Sunday, November 20, 2011

Northern Exposure - S1E1

(Not a Hollywood backlot.)
Northern Exposure is my favorite TV show. I feel that in starting these reviews, I should be up front about that. I recognize that many other series might be “better” (The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, etc.), or more influential (Hill Street Blues, Taxi, The Simpsons, etc.), or more daring (Twin Peaks, Community), and there are even some shows that at times elicited from me a more intense personal reaction (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Wonder Years), but in my experience no show was as formative, exploratory, literary, and earnest as the one that ostensibly started as a fish-out-of-water tale of a young doctor from New York City being forced to serve out a contract in a fictional small town in rural Alaska – on its surface, not something I can exactly relate to. The series had its missteps, including changes in the later seasons when David Chase was a producer, but it still has much to offer. In watching the series again, there were moments that still made me cheer, and moments that made me cry from sheer beauty.

I’d also like to offer the caveat that this will be the first time I’ve written about television. I’m completing a cinema studies program, and the focus of this site to date has been current film reviews, so my style will probably improve as I become used to the differences in episodic writing. I’ve watched a hell of a lot of TV, a lot of the people I follow on Twitter are TV critics, and Northern Exposure helped spur my interest in film – full circle – so I’m not too concerned. This first write-up will be much, much longer than the others, because of this preamble and introducing the situation, characters, etc. Sadly, the show is not available for streaming. I should note that I will be using the, um, non-studio produced version of the DVDs. The official releases have replaced much of the original music due to licensing costs, and music is so integral to the show, that I made my only bootleg purchase to date in order to have the show as I remembered it. (This version, recorded from a digital broadcast, can be found and ordered with little searching; though it’s not perfect [some of the edits are off, and the station logo can feel a bit ubiquitous], the price is good considering the effort, and it comes with extras, so I’m very happy. BUT YOU DIDN’T HEAR IT FROM ME.)

I must give proper recognition to The A.V. Club and all its TV Club writers, really, in particular editor Todd VanDerWerff (himself a fan of this show), for inspiring me to start writing about television. Noel Murray’s excellent piece in his A Very Special Episode series reminded me why Northern Exposure had been and continues to be a comfort. I’d also like to thank Ryan McGee for his recent call for a punk-rock revolution in TV criticism – that really helped my approach. I owe a debt of gratitude to Cory Barker for giving me my first shot at TV criticism, which I’m really excited about; it will be an honor to join established critics on that project, and I hope to have a voice of my own by that time. Most importantly, though, thank you (including some of my Twitter friends, presumably) for reading. When I got the “firstie” on this recent article and received 50 likes and numerous comments without actually naming the show, I knew there could be an audience. 

Northern Exposure premiered on July 12, 1990. Its first two seasons totaled only 15 episodes, and then it had a full episode order for its third season, and ran for six seasons total, with its last episode (number 110) airing on July 26, 1995. Or, in my timeline, from when I was fourteen and anticipating my freshman year in high school, to being home after my miserable first year of college and wondering what I was going to do next. All the while, I tuned in to the show. Perhaps because of the current atmosphere of triumphant mediocrity on TV, with fan-favorites and critically acclaimed shows receiving little popular recognition, I’m amazed that Northern Exposure won the Emmy Award in 1992 for Outstanding Drama Series, and consecutive Golden Globes in 1993 and 1994 for Best Drama Series. I won’t be using much of the show’s Wikipedia or IMDb pages to put it in historical context, but please feel free to visit those to supplement.

So, with all that being said, let’s get started on Northern Exposure – a lightning in a bottle show if ever there was one. 

“Pilot,” Season 1 Episode 1, originally aired July 12, 1990

Okay, so the first episode isn’t that great.

It’s pretty good for a pilot, as some of the character work is already strong and the setting is clearly established, but it has the same blatant moments of exposition as nearly all pilots do, and the focus on an almost anti-hero as a protagonist is misleading, given what the show would soon become.

