“So we’ve decided to set you up in Cicely, situated in the area we Alaskans refer to as the Alaskan Riviera…”
Set in Alaska, but actually filmed not far up the road from where Twin Peaks‘ exterior locations were shot, Northern Exposure was initially often compared to Twin Peaks, arriving a mere three months after it aired. Twin Peaks may have had the most lasting cultural fame, but at the time Northern Exposure was the more traditional network hit. Twin Peaks had the hype and made a big splash, but viewers drifted away once they realised that this wasn’t the murder mystery they were expecting, but something rather more disturbing altogether. They found something a little more homely in Northern Exposure. It had the same majestic northwestern scenery, was set in a small isolated town, had a cast of quirky characters, and told stories in an unconventional and – for its day – challenging way.
While Twin Peaks put a lot of viewers off with its bursts of surreality and disturbing darkness, Northern Exposure could best be described as charmingly eccentric. The comparisons were addressed directly by the show in a typically self-referential and playful fashion in an early episode when an aside sees the characters take a trip to see a local waterfall which includes slow-motion, scene dissolves, Badalamenti-like synths, Red Room-esque jazz, rhythmic finger-snapping, mention of coffee, donuts, cherry pie, a log lady, and an out-of-the-blue discussion of the importance of the unseen and Sontag. There is no real purpose to this scene in the narrative other than to pay tribute to, and perhaps poke a little fun at the rival show.
In truth, aside from the small-town Pacific northwest small town setting there isn’t a great deal that the two shows have in common, and in fact the tone and underlying mood couldn’t be more different, except for the more soapy aspects of Season 2 of Twin Peaks. Where Twin Peaks focused on the Lynch obsession with the darker side of small town folk, and the secrets that lurk under the surface of such tight-knit communities, Northern Exposure was undeniably positive and upbeat – championing the slow, deliberate simplicity of the town, and the relationships that are formed within. At its essence, the quirky community is what makes Northern Exposure absorbing and is its strongest connection to Twin Peaks.
Aside from Twin Peaks, there was nothing like Northern Exposure on the air, and not much like it before. Its cast of quirky characters, philosophising, shamanism, odd dialogue, and fantasy sequences paved the way for shows such as Ally McBeal and, later, Gilmore Girls, which re-created a very similar small-town cast of friendly weirdos that drew the viewer in and made them never want to leave. Like Gilmore Girls, it also had a scattergun democratic approach to literary and movie references, throwing out quotes from Nietzsche and Woody Allen with equal abandon, assuming the viewer will be equally happy with and recognise both, and even if not, they always sound great coming from the philosopher-crook Chris Stevens. Likewise, Northern Exposure owes a debt of gratitude to Moonlighting, which ended its four year run the year before, and specialised in screwball dramedy, sharp dialogue, fantasy sequences and episodes.
As the show starts, we follow the recently graduated New York doctor Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) to the small town of Cicely, Alaska where he is required to serve out his time as the town doctor for in return for the state having paid his college fees. Expecting to be placed at a hospital in Anchorage, he is further appalled to be told he is being sent to the small town of Cicely to be a local doctor. As a premise it’s a classic fish-out-of-water tale, and you could be forgiven for expecting in those first moments that this is going to a very formulaic show. Big city doc ends up in a hick town – high jinks and stereotypes ensue. This doesn’t happen though, and for an early nineties show the characters and storylines are mostly incredibly thoughtful and progressive. While the focus is very much on Joel initially, gradually though – without us really noticing – we’re drawn into the town of Cicely; its weird mix of characters, and the friendly, slow-paced life where small dramas have a big impact. We start as an outsider, like Joel, but throughout the first few episodes as we get to know the townsfolk, and we slowly start to feel like this is somewhere we could call home. These people could be our friends. Weird friends maybe, but friends.
