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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Television Review: QUINCY, M.E.: "Dead Stop" (1981)

QUINCY, M.E. : THE HILARIOUS YEARS (Seasons 5 through 8)  

Number 4: "Dead Stop" Season 7 (1981)

QUINCY, M.E.: "Dead Stop" (1981 NBC-TV/Universal)  Original Air Date: December 23, 1981.  Starring Jack Klugman, Robert Ito, John S. Ragin, Garry Walberg, Val Bisolgio, special guest stars Tony Burton, Jack Ging, Sandy McPeak, Henry Beckman, Salome Jens, Red West.  Written by Linda Cowgill. Directed by Ray Danton.

The soapbox was covered with shoe prints by the halfway point of QUINCY, M.E's penultimate season.  A cautionary tale (come to think of it, practically all QUINCY's were at this point) about the dangers of toxic waste, DEAD STOP opens with the prime time version of truck drivin' music as truckers Hank and Mickey notice their Freightliner still has leaking rear brakes after a failed pit stop. As there's no way they'll make it to the planned destination, Hank feels they should turn back, but cash-desperate Mickey has a better idea. Remembering specific instructions to "dump it in a dry spot", he has a spot "as dry as the Sahara" for their cargo. "He hired us to dump it, so who the Hell cares where?" Highway footage tells us that this dry spot is going to be near the Los Angeles freeway exit.

If Mickey's devil-may-care attitude isn't sufficiently foreboding, the mysterious cargo is in heavy, sealed black barrels, except for one which is leaking. When the leakage hits the ground and splashes Hank's shoes, a smoky, acid-like residue rises in a menacing manner. Hank coughs violently.

I presume we've been given ample warning signs at this point, as director Danton forgoes overhead lightning, storm clouds or a black cat crossing the path. Nah, spoke too soon. With Mickey's prodding, they finish up by rolling the barrels down a hill, with a tight shot on the resulting collisions causing more residue to rise with a sinister hissing sound.

Two days later Hank's wife notices he's running a fever and continuing to cough, but he insists on making that night's run. "You know how hard it is for us wildcatters to get work!" Glassy eyed, hacking Hank tells Mickey during the drive that he's finished moonlighting, then immediately follows this declaration with a seizure behind the wheel.  "Judas Priest!" Mickey exclaims, but Rob Halford's motorcycle is nowhere to be found; just a runaway Freightliner that ends up turned over on an embankment, landing on its drivers side before passenger Mickey can control it. Yup, that probably IS going to finish Hank's nocturnal wallet stuffing.

Heading out to to the highway....a chance before I fallllllll......

Next the Mickster's in the hospital, bringing up his late friend while going over accident details with Beckman, an investigator who urges him to "stay close". As for poor Hank, he ends up on The Big Q's slab. Broken ribs, hazy, dark red lungs, and curiously, chemical burns on his shins and arms.  No evidence of pneumonia, infection or heart disease. Quince and Sam discover that he was driving "with a severe lung disease"; he inhaled phosphorus trichloride, which caused the seizure and his death, before the accident.

Gotta say that for all the laughs from Quincy's hypertension and preaching during The Hilarious Years, there's always useful information too. Phosphorus trichloride is classified as highly toxic and corrosive, and reacts violently when mixed with water, hence, the strict instructions to dump it in a dry spot.  All very educational, no joke.

Na na na na na na na na na....Klug Man!

The Q-Mobile is seen arriving at the widow's home in the next scene. I always wished they had some cool music to accompany this footage, but it usually came unscored.  Too bad.  Oh, well, education aside, at this point there's a little frustration for the audience.  After Quincy interviews Hank's wife and goes over the trucker's manifest, we've had 16 minutes of setup for the latest crusade, and not one Outrage! yet. I'm getting almost as impatient as Mickey.

Ah, but ask and ye shall receive! "People don't seem to realize how dangerous it is! No one seems to care!" "If it rains, this could produce a gas that could kill (voice cracks) hundreds of people!" Thanks, Q.  I just knew you wouldn't let me down!

Meanwhile Mickey bravely deals with his grief and injuries, continuing the night job (I'm sure Hank would have wanted him to) with new partner West, who wears a cowboy hat and speaks in a thick drawl.  At Mickey's insistence, they use the "new, better" dumping spot to shorten the route time. Once again, we have leakage and more hydrochloric acid rising. Damn, someone is doing a shitty job of sealing these things. There's the first person to fire if you ask me. Mickey unwisely takes his gloves off after inhaling a spill, kicks the leaky barrels downhill, and once more ominous music cues up as the smoky residue rises, thicker this time.

