and food) during the COVID outbreak. This is not criminal—it’s desperation.
Magic later apologizes to Ben for stepping out of the imaging chamber, telling him he was triggered at the sight of a young Black man facing execution by police—something he nearly experienced himself, during the “Long Hot Summer” riot of 1967 in Detroit, where he was beaten by police while on leave from the navy. Ben understands, of course, but Magic promises not to disappoint him again. As Ben and Dwain return, the rioters soon descend upon the shoe store. Ben urges a retreat into the stockroom, which they fortify as best they can. After a long siege, the rioters leave, and a shocked Jin surveys his ransacked store…with smashed windows and empty racks everywhere. It’s a total loss. Grateful for offering them safety, Dwain and Luisa both help to clean up the mess. Jin turns his anger for his loss at Dwain—choosing to blame him, another “punk kid,” instead of the actual looters. Having had enough, Dwain snaps at the old man, who now threatens to shoot Dwain until Ben steps between them. After the deescalation, Jin hears a noise at the back door…
A nervous Jin shoots in the direction of the sound, only to realize he’s shot a returning Sonny, who’s now bleeding on the floor. Nurse Luisa does what she can, but without medical aid, Sonny has only an hour or so to live. Outside, the group finds an abandoned ambulance, from which Luisa gets enough medical supplies to stabilize Sonny. Dwain wins Jin over by promising to drive the ambulance to the nearest hospital. Before he can do so, the ambulance is surrounded by cops who threaten to shoot Dwain, believing him to be another looter. Jin steps between the police and Dwain, telling the police that they must shoot him first. The police leave, and Dwain is able to drive the group to the nearest hospital. Magic appears, telling Ben that Dwain and Sonny’s designer shoes are a hit in the new timeline, and that Jin uses his store’s insurance money to become their first investor! The leap is successful.
Note: As Ben negotiated the deescalation between Jin and Dwain earlier, he speaks to Jin in Korean (South Korean immigrant Ben is fluent in multiple languages, including his native Korean). Jin seems shocked that his Americanized “son” Daniel suddenly speaks Korean. I have to wonder; when Ben leaps out, will Daniel Park somehow retain Ben’s ability to speak Korean…?
This latest leap is especially relatable for our hero, Ben Song (Raymond Lee), since he leaps into a Korean-American who’s only a decade or so older than he was at the time of the L.A. Riots. Ben really has his hands full in this one; not just saving the Park family, Luisa and Dwain, but also to offer support to his PTSD-triggered colleague/friend and observer, Magic. This is also Ben’s first full leap without Addison, per his request.
Despite juggling with the Park family, Dwain and Magic, Ben himself is still reeling from the devastating news that his former fiancée has moved on; a situation that reminded me of Al Calavicci and Beth in the original Quantum Leap (1989-1993), with Al losing Beth in the original timeline, only to regain her love (with Sam Beckett’s help) by the end of the series (“Mirror Image”). Ben’s loss of Addison is reinforced by the appearance of Beth in this episode—who is now in a relationship with her late husband’s old friend, Magic. Needless to say, Ben is dealing with his lost love as best he can. Possible unpopular opinion here, but I’m hoping this gives the audience a chance to see who Ben really is, outside of being defined by his relationship with Addison (who’s also a terrific character).
The MVP of this episode is Ernie Hudson’s Herbert “Magic” Williams, who fell into alcoholism in the three years that Ben was missing and presumed lost. As season 2 gets underway, we see that Magic has apparently put his life back together by the time the Quantum Leap team is reunited. In addition to learning of Magic’s struggle with alcoholism, we also learn that the former US Navy SEAL was on leave in Detroit back in 1967, during the infamous “Long Hot Summer riots,” where he was brutally beaten by a cop—a memory that triggers his PTSD when he sees Dwain hiding from armed cops in a Los Angeles alleyway. By the end of the episode, Magic has to once again face that same situation as Dwain is forced to steal an abandoned ambulance to save Sonny’s life, but this time Magic stays.
