For me, television in the 1990's was dominated by two programs, the X-Files (which I have blogged about earlier) and Northern Exposure. Even though it only made it half-way through the decade, Northern Exposure was entertaining, humorous, and even pioneering. I videotaped the episodes, beginning before we moved into our current house, and re-watched many of them about ten years later, in the first decade of this century. Times and technology being what they are, I transferred these tapes to a digital format, after my second viewing.
Beginning right after New Year's Day, Jennifer and I decided to watch the whole series, from start to finish again. It wasn't exactly 'binge watching' as it took us until late-May to get through all 110 episodes. Generally, we watched two episodes a night but most nights we watched no TV at all. Anyway, the experience was entertaining, each of us remembering different aspects of the show and sharing in conversation about it throughout the few months.
In its heyday, Northern Exposure was a huge commercial and critical success, particularly in seasons 2 - 4 of the 6 total seasons. It began as a summer replacement series in 1990 and 1991 before becoming a prime-time monster in 1992, garnering as many as 26 million viewers and six Emmy Awards out of 16 nominations. It had no wins in 1993 but was, again, nominated 16 times, indicating how popular the show was with the critics. It had three nominations and one win in 1994. It also won Golden Globe Awards in 1992 and 1993 out of seven total nominations.
My recollection of the show was that it was a comedy. But, in fact, that was just my mind acting selectively. The show was a drama and clearly so upon my most recent viewing. But, it was an off-beat drama with much humor and sentimentality. The accolades and viewership fell off dramatically in 1995, partially due to a compensation dispute between the show's lead actor, Rob Morrow, and its producers. Morrow was written out of the show and, even though there much integrity in the remaining episodes, it just wasn't the same. By that time the show was an imitation of itself, no longer breaking new ground and Jennifer and I lost interest shortly before it was canceled.
Northern Exposure is filled with multiple, fascinating characters and story arcs. The primary thread, however, involved the tense relationship between Dr. Joel Fleishmann (Morrow) and bush pilot Maggie O'Connell (Janine Turner). The two begin the series in a fractious manner. Maggie is living with her boyfriend at the time but the underlying sexual tension between Joel and herself is obvious from the beginning and probably the root cause of their initial adversarial interaction.
Joel is from New York City, just graduated from Columbia University. He is indebted to the State of Alaska for financing his education. Without getting too deep into the complexity of his situation, he is forced to serve as a general practitioner in the small town of Cicely, Alaska, which - being a big city guy - he detests for most of the series before gradually coming to accept his place in the Alaskan wilds. Maggie, a bush pilot and part-time real estate broker from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, has the misfortune of having five of her boyfriends all die in various bizarre accidents. Rick, her live-in squeeze at the start of the series, is hit by a falling satellite in the second season, freeing the Joel-Maggie dialectic relationship to run its course.
The couple struggle between moments of intimacy and even animalistic sex (in one scene at least) to constant bickering and insulting one another through rather shallow psychoanalytical jabs. A turning point of sorts happens in the relationship about halfway through the series when the couple discuss how to classify their dysfunctional relationship. They are clearly attracted to each other but also clearly can't get along. They agree to label themselves "mutually desirous incompatibles." Until late in the series, this makes for a strong central narrative tension that stitches together a host of zany supporting characters who keep things lively, sophisticated, and funny most of the time.
Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin) is a former Korean War combat pilot and NASA astronaut who has parlayed his notoriety into great personal wealth. He owns several of the businesses and much of the land in and around Cicely. He is clearly an old-style conservative with a penchant for individual freedom. He is a sexist and a bigot but the show completely humanizes him into a realistically likable character. He is charitable, a true friend in spite of moments of pettiness, and often looks out for the interests of others while nevertheless enjoying the fine life. One of the show's strengths is that it merely depicts and does not try to judge or moralize much. Despite our differences, we are all in this together, according to Northern Exposure.
As back story, before the series begins, Maurice fell in love with the youthful Shelly Tambo (Cynthia Geary) while serving as a judge in the Miss Northwest Passage beauty contest. Shelly won the contest and she got the hots for the former astronaut. She is a relatively naive character, but with a strong set of values, a hard work ethic, a competitive spirit, and a huge sex drive. She occasionally surprises the viewer with her insights into human behavior, especially human relationships, though her articulation is wonderfully grade school-like.
Shelly's character serves as another central adhesion to the narrative. She came to Cicely with Maurice but immediately fell in love with Holling Vincoeur (John Cullum), Maurice's best friend, in a classic love triangle situation. Holling is a rugged man of the north, a birding aficionado in his sixties but his family has great longevity genes and he is a vibrant companion to the decades younger Shelly in one of TV's first explorations of what might be called a "Daddy Complex."
