Deep from the bowels of arguably the preachiest decade of American television comes the astounding “Next Stop: Nowhere” episode from the final season of Quincy, M.E, the original forensic cop show & antecedent to the current crop of procedural/CSI type mischigoss. Quincy‘s original hook may have been how murders can be solved through autopsy science, clues pursued by a lovable curmudgeon Jack Klugman bulldog who is always a step ahead of normal police bureaucracy… but by its final 8th season, Quincy had become a message show – with some different social ill relating to a guest-star murder that needed to be examined anthropologically.
So for the week of December 1, 1982, the societal “time bomb ticking under our very noses,” as someone in the episode states, is evil PUNK ROCK MUSIC! It turns normal suburban kids into DRUG ADDLED KILLERS! And what’s worse, it only feeds their SELF-DESTRUCTIVE NIHILISM! So, Oscar Madison to the rescue, armed with his psychobabbling shrink girlfriend (Anita Gillette), who’ll try to save the rebellious Abby (Melora Hardin) before she sinks too deeply into the punk world…
Thoroughly entertaining & unintentionally hysterical, “Next Stop: Nowhere” ranks as heir apparent to such earlier television gold as the baby in the bathtub episode of Dragnet (“The Big High”) in the tv-designed-to-scare-parents genre, as well as reaching the same camp levels of humor as Streets Of San Francisco‘s “Mask of Death,” featuring John Davidson as the schizoid Carol Channing impersonator/murderer. There’s even a similar “mirror scene,” this time of our wayward lost girl singing along with her punk album in the mirror and growing angrier and angrier until she’s a near homicidal maniac. (I only manage this with “Run Joey Run”)
As we open on the punk club, aptly named “The Ground Zero,” we’re reminded of the cause of all this angry youthful ennui: the looming threat of nuclear war. Ah yes, the pop culture of the Reagan years, loaded with either “be afraid, be very afraid” anti-nuke material like The Day After or Wargames, or loaded with “America KICKS ASS!” ’80s Cold War cheese like Red Dawn, Amerika, or Rocky IV. But at the Ground Zero, the hydrogen jukebox these kids are slam dancing to only adds to the anger & fear. You’ll know you’re watching an ’80s show when you see the hair and makeup on the crowd of extras – not as bad as perhaps the way mainstream middle aged TV execs depicted flower children and hippies back on The Lucy Show, but clearly the depiction of the audience and especially the band featured in the hour come from an older & parental POV.
“Mayhem,” led by guest star Richard Dano (son of old time character actor Royal Dano) as “Fly,” launch into their big hit “Give Up” which features the following lyrics: “Get a job working for the man/blow his brains out if you can/tell the judge you didn’t like his face/no garbage like the human race/Give up!/ You know you’re gonna die!/ Give up! /I don’t know why you even try! /Give up! /I wanna see you choke! /CHOKE!/CHOKE!”
Granted, the faux punk songs concocted for this episode pale in comparison to the “I Dig Pain” number from the “Battle of the Bands” episode of CHIPs that ends in victory-over-punk-violence illustrated by Erik Estrada singing “Celebration,” but they’re still worthy of modern covers.
So here’s where our story begins: Abby gets “punked up” by her friend Molly (Karlene Crockett) when meeting her runaway punker boyfriend Zak at the club – but when the music gets goin’ and the slam dancin’ gets more and more violent, Zak decides to get into the mosh pit and start slammin’ away his angst. He gets stabbed in the back of the neck with an ice pick for his trouble, and from there we dissolve to the saner world of Quincy’s lab table, where he and Sam (Robert Ito) dig out the broken tip of the ice pick and tsk-tsk over the punk lifestyle.
But then things really get going when the shrink GF Dr. Hanover shows up with all the exposition on Abby, along with a tirade on how “that violence-oriented punk rock music” is the key to Abby’s self-destruction. She schools Quincy on the danger of the phenom out there and even takes him down to the Ground Zero to witness the fist fights in the moshpit:
LOVE the shot of broken-nose boy coming up to us with that “I….I… only wanted to dance!!!” bloody pout, illustrating Dr. Hanover’s earlier speech on “children coming off the dance floor with bloodied noses and crushed ribs… like soldiers fighting some insane war!” Jack Webb couldn’t say it any better.
When Quincy lists punk rock as a contributing factor to the murder on his report, it hits the papers & this leads up to the high point of the episode – a face off between punks & parents on a Jerry Springer-type talk show, featuring Abby & her long-suffering mom (Barbara Cason, who you might remember as Garry Shandling’s mom on the great It’s Garry Shandling’s Show), Fly, Quincy & Dr. Hanover.