We first meet Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) on a plane, as he tells the passenger in seat Exposition 6A his situation: the State of Alaska paid for his medical education at Columbia University in exchange for four years of doctoral service in Anchorage. The passenger is skeptical that Joel will be able to make it and offers him a weary “good luck.”

The credit sequence is the first real sense we get of the show, as a moose wanders through a small town and David Schwartz’s unique theme (with Native American and jazz-funk elements) plays. This show will be about the setting more than the plot that brings us there.

It turns out that Joel would be superfluous in Anchorage and so is sent to Cicely, on “The Alaskan Riviera,” with the promise that he can leave if he doesn’t like it. A cutesy bus ride montage later, some waiting on a stretch of road, and Joel is greeted by Ed (Darren E. Burrows) in a pick-up truck. Ed drives him only part of the way to meet Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin). When Ed stops and leaves into the woods, Joel gets his first indication that things are a little off. Maurice has one of the better entrances I’ve seen on TV: he rappels down the side of his house as Joel drives up to his estate. No time is wasted in his characterization: former astronaut; entrepreneur; owner of local radio station; all-around magnate of the town.

Maurice drives Joel into Cicely in his big Cadillac convertible, and briefly mentions the town’s namesake and Roslyn – it will be a while until this “mythology” is fully revealed, but it’s the most that the show creates. Joel is more confused than alarmed: “I don’t understand – where’s the rest of the town?” Maurice assures him, “Oh, it’s coming, son…” After only a minute or two in his “new” office, which is boarded up and in desperate need of some paint and a thorough dusting, with laconic native Marilyn (Elaine Miles) already in line for an assistant position, Joel hauls ass out of there into the local bar and grill, desperate to call home and have his contract checked.

The rest of the episode revolves around Joel trying to get out of his contract and biding his time by seeing a few patients and meeting some of the other townsfolk. After, of course, he makes a total ass of himself, a few times over. The creators of the show, Joshua Brand and John Falsey, had to know that its strength would be the town of Cicely. (And the idea of Cicely, but we’ll get into that later.) It’s not that Joel’s situation doesn’t create sympathy, because who wants to be caught up in red tape, especially in a strange place for four years, or that Morrow isn’t well-served by the role, because in the pilot he already has a distinct handle on the character and has that delicate mix of put-upon but headstrong. It’s that the structure of long-form storytelling necessitates that Joel will be warmed over by the town and its people. They need him, and he needs to pay them back.

There is a B-story, with Maurice and The Brick’s bartender/owner, Holling Vincouer (John Cullum), having some bad blood over Shelly (Cynthia Geary), Maurice’s trophy girl who left him for Holling, but we don’t get to actually hear from Shelly in this episode. It’s interesting that in the last moments of the pilot, Maurice has one of his most emotional moments in the entire series, as he and Holling reconcile their decades-long friendship.

The most significant character we meet, in a brief comedy of errors, is Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner) while Joel still waits to hear back about his contract at The Brick. At first he thinks she’s a hooker propositioning him, but it turns out she’s his landlord. He continues to say all the wrong things as she sets him up at his new place. (She says she flies; he asks if she’s a stewardess flight attendant.) After a night spent clutching a golf club and listening to the wilderness, Joel runs out to dispose of a dead rat and we get a magnificent shot of mountains behind him as the camera quickly zooms in on his startled face. You can’t do that on a production lot. After a seven-mile run into town, Joel briefly meets Ruth-Anne (Peg Phillips), the general store owner, and reluctantly gets started with a room full of patients. Including a beaver, and a man shot by his wife. Here and in one more scene later in the episode (when the man – Number 6, aka Walter – comes back with a stab wound, inflicted by his wife), we see that Dr. Fleischman does have what it takes in a professional regard, as he not only treats his patients but also offers some counseling. It’s a clever way to ease him into what his role will be: part general practitioner, part de-facto therapist.

