Saturday, January 03, 2009

Television Review: QUINCY, M.E.: "Bitter Pill" (1982)

QUINCY, M.E.: THE HILARIOUS YEARS -- Number 2: "Bitter Pill" Season 7 (1982)

Starring Jack Klugman, Robert Ito, John S. Ragin, Garry Walberg and Joseph Roman; special guest stars Simon Oakland, William Smithers, Robert Hooks, Peggy McCay, Ralph Taeger, Thomas Byrd, Michael LeClair, Cecily Adams. Directed by George Fenady.

From the soapbox filled seventh season of QUINCY, M.E., "Bitter Pill" is probably the most famous confrontation between Dr. Quincy and the local drug trade, mainly due to the incredible scene at the end of Act III that results in The Big Q spending a night in jail. It isn't cocaine, treated marijuana or heroin that has Quincy's dander up this time, though: it's lookalike" drugs.

We open on a school campus, where burned out basketball player Perry is slumped and seated by a tree. He's in no shape for practice until his peppier buddy Ross has just the thing he needs: a "black beauty". Actually, it isn't the real thing, just a lookalike drug that "works like a couple of strong cups of coffee". Perry puts up a Dewey Cox-like fight but eventually agrees to "try one". Ross shakes SIX out of the vial, stating that "one won't even knock the sleep out of your eyes!".

I know, the show just started but...wait a minute! I thought one of these was just the thing, but now Perry needs SIX? Ross now wants his buddy to take the equivalent of 12 strong cups of coffee. Not only that, but Ross says they're "guaranteed to have you slam dunking" which I doubt even 30 cups of coffee would accomplish.  Pissing over the backboard, maybe.

Anyway, Perry is unable to sit or stand still at the ensuing practice. After about two minutes of active defense he suddenly grabs his head during a fast break and collapses into convulsions on the court. He's D.O.A. in the emergency room so he ends up on a slab being examined by The Big Q and Sam. An aneurysm is one possibility, but Quincy orders up a tox screen to be sure.

The Big Q next gets a visit from his paramedic friend Mike, who helped Quincy fight for better trauma centers in an earlier episode. Unfortunately, it turns out that Perry was Mike's cousin. Perry had a preexisting condition weakening his blood vessels, and some of the lookalike black beauties were found in Perry's locker at school. Only two were found, so my bad---he only took four, or "eight strong cups of coffee" on further review. Ominously, Mike informs us that if Perry was killed by those drugs, "it was because someone pushed him into it, and pushed him hard!"

"You're telling me that these counterfeit drugs are legal???""How many living powder kegs have to be ignited by these before we do something about it??????????" Quince leaves the lab for Outrage! Number One to visit his police contact LeBatt, who gives us that QUINCY M.E. catchphrase, "my hands are tied!". He continues: "You do something about the law, and I'll work like a banshee to enforce it!" I have a feeling we'll be hearing some screaming all right, but not from LeBatt.

You won't like him when he's angry.

Hardly mourning his friend, Ross is skipping practice at a swim party. After absolving himself of all blame due to Perry's preexisting condition, Ross borrows a few Beauties, not knowing that these are the real thing and not lookalikes. Though his temporary dealer recommends only taking one, Ross proves that he practices what he preaches as a tight insert shot shows him getting six pills for himself. He has his seizure in the pool, convulsing for several minutes according to Sam.

See guys?  I TOLD you you wouldn't!

Amphetamines are found in all three of Ross' tox screens, and at 17 1/2 minutes in, Quincy leaves his day job for the rest of the episode to be present at the police questioning of our party pals. This leads to a positively astonishing scene for QUINCY vets. The Big Q is relatively calm, merely an observer. Meanwhile an emotional Monahan tears into the suspects, and Detective Brill, normally Teller to Monahan's Penn, even adds a few sentences! Even though it's now officially Real Drugs 1, Amphetamines 1 in the death race, The Big Q feels the Lookalikes should be credited with both deaths. Obviously not a man you'd want umpiring.

It might be a sweeet ride.....
....but it still belongs to a VERY bad man.

Quincy goes to the Zagner Pep Shop next. The sign tells us he sells 100% legal stimulants and takes phone AND mail orders. Zagner, played by QUINCY go-to guest baddie Simon Oakland, is overheard selling 50 "Redbirds" to a woman for $22.50. He swears by their safety, and even takes the pills himself, so Oakland (67 at the time and looking every bit of it) might well qualify as the world's oldest drug dealer AND user. He sells T-shirts as well, has the American flag all over his store, and has one sweet ride that we see out front. Just to hammer the point home that he's still a bad man, the license plate reads "SPEED 99". Quince winces with disgust at the fact that the man is becoming quite successful over the dead bodies of teens (or possibly because Zagner's car is so much nicer than the Big Q's brown station wagon).