Her shacking up with Holling seems to fit in fine with the ever-accepting citizens of Cicely - except for Maurice, of course, who, as the series begins, has broken off his friendship Holling. The bonds of the two men are too strong, however, and their long friendship prevails soon enough, with some lingering effects that crop up now and then. Holling owns The Brick, Cicely's main eatery and hangout. The happy couple live in the loft above the bar which Shelly often refers to as their "love grotto." We learn (through a medical discussion with Joel in a later season) that they have sex about four times a day.
One of my favorite episodes (Season 3, episode 16) involves Maurice and Holling going on a bit of an adventure together to bury an old friend who recently died. Years ago, they had promised to bury him at a remote location in the wilderness. Their trek is quite an adventure set in the snowy countryside and ending with a wonderful montage sequence to the tune of Willie Nelson's "Hand on the Wheel."
Around the two love-related narratives circle a swarm of other wacky characters. There is Ed Chigliak (Darren E. Burrows) a mysteriously orphaned half-native Alaskan who was raised by one of the local tribes. Ed is into movies, seems to know the major contemporary directors of the day all by their first name (Woody [Allen], Marty [Scorsese]), and he actually induces Peter Bogdanovich to make an appearance in Cicely in one episode. He is also a shaman in training. He works part time for both Maurice and Ruth-Ann. Maurice took the boy under his wing at a young age and has assisted with his rearing ever since.
Ruth-Ann Miller (Peg Phillips) runs the small town's dry goods store. She is elderly but full of life, shares a birding interest with Holling, and the same craggy sense of individualism exhibited by almost everyone on the show. In one episode, she chooses to work off her frustrations with daily life by joining a biker gang for one night as it rides through the wild back roads to other towns near Cicely. In later seasons, she becomes romantically involved with the crusty former Wall Street broker Walt Kupfer (Moultrie Patten) who has moved north to become a trapper. Both are colorful characters, Ruth-Ann more philosophical, Walt more of a comedian. The old couple bicker a lot but, as Walt affectionately puts it, "you're quite the firecracker Ruth-Ann." In more ways than one, apparently.
Marilyn Whirlwind (Elaine Miles) is Joel's native-Alaskan receptionist/office manager. Rarely has there been a character on television who can communicate more with fewer lines or just by staring. Marilyn's unique minimalist interaction, rarely using more than five or six words at once, drives her verbose hyperactive, semi-paranoid New Yorker boss crazy at times. Though, as with all relationships on the show, she and the good doctor form a strong bond up to the time of his disappearance from the series.
Beyond the colorful cast (a host of others I don't mention in this post), there are other reasons to find Northern Exposure enjoyable. One of the best things about the series is the great music featured on the show. A major reason I wanted to preserve my original VHS recordings was that, due to the expense of copyright royalties, the official DVD releases do not include the original music as aired. This is a big deal because I have never seen a TV show where the music was more integral to the show's narrative presentation. There are websites (here and here) devoted to just the music along with a couple of CDs as well. It is a terrific mix of everything from classical music to reggae to jazz, country, and rock. I bought my only George Strait CD because of the show prominently featuring "I Don't Mind If I Do" at the conclusion of one of my favorite episodes.
This is definitely a show of the early 90's. There are no cell phones yet, no PCs running Windows are seen. The only flat screen TV is shown in season six and belongs to a very wealthy native-Alaskan who shows it off as a novelty. Everyone rents movies on VHS tapes. There are multiple iconic references to famous people and events of that period of time.
Since the exploration of the human psyche is a strong underlying current, the show frequently uses dream sequences to convey the deepest hopes and anxieties of the characters. In one episode the aurora borealis apparently causes the dreams of several characters to get mixed up, with each character having some other character's dreams, which is humorously confusing to everyone until they figure it out. I can't count the number of episodes where dreams are featured as a major part of the narrative. Dreams reveal things to the characters, they help explain motivations to the audience that otherwise go unstated. They function as you would expect dreams to - as emotional guides and modes of psychic cleansing.
The off-beat nature of Northern Exposure often expresses itself in philosophical, academic literature, and filmmaking dialog between various "wilderness" characters who possess only a modicum of education. You would not otherwise consider them capable of such conversation. The often abrupt and absurd banter on heady topics by Immanuel Kant or the films of Federico Fellini (to whom Ed also refers by first name), as examples, are only of passing understanding to the average viewer. These novel conversations are a cerebral type of humor beyond the show's funny one-liners and often comical situations. You might not understand what the finer details of the philosophy or literary criticism being discussed, but that is precisely what makes it funny, as you watch rugged Alaskans with long beards and rough voices wax theoretical metaphysics of the human condition.