“Something I’ve been wondering about lately…mirrors, ya know…You hold two of ’em facin’ each other…and what’s on ’em? I don’t know. If you have any ideas, feel free to give me a call…”
The first Cicely resident Joel meets is Ed Chigliak (Darren E. Burrows), a young half-Native American who was abandoned at birth by his mother and raised by a local Tlingit tribe. A budding film-maker and movie buff, Ed appears naive, maybe a little slow, but as we get to know him we recognise that he is just largely lost in his own head, living in a half-fantasy movie world of his own devising.
Next he meets Maurice (Barry Corbin); ex-astronaut, local entrepreneur who owns half the town, and dreams of a rich future with Burger Kings and hotels, making Cicely the Alaskan Riviera. Maurice drives Joel into the town centre, to be met with Joel’s astounded “Is this it? Is this the town?”. They walk over to Joel’s future office, a decrepit unfurnished dust-hole where he is greeted by Marilyn (Elaine Miles), a local Tlingit woman who has come to apply for the job. Overwhelmed with horror, Joel flees and ends up in the local drinking hole ‘The Brick’ where he encounters the cap-wearing plaid-clad denizens. Rushing to the payphone he calls the co-ordinator in Anchorage to demand he is released from his obligations, without any joy. He meets Holling Vincoeur (John Cullum), the owner of ‘The Brick’ who has a longstanding dispute with Maurice over Shelley, who Maurice brought up to Cicely but who fell for and ended up with Holling.
Enter Maggie O’ Connell (Janine Turner), the fiery local pilot and Joel’s landlord who Joel mistakes for a hooker, setting up the screwball love/hate relationship that is the focus of the the early seasons of Northern Exposure. Fast-talking, caustic, and deadly to men (literally – all of her boyfriends have died in bizarre accidents) the relationship between Joel and Maggie is reminiscent of Maddie and David in Moonlighting.
After receiving news that there is nothing in his contract to use to get out of his fix, and spending a while freaking out, Joel attends the local Summer Wonderland festival. Sitting with Ed, eating a mooseburger, Ed asks how he likes it, to which Joel responds “A little gamey.” “Oh, you’ll get used to it” nods Ed sagely as they get up to stroll through small crowd of of Cicely locals enjoying the day.
“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!”
One regular character we don’t really meet in the pilot is Chris Stevens (John Corbett), the local radio DJ, an ex-convict who lives in a trailer home by the river bank. Chris is in many ways the heart of the show in the early seasons, holding forth from his microphone pulpit, musing on the nature of the world, grappling with existential problems, and quoting philosophy and classical literature in-between giving updates on local news. His character loses its way in the later seasons, becoming a little pompous, a little self-absorbed rather than the caring and carefree soul we first meet.
Similarly, the writing suffers in later seasons, which is perhaps a casualty of moving from short seasons of seven and eight episodes in the first two seasons to full 23 episode seasons afterwards. Perhaps it’s not just the writing, although the show’s direction definitely wavered after creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey left after the fourth season. The premise of the show and its charm is that we’re welcomed into this small community of quirky interesting characters, and become absorbed with their stories and the strangeness of the town. After a while, we get used to it, and we slowly cease to be outsiders finding everything charming and cute, and there are only so many stories you can tell about the same four or five people in a small town. Attempts to bring in new characters were largely ill-considered and clumsy. The intermittent appearances of Adam, the misanthropic rogue chef played by Adam Arkin, are a delight, but other than that the central characters of Joel and Maggie prove not to be strong enough to keep the show as absorbing throughout, and the development of the other characters falters.
However much it may dip in its charms later on, the first two seasons are oddly hypnotic and make perfect late-night watching. Once you’ve been drawn into the world of Cicely you may also find yourself forgiving the slight loss of direction and keep watching, because the way the world is going, who amongst us can’t find brief refuge in a small town of friendly weirdos?
Speaking of friendly weirdos, Matt and Lindsay will be back next week for a deeper look at Northern Exposure‘s neurotic and cantankerous main character, Dr. Joel Fleischman.
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