The Big Q is back at the original wrecked truck, talking to investigator Beckman. Sure enough, we have some inefficiency. "There are 3 million truckers on the road, and only 180 of us!" We expect another Outrage! at this information, but Quince is strangely docile. That is, until he gets to the Los Angeles County Health Department and Anthony Giovelli. "Not one legitimate ounce of that stuff" in his manifest! 20,000 plants out there and only 750 are registered!"  "Any plant that produces hazardous waste should be RESPONSIBLE for it!"  

Quincy gets a sympathetic ear here though. Giovelli wants to do something, but admits he's lucky if he catches "one out of a hundred" making an illegal discharge. Manifesting only works if there's intent to comply with the law to begin with. There are 20,000 plants out there, and Giovelli only has 8 investigators. The Big Q is too overwhelmed to vent his rage.  "I had no idea!" I have a feeling that Quincy's going to be leaving Sam in charge of the autopsies again for more than a few days......

Yup, the coroner becomes an investigator, taking half the plants on Giovelli's list for himself and visiting Witten Chemicals. Solvents, Acids and Alkalies since 1968. Walk in trade welcome!  Quincy, however, isn't so welcome, and Mr. Witten spews venom at him right off the bat, telling him he has no right to just "come in and see my manifest"! Well, the man does have a point, since this is technically not the Big Q's job.

Director Ray Danton makes sure to have his camera linger on the Confederate flag proudly displayed on Witten's wall.  I have to wonder about it: we're in Los Angeles, not Hazzard or Orly County, and Witten lacks even a hint of a Southern accent.  I would say this is Danton giving us another instance of TV shorthand for "bad guy", but again, this is 1981 and the General Lee and DUKES are riding without being heels.  So without heritage, geographical or philosophical reason for it, why are the stars and bars on this guy's wall?    A nagging question indeed. 

Quince lights into Witten with his third Outrage!: "You're either gonna talk to me or you're gonna talk to a Lieutenant downtown!"  Hearing that, Witten gives in quickly and gives The Big Q the trucking company's address.

One question: Would Witten be frightened by the "Lieutenant downtown" if he knew it was THIS man?

Q has Giovelli with him as he arrives at Hellworth Trucking.  Mr. Hellworth meets them outside the door, so we won't get to check his office for bad guy shorthand.  Guess the ominous name will have to do.

Mr. Hellworth is credited at imdb.com as actor Kenneth O'Brien.  According to imdb, he supposedly passed away in 1985, but they aren't fooling yours truly.  He obviously faked his death, changed his name and now performs as porn star "Dirty Harry":

Anyway, Dirty Harry Hellworth tries the Sgt. Schultz defense to no avail, as Q and Giovelli have a search warrant and the threat of a murder charge ready to go.  Hellworth caves faster than his Confederate compadre and agrees to take them to the dumping site.  Once there, Hellworth panics, and not because Giovelli plans to "hang him up by his thumbs" and make an example of him.  Rather it's because of his discovery that Hank's latest delivery "ain't here".  Finding Mickey is a priority now, because Giovelli informs us that if the phosphorus trichloride comes in contact with moisture, the result could be catastrophically deadly.  Right on cue, thunder rumbles ominously (there's that word again) in the overcast sky.

Quincy, not The Department of Health Services' Giovelli, will be probing the situation from here.  That's right, we can't just trust Giovelli to do his job, but we can leave Good Old Sam with all the corpses for a few more days.  You don't mind, do you Sam?

Thrilled as always to be working 75 hour weeks in Quincy's absence!  Meanwhile, The Q-Mobile is back at the widow's house, and she offers to help him track down her late husband's co-pilot.  Quincy is to hit the road with her at 6 A.M. sharp.

It is remarkably light outside for 6 AM the next morning, with a weird soundtrack shift to acoustic guitar and piano.  Combine the somber tones with this screen image:

And one starts to get that Brokeback vibe.  Furthering that, Quince's P.O.V. reveals an overly friendly hitchhiker waving and giving a thumbs up to our favorite coroner.

But this is already a Very Special Episode, we already have our subject of social commentary, and Q has no time for 'experimentation' right now.  Just a tense but polite wave back and that's it.

As mentioned, time's a wastin', so out with the piano, in with the synth and electric guitars and some more ersatz truckin' music as Hank's widow Jens arrives.

He's got that look in his eyes.....