There’s the sparring between the punkers who call themselves artists, parents who wanna whip some sense into ’em and so forth, but the most telling moments come first when Abby announces her future plans to “get blown away in a nuclear war” and the punkers yelling at Quincy that the entire world is about to get blown apart and all the punk music does is rub your nose in the world’s horrors… and that’s when the camera slowly zooms in on Quincy when he gives the central speech of the entire episode – comparing the punks to the hippies unfavorably – “Not so long ago there was another young generation angry at the world… angry at injustice and a war they didn’t believe in… only they worked their tails off to fix it… when all you do is gripe!” I believe this is the first “diss” of Generation X from the Baby Booomers in the popular culture, a dynamic described very well by Neil Strauss and Willam Howe in their excellent book on the subject, a dynamic of “we were/are better than you when it comes to youthful idealism” that would show up later in such boomer icons as Doonesbury (a series depicting “Megaphone Mark” slackmeyer’s disgust with the politness of ’80s campus activists, let alone Reaganites), the “sensitive hippie parents with Reaganite son” bit on Family Ties, or “we were/are more fun than you” that would turn up in stuff like Flashback. While writer Sam Egan is clearly the prototypical boomer (he would later make a movie celebrating John Lennon, lest ye think he hates rock and roll) Egan’s clearly personal views are spoken here via Klugman, who is part of the boomer-parent “GI” generation, born in 1922. But the message is clear: hippie era protest good, ’80s era protest stupid and whiny. Never mind that the entirety of the punk rock music genre is misunderstood in this episode, dismissing the political messaging of a band like the Dead Kennedys or the social satire of Black Flag – the entire focus is on the supposed call to violence as opposed to a more honest portrayal of how images of violence are used in the lyrics of high-energy punk of the period to get the critical point across, whether it’s “Police Truck,” “Holiday In Cambodia” or “TV Party.” But don’t tell that to the boomers – you kids and your music… it’s just noise! (Though as an aside, now that I too am an OLD FART, I must admit I don’t see the appeal of much of the music of the current day younger generation – it really is just people screaming, or it’s endless gangsta rap profanity, or on the other end of the scale, it’s “American Idol” – Justin Bieber-“Friday” style saccharine addled pablum. Give me Little Steven’s Underground Garage, FAST, Dr. Quincy!!!)
Whatever. Mainsteam network television exists to miss the point. So when the murder plot of this thing plays out as an afterthought to the social messaging, things get wrapped up pretty quickly. At first, Abby is suspect because her fingerprints are on the weapon, but AH HA! Wonderful 1982 Commodore 64-era computing technology eventually saves her, despite her best friend Molly trying to set her up! She’s even trying to give Abby a codeine overdose by feeding her pills (this foolproof plot could be foiled if Abby… oh, I dunno… READ THE LABEL ON THE FUCKING BOTTLE.) But remember, the murder plot isn’t important here – it’s showing us how Abby COULD have been the murderer Molly actually was all because of the music. And it’s for showing us Quincy standing up on stage at the Ground Zero to appeal to the punkers to find Abby before she does OD, only to be shouted off the stage with “YOU’RE the killers! You’re whole sick society! We’re just your lousy escape goat!” An even better line comes a bit later when Molly’s roomie Skip, who believes Quincy, shows Abby the bottle label and says “Dr Quincy was right! You are trying to kill her” and Molly replies “This man’s been zapped by the brain police!” (An unlikely homage to Zappa, but there you are!)
And yes, Abby comes home, safe – sans punk make-up and hair, but unlike the ending of one of my favorite Dragnets when hippie writer Gary Crosby and his wife show up laughably “cured” and clean cut at the end as if a vampire curse has been lifted, Abby still wears her “DESTROY” ripped shirt – suburbia welcomes the rebel! It’s just like the end of “The Maypole of Merry Mount”, the Hawthorne tale of young merrymakers absorbed like Borg into stiff necked Puritan society, yet never regretting their wild youth… a common theme in American culure, really. Why should Quincy be any different? Why shouldn’t it have fallen into the same 1980s television trap of the dreaded “very special episode,” a la Alex P. Keaton meets Samuel Beckett when his friend drunk drives and dies, or when Arthur Carlson stopped dumping Thanksgiving turkeys from airplanes and became the bicycle shop molester? I guess I could go on to an analysis of how the American sit-com recovered from this awful descent into morality plays thirty odd years ago, but I think I’ll just enjoy the endless nerd jokes from Big Bang Theory and be glad it did.
All in all, “Next Stop: Nowhere” remains a must-see item. Universal has been issuing the Quincy M.E. series on DVD, so this would be on the final volume – I’d like to see them devote special attention to this episode in terms of commentary or VH-1 pop-up balloons, or something – it’s really the treasure of the series.
As Quincy says to Dr. Hanover as they dance to Glenn Miller at the episode’s end, lamenting the loss of that ballroom world… “Why would anyone listen to music that makes you hate, when you can listen to music that makes you love?”
And in that spirit, I offer this… which makes me say…. I’M IN LOVE!!!!!