Quantum Leap Dials Up the Drama in a Character-Focused Kitchen Tale

Review of Season 1 Episode 13: "Family Style," where Ben tries to save a restaurant run by an immigrant family.

It’s weird to think of 2009 as “history,” but technically it is, and Ben’s leap this week takes him to Portland, Oregon to save a family restaurant. While much of the episode feels contemporary (the main hint that it’s not are some low-res web graphics and the relative lack of smartphones), what is notable is that this was when the Portland foodie scene was still relatively new.

The episode starts in the busy kitchen of an Indian buffet restaurant, run by matriarch Sonali (Nandini Minocha) and her two daughters, one of whom Ben (Raymond Lee) leapt into. The other is Manisha (Anisha Jagannathan), who wants to expand the menu to create authentic, artistic cuisine rather than the comparably lowbrow food the restaurant is accustomed to serving to cater to American palates. That’s why the year actually matters — it was riskier before the foodie scene exploded. Sonali had originally agreed to let Manisha experiment, but then an unscrupulous (and shady) landlord comes to collect on tens of thousands in back rent. Can’t risk new food when the restaurant is at stake.

Ben and Sonali in the kitchen after an accident
Raymond Lee as Dr. Ben Song, Nandini Minocha as Sonali. Photo by Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Ben is more personally invested in this week’s adventure than in some of the previous ones — and not just because he’s a foodie himself (it’s truly delightful to see his child-like excitement when he realizes he gets to be a restaurant cook this time). His own immigrant mother sacrificed her dreams to support him and suffered an untimely death, which is to be Sonali’s fate if Ben can’t turn things around. (Favorite line of the week: “Science has yet to figure out the immigrant parent.”)

Anisha Jagannathan as Manisha. Photo by Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Instead of earthquakes and nuclear explosions, “Family Style” derives its drama from its characters’ high-octane emotions. Pride, sorrow, anxiety, love — the script feels almost theatrical at times. And that’s a good thing. It’s a colorful portrait of a certain type of immigrant experience (I say that as a child of immigrants myself), the generational clash between the parent who’s focused on surviving and the child with bigger dreams that require bigger risks. (Another favorite line: “Only in America do people have to find themselves.”). While “save the restaurant” is ostensibly Ben’s goal for this leap, it really comes down to “keep this family from falling apart.”

Mason Alexander as Ian. Photo by Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Back in Quantum Leap HQ, we get to hone in on another character drama: Ian (Mason Alexander Park) dealing with the implications of last week’s revelation. It’s the first time we’ve seen this character in the spotlight, and while the plot feels like it’s treading water (the 2023 storyline is literally just Ian sorting through emotions), I didn’t mind setting aside the mystery for a bit to get to know the people behind it better. After a quick series of reveals in the last few episodes, it was nice to let the show breathe.

Much has been said about how the biggest difference between this new Quantum Leap and the old one is the fact that there’s a contemporary sci-fi mystery along with the leap-of-the-week adventures. I think it’s actually how much the new show works to humanize each and every one of its characters, not just the leaper and hologram (and let’s face it, Sam and Al were kind of caricatures for a good number of episodes back in the day). The people behind the scenes at Quantum Leap headquarters, the weekly supporting casts, they all feel like they matter. Though sometimes “Family Style” does get a little too saccharine with the show’s signature emotional monologues (lots of softly lit closeups of quivering expressions).

While this week’s episode was a nice little palate cleanser from the mystery boxes, here’s hoping next week we learn a little more.

Mary Fan
Mary Fanhttp://www.MaryFan.com
Mary Fan is a Jersey City-based author of sci-fi/fantasy. Her books include Stronger than a Bronze Dragon, the Starswept Trilogy, the Jane Colt Trilogy, the Flynn Nightsider series, and the Fated Stars series. She is also the co-editor of the Brave New Girls sci-fi anthologies about girls in STEM.

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