Once The Big Q identifies himself as a Doctor who doesn't think the lookalikes are "as safe as mother's milk" Zagner isn't so friendly. But it is indeed banshee time! "The people you buy from make sure you can't tell the difference without a magnifying glass or a reference book! The smokescreen of confusion is what (voice cracks) killed him!!!!" Outrage! Number Two

Zagner defends himself by stating he's giving the consumer an alternative to the high priced drugs, and he's "making more money than I've made my entire life!" "I was a loser my whole life before starting this business!" Well, that's a lot of losing, so I am struggling with my sympathies a bit. But Zagner's arrogance keeps us on Quince's side for now: he adds that his car costs twice what The Big Q makes in a year, and that his success was a "looong time" coming. Since he probably qualified for social security before he started the Pep Shop, there's no reason to doubt him on that one.

Selling bennies, yellow jackets, red birds, Metamucil, Geritol......
As the police were no help as usual, Quincy turns to a State Senator (played by usual baddie William Smithers of PAPILLON and DALLAS) playing tennis with his daughter. After we are treated to a booty shot from the short-skirted coed, Quince goes into Outrage! form, calling Zagner a snake oil peddler. Senator Smithers isn't swayed, noting that his daughter even uses the lookalikes to get through midterms. The Big Q presses, calling them a "malignancy" and "training wheels for the real thing"! But the Senator brushes him off like Monahan during a murder investigation.

Visits to the FDA and to supplier Manacor Pharmaceuticals result in no further momentum towards a law, so the Big Q decides to stop short of going higher up the food chain and instead mobilizes the neighborhood. At a nighttime meeting, Big Q assembles a dozen members of the community including the parents of the dead.

The next day we see all of them picketing Zagner's Pep Shop--apparently everyone is able to take a day off work at Quincy's request. The local news team also shows up, despite the fact that we only have 12 picketers. Quincy's on camera debate with Zagner results in another Outrage! in which Zagner suggests The Big Q come down off his soapbox. No way, Zagner! You can contribute to a few deaths, but no way you're taking my comedy away! Quince points out that the law is only on Zagner's side because of (shouted) apathy and ignorance.

Actually I have to give more than a few points to Zagner in this ensuing debate. When questioned about the purchase of the drugs by youngsters, Zagner states that "as of today", no one under 21 is allowed in his shop. Quincy is not mollified. "Today it's 21, yesterday it's 18, two weeks ago anyone with cash could come in! Next they'll turn to the pushers, and who knows what they'll call the stuff?"

On the other hand, we LOVE this guy when he's angry!
Well, no such prior limitations were spelled out, so we're left to assume Quincy is accurate.  Even more of a concern is Quincy's poor presentation of his case in front of the cameras.  Zagner states that Quincy's ideas "all sound good until you really listen!"  Well, I hate to say it, but Zagner's right in this debate. Quincy's trying to get the shop closed, which he just said would result in everyone turning to the pushers, right? And according to The Big Q, the pushers would be even worse! So Zagner's point is being made for him---by Quincy!  Maybe you should have skipped that last re-writing of the script just before filming?

The initial returns on the protest are not good. In fact, it only resulted in more publicity, and more customers for Zagner. At the ensuing meeting, with attendance down to 3, The Big Q learns of another overdose, with a girl taking "Ludes" instead of the lookalikes. The official scorecard now shows the Real Drugs taking a 2-1 lead over The Lookalikes, but it's obvious that Quincy is scoring it a 3-0 Lookalikes rout. "Excuse me", he says, and the dramatic swirl of music tells us we're in for a treat--Outrage! Number...oh, hell, I lost count.

The Big Q walks directly from the Jordan's house to Zagner's with the music accompanied by tight shots of Quincy's feet panning to medium, then closeup, then medium again on Klugman's tight-jawed expression. Sorta reminded me of Claude Akins in the SHERIFF LOBO opening, minus sunshades. After a full 20 seconds of brisk walking, Quincy reaches Zagner's, which for the first time is devoid of customers. Maybe the protests are working! But just in case they aren't---

Quincy starts trashing the place with his bare hands! He wipes out an entire counter of pills, sending the vials flying everywhere. Next he turns his attention to the wall shelves, clearing out the second, third and bottom shelves while curiously sparing the top shelf. He yanks down a shirt, leaving the dozen shirts behind it still hanging, then obliterates two more counter tops in rapid succession. The Big Q then fakes right, goes left and demolishes two more counters, leaving only the one in front of Zagner remaining! But the anticipated physical showdown isn't meant to be....instead Quincy makes another sharp left turn towards the front door, pulls down the "Fly High Legally" sign and exits without changing his expression.