Thankfully, Magic has emotional support through his sympathetic team at Quantum Leap, and with a new love in his life, original series’ legacy character Beth (Susan Diol), the widow of Magic’s old friend, Al Calavicci (the late Dean Stockwell). During the episode, Beth and the Quantum Leap team are concerned that Magic might be falling off the wagon due to the personal stress of this current leap. Magic is okay, but at the end of the episode, we see him calling Beth to cancel dinner plans, so that she might accompany him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The message is clear; dealing with alcoholism (and PTSD) are both ongoing processes. One of the things I very much enjoy about the characters of the rebooted Quantum Leap is how they’re defined by both their strengths and frailties—as are we all. These frailties makes them more relatably human.
The three-year time jump for Quantum Leap’s second season means that Ben and Addison Augustine (Caitlin Bassett) are no longer engaged, since she’s moved on in the years following Ben’s ‘death.’ In the eight months before the reunion of the Quantum Leap team, Addison has become romantically involved with government liaison Tom Westfall (Peter Gadiot), who is also instrumental in reviving Quantum Leap, citing national security reasons, but also in the hope that his lover Addison can gain closure. As mentioned above, Addison has become this series’ parallel to both observer Al and Al’s widow Beth (who’s a regular in this series as well). My biggest issue with her current situation is that it takes Addison out of the adventures. For the situation to change in Ben’s favor, there are two possible scenarios going forward; either too-good-to-be-true Tom proves to be villainous somehow (something vaguely hinted at with his recent audit of the project), or he’s killed. Neither scenario is terribly imaginative, but as a fan, I just hate to see Ben and Addison apart—even if it presents interesting opportunities for exploring both characters independently.
Unfortunately, the characters of resident artificial intelligence expert Ian Wright (Mason Alexander Park) and resident hacking genius Jenn Chu (Nanrissa Lee) are a bit under-utilized in this episode, though each get their respective moments. Jenn is the first of the team to recognize the symptoms of her boss Magic’s struggle with maintaining sobriety, while Ian offers a comforting shoulder for former observer Addison, who is beginning to feel somewhat useless on the project, now that her former fiancé Ben has requested she not return as his observer, citing her presence as personally painful (and distracting). Both Ian and Jenn are still vital to the team, of course, and have certainly had their spotlights in past episodes, though I still think Jenn could be used a bit more.
Summing It Up
Since I’ve already taken a look into the series’ core characters, I’ll keep this summary brief. “One Night in Koreatown” tackles the troublingly still-relevant issues surrounding the L.A. Riots of 1992, while also taking an unexpected look into Magic’s personal vulnerabilities. This is as much Magic’s episode as it is Ben’s. I’m just hoping the writers can eventually resolve the tricky Ben-Addison issue…
The guest cast are all very memorable as well, particularly C.S. Lee (“Dexter”) as narrow-minded shoe store owner Jin Park, who has quite the arc in this episode. Also memorable are Benjamin Flores Jr. as Dwain, the “punk kid” who shares Sonny Park’s seemingly improbable dream of designing fashionable footwear, and Analisa Velez as Luisa Rojas, the single mom-nurse who does what she can for the Park family during the crisis despite anxiety for her kids. Perhaps it was because of the L.A Riots setting, but the characters and story of this particular leap gripped me on a personal level. If I had any nits, it’s that the downtown L.A streets looked a bit too ‘studio backlot,’ but this is a production issue, not a slight on the episode’s dramatics.
Overall, this episode reiterates those classic Quantum Leap themes of bringing different sorts of people together for common cause, overcoming our prejudices, and coping with personal demons along the way. In short, “One Night in Koreatown” is a textbook example of what Quantum Leap (classic and new) does best.
Where To Watch
“Quantum Leap” is available to watch on Peacock streaming and on NBC. For old-school physical media geeks like myself? Season 1 of the reboot “Quantum Leap” is also available on DVD and BluRay via Amazon and Barnes & Noble.