The character of Chris Stevens (John Corbett) is a bit different in this regard. Chris is the disc jockey of Cicely's AM radio station, owned by Maurice of course. He is by nature a philosophical and well-read person even though he is a convicted felon and has a proclivity for occasional violence and misdeeds. Toward the end of the series he actually receives a masters degree in comparative literature.
Stevens is also an artist, specializing in contemporary welded works and installations. As such, he sort of represents Nietzsche's free spirit and, to some extent, his ubermensch, living a contemplative, creative life in search of the composition of his soul. In my personal favorite installment of the series, episode 14 of season 3 entitled "Burning Down the House," he constructs a medieval trebuchet for the purposes of flinging a cow through the air. Chris sees it purely as an act of art. Of course, everyone is perfectly accepting of this (the people of Cicely have a taste for accepting any one for what they are) except for Dr. Joel, who finds the trauma that the act will produce to the animal reprehensible. After a diatribe to his office manager, Marilyn shrugs and responds quietly: "We're going to eat it afterwards." That seems to justify everything.
But, as Chris checks out different cows for his fling none of them seem to suit the vibe he is looking for. To make a complicated story succinct, Chris ends up flinging Maggie's salvaged piano when her house is accidently set ablaze by her mother. The piano is flung very high and very far, ultimately crashing into a pond near the town. All the characters of the show turn up for Chris' event and are appropriately amazed by the rather free-spirited artistic act. Throughout the series the town unites during moments of importance for one of the other characters. It is unified that way despite being populated by a bunch of individualists, thus community and friendship is elevated on the TV show.
"Chris in the morning" is a staple of the community and he often waxes poetic and philosophical while changing tunes on the air. Here's a typical Stevens quote that particularly resonates with me: ". . . Well, lemme tell you, there are lots of ways to blaze a trail. I often wonder about those unsung heroes of the past — like the prehistoric gourmet who looked at a lobster and said, ‘I’m gonna eat that.’ Or the first healer who picked up a knife and said, ‘Let’s operate.’ See, adventures come in lots of shapes and sizes — from getting a haircut to falling in love. Just putting yourself behind the wheel and backing out of the driveway, well, that can be a sublime act of faith as well as a monumental act of courage."
Another favorite quote from Stevens, perhaps more representative of his personal philosophy: "There's a dark side to each and every human soul. We wish we were Obi-Wan Kenobi, and for the most part we are, but there's a little Darth Vader in all of us. Thing is, this ain't no either-or proposition. We're talking about dialectics, the good and the bad merging into us. You can run but you can't hide. My experience? Face the darkness. Stare it down. Own it. As brother Nietzsche said, being human is a complicated gig. So give that ol' dark night of the soul a hug. Howl the eternal yes!"
With such underpinnings Stevens also serves as the local reverend, having answered an ad for the Universalist Church in the back of Rolling Stone magazine years ago. He can perform weddings and funerals. Otherwise, the show is definitely "spiritual but not religious." There is a "community church" but no official religion is ever seen other than tidbits of Shelly's Catholicism, Joel's Judaism and various Native American rituals that come into play. The church is actually used as more of a town hall than for religious ceremonies. Numerous court proceedings and various community meetings and local political debates are held there.
Northern Exposure was a pioneering TV show in several respects. Ageism is explored in relationships such as Holling's and Shelly's as well as Ruth-Ann's and Walt's. Interracial relationships are touched on in a few episodes. It was perhaps the first American TV series to feature a gay wedding of two male minor characters who run a local bed and breakfast. The themes of global warming and other environmental concerns are prominent in many episodes, sounding the alarm very early on. All of these things make the series feel just as relevant today as it was 25 years ago. Of course, the love relationships and philosophical aspects of the show are timeless.
Jennifer and I enjoyed this trek through the entire series. What started out as a way to pass the cold, dark evenings of winter extended well into spring. Seasons One and Six seem to be the weakest links in the show. Though the writers tried to compensate for the lack of sexual tension between Maggie and the departed Joel with new relationships like Ruth-Ann and Walt, and they even dabbled with getting Chris and Maggie involved with each other, most of the last episodes failed in terms of the original humor and too many of the storylines felt shallow or were presented without any apparent reason. The narrative sputtered and went nowhere more often than not despite some additional character development.
In that regard Northern Exposure is not unlike most other TV series that I have watched. It is a rare thing for a show to escape feeling stale after 4-5 seasons. Still, Northern Exposure was a critical and commercial success when we built our house in 1993. We watched many episodes in our living room when they originally appeared. We re-watched many of them again about a decade later and we saw every episode just now. I guess you can say we prefer this type of show to the programming that is offered today. It was an enjoyable 100 hours or so spent so far in 2016. While it was a nostalgic experience for the most part, overall the show rarely felt dated and we were entertained on a higher level than the typical mindless, couch potato fare dished out on TV today.