The entire trashing takes 22 seconds, and Zagner, initially stunned, starts to chuckle. He's about 22 seconds behind the rest of us on that one, and phones the police. Next thing we see is Quincy being bailed out of jail by Dr. Asten. I was wondering where the Hell Asten was this episode, and also wondering if he'd have something to say to The Big Q about the several consecutive days of work he's now missed. Nope, not a word about that, just a chastising of Quincy for taking the law into his own hands.

Quincy, it's been a week.  Corpses are stacked to the ceiling!  Please come back to work, I'm begging!

A second meeting of the protesters isn't nearly as well attended as the first, as only 3 of the original 12 remain and even they are sarcastic regarding Quincy's outrage. But the Big Q urges them not to quit and points out that a dozen states have passed legislation aimed at the lookalikes, hopefully not taking legitimate generics off the shelves as feared during an earlier meeting. Quincy's next step is a special legislative hearing (there will be many of these in the final 12 minutes of episodes from The Hilarious Years). "We'll be turning murderers into millionaires!" the cop from earlier moans. The Big Q doesn't take over the questioning this time. Given the bad publicity from his Pep Shop vandalism, I guess we should be thankful he even testifies. Disappointingly, Quince gives a lower decibel testimony, but forcefully makes his point that "without a law, we're dead. As dead as Perry Jordan and Ross Yates!"

Despite the earlier increase in business, sticking with the protests does some good. First, a prospective customer changes his mind in front of the store.  We see Oakland angrily mouthing "Son of a...." through the glass in reaction, which met the prime time standards of 1982.  Later we learn from the Senator that Zagner is closing up shop. Whether his mail order business is also folding is unclear, and unfortunately the Senator offers this closing as proof that a new law isn't necessary. The Big Q warns him that "the cancer is still there" but Smithers is unmoved.

Fighting for truth...justice...and the American Way!!!

But we can see just how right Quincy is (as always) in the final scene. We revisit the Senator's daughter in her dorm room. Just so we'll remember who she is, Smithers' portrait is on her desk and very prominently placed in the frame. She's cramming for a test at 3 A.M. and too wired to sleep from the lookalike pep pills. No wonder, since we get a tight insert of the completely empty vial on her desk. The lovely co-ed is urged to go easy on these, since they are "the Real McCoy", but she still shakes out three instead of one. Only half as much as Ross, but there's still the potential for the Lookalikes to tie things up at 2-2, or, depending on who gets credit, the Real Drugs to take a 3-1 lead in OD's. Actually, I think this one would be a shared score and the Real Drugs should maintain a lead at 2.5 to 1.5. Hey, maybe Zagner's right after all and the lookalikes are safer!

A 67 year old drug dealer taking uppers and driving a souped up hot rod. Another legislative hearing. Some obviously hurried script re-writing. Klugman in high decibel form committing a senseless act of vandalism. In other words, forget HILL STREET BLUES, this is what they were really talking about back in the day when they said "NBC: Our Pride is Showing!" (**** out of four)


goooooood girl said...

your blog is so good......

Amanda By Night said...

I am so ashamed that it took me this long to come and check out your Quincy blog posts. This was absolutely awesome. Thank you for the early morning weekend smile. Much needed.

Btw, I just watched this episode (for the 2nd time) about two weeks ago. I love when Quincy tears up the Pep Shop. It's magical.

Hal said...

thanks for visiting and reading! I enjoy reading your Made for TV Mayhem blog myself and have it on my reading list.

Quincy is one big reason to keep Netflix Instant, that's for sure. :)

Brad Laidman said...

Nice site. Funny and well designed. Do you have a review of the qualude episode co starring A Martinez? That episode was mind boggling. Martinez somehow trying to help kids kick by buying Ludes for them and weaning them and thus accused of being a dealer? I think the episode said kids were doing like thirty Luke's a day.

Hal said...

Thanks for reading, and for the kind words, Brad. And also for reminding me that I've been neglecting the good Dr. Quincy lately. I haven't reviewed that two-parter yet, but I need to at some point. Still sticks in my mind though. ("Walk Softly Through that Night")