Hey, don't get carried away there Quince.  The body's barely cold!  Her hubby was just on the slab in front of you less than 20 screen minutes ago!

A second false alarm, though, showing that The Big Q is too focused on the race against time for any macking with either gender.  Besides, it's been very clear since the Hilarious Years started that R. Quincy only swings one way, and only with ladies at least thirty years younger than him--until Season 8 and The Killjoy, that is.  Since Jens (46 at the time) is too age-appropriate for our hero, the dialogue on the way to the truck stop serves to educate Quincy and us about the hardships of life on the road as the jaunty soundtrack shifts to something very "Top of the World"-ish.  (???)

Quincy had no idea about the trucker's hardships or about CB lingo, but he becomes a budding pro by the time we get to the destination on the ways of 10-4's and feeding the Smokeys.  (One more nagging question: she appears to be driving Hank's old truck.  How the Hell is it fully operational so soon after being rolled over?  Sloppy, sloppy.....)

At the truck stop, coffee is ordered and we're joined by Tony Burton (in between ROCKYs II and III) and West, who is far more reluctant to be sociable once he hears that the meeting involves Hank and Mickey's "illegal" hauling of toxic waste.  Quince even comes close to an Outrage! but falls short with his pleading tone.  "This could kill hundreds of people!"  With West's lips sealed, though, little headway is made.

Jens has a thought on where Mickey might be.  Sally's Place.

If the business sign doesn't confirm the motel's "no tell" status, Sally probably will. 

And if she doesn't, her companion for the morning most assuredly will, 'cause he can't be ridin' for free.

He's a friend of Jens' late husband, and with his assistance they eventually find a slab-ready Mickey face down in his room.  Which leads us into a truly amazing scene.  We're 40 minutes into the episode, and The Big Q is actually back at his day job, wearing scrubs.  Never fear, folks--we aren't staying here, it's just a convenient place for Quincy to be found when Burton comes through, forcing the truth out of squirrelly West and setting off the M.E.'s latest race against time!

And we're off to the formerly mysterious dumping grounds.  We're really lucky, too, because we've had threatening rumbles and dark clouds from the skies for days now, but the long promised rain still hasn't arrived.  Therefore, hundreds are still alive.  We're especially lucky not to have those corpses numbering in the triple digits with Q not at his day job for the better part of a week.  He's too busy, folks, out supervising the toxic waste team.

Uh, Quince--can I have my job back now?

You can question who really ought to be in charge out here, but once again, Quincy, M.E. comes through, bellowing instructions while the crew members and firemen get all the barrels under a large tarp, which is in place literally seconds before that rain finally hits hard.

Is there anything a coroner can't do?

Well, he has trouble saying without spraying....

Dead Stop takes a while to get to our first Outrage! and the final act is strangely anti-climactic, but Danton adds plenty of ominous foreshadowing and cliched symbolism, keeping this lower decibel QUINCY, M.E. entertaining.  Also an interesting soundtrack to go with the usual surfeit of chuckles and a little help with your next chemistry exam.  It isn't as over the top as other Hilarious Years entries, and therefore doesn't have quite as many big belly laughs, but it's a solid, re-watchable episode.  (***1/2 out of four)


jakki said...

i love you... for years i have hoped to come across another person that appreciates the beauty of quincy. i had never pinpointed exactly when he stopped being a coroner, and as you so perfectly put it, had a lot of footprints on the soapbox! i notice a lot of it in season 8. there are so many episodes i need to rediscover, but recently 2 of my favorites have been one where a lawyer is drunk driving and kills a pedestrian ( the scene where he's swigging from a flask in the car all aggravated personally tickles me), an episode where a family that takes in downs syndrome children might have to give up what they are doing until one of the kids turns up at court having made his own way on the bus ( bit where a lady gets up in a huff when he sits next to her on the bus is priceless).
i have this theory that being a tv writer at that point in time was almost like a brill building environment. churning out plots no matter how ridiculous, and i so would have loved to be a fly on the wall as they tackled all the social issues and stereotypes...

Hal said...

Many thanks for reading Jakki, and I hope you enjoyed all 4 QUINCY's so far.
I've only reviewed one Season 8 (of course, "Next Stop Nowhere") but I've noticed that the sermonizing was over the top by then. One S. 8 I want to revisit badly is "On Dying High" but unfortunately Netflix doesn't have it yet. Ripped from the headlines!

One of my favorite TV bits of ridiculousness from that era was DALLAS being threatened by a hurricane. Must have been one *huge* hurricane!

Anyway, thanks again and more QUINCY's are coming!