In the next scene, taking advantage of the location, Ed rows Joel out to meet Maurice in a boat on a lake. Maurice lays it out for him: “You signed a contract, Joel. But much more important than that, you gave your word. And I intend to hold you to that within the bonds of the law. And if necessary, without the bonds of the law.” Joel puts up his nebbish armor, declaring, “I’m from New York City! I’ve walked down 42nd Street at midnight, I’ve taken the Lexington line at 2am!” But as Joel learns towards the end of the episode, after his fiancĂ©e Elaine finally calls him back, if he reneges on his contract he’ll have to pay a fine of $10,000 and serve 18 years in jail.

Welcome to Alaska.

The episode closes with the 9th Annual Arrowhead County Summer Wonderland Festival, with everyone but Joel having a good time. Ed comes up to him, offering a moose burger or caribou dog, not to cheer Joel up necessarily, but just because that’s in his disposition. There’s a nice little exchange where Ed plots out what Joel and Elaine might have been doing in New York at that very moment, which Ed explains with “Oh, I saw Manhattan – I think Woody’s a genius.” Patient Number 6 and his wife approach Joel to thank him, having gotten back together, and the last lines of dialogue, between Ed and Joel, are quick but heavy with subtext: “How do you like the moose burger?” “A little gamey.” “You’ll get used to it.”

And with that, Ed and Joel join the festivities, as a lovely crane shot takes in the lake and the surrounding mountains.

Shameless Stray Observations Rip-Off Miscellany Section:
  • “Seltzer. Water with bubbles.” Oh, those crazy New Yorkers.
  • “THERE IS NO JOB!” Marilyn at once seems the least characterized and the most. If you don’t think she’s delightful, there is no hope for us.
  • “You have the reddest lips I’ve ever seen.” Joel and Maggie share many drinks, and origin stories, at The Brick, closing it down. Will they or won’t they, hmmm…
  • “What has this man done to deserve a cardiac tamponade?”
  • “North to the Future!” 
Thanks for reading. I’ll be covering two episodes at a time each week from now on (with, again, much shorter lengths), with the right to devote some write-ups to episodes I’m particularly fond of.
    Next week: what (OR WHO) was basically missing from the pilot, one of the main reasons the show has stuck with me, and why I think it’s a clear predecessor to some current fan favorites.


    1. We must be about the same age, as I was a high-school freshman in 1990 and finished my freshman year of college in 1995. I got into Northern Exposure later in its run; it must have gone into syndication in 1993 or '94, because I started watching it in late-night UHF reruns and then caught up with the last season-plus of original episodes on CBS - pretty much just in time for the show to implode.

      My upbringing wasn't quite so rural, although my parents did their best to make sure I was sheltered and very religious. When I found NoEx (which is how we abbreviated it on the show's Usenet group back in '95), I had reached the "questioning everything" phase and the show was a perfect fit for that. Treating other cultures as something other than simply weird and foreign! Accepting religious differences, including a respectful view of atheism! Gay characters who were more characters than they were stereotypes! A lot of things from this show just encoded themselves into my DNA, and I'll always have fond memories of learning new things from Chris, Annie's #1 TV Boyfriend 1994-1995.

      I've caught a few episodes in recent years, and while not everything holds up, a lot of it does. I'm looking forward to reading your future write-ups!

    2. Nice write up, I am a little older, but I loved that show back in the day and watched all of the reruns on A&E, too. Sad to hear that the music issues screwed up the dvd's.

    3. The music may not be the only thing screwy on the DVD's. I've just watched this ep and i got no scene of patient 6 & his wife thanking Joel.

      Just want to say also that i'm glad you're doing these reviews as i'm watching the show pretty much first time around and it's great to have some other perspectives on it.

      I know it's a pilot and you mention that leads to some heavey handedness, but i think they had some nice lighter touches mixed in, like the welcome sign and Ruth-Anne already knowing who Joel is. I can easily imagine these being dwelt on more in other shows but here they are fleeting things. Though i'm a little worried now that may just be the result of dodgy editing on my DVD's.