Sunday, December 4, 2011

Northern Exposure - S1E2

The Voice of the Borough of Arrowhead County, about to get an ass-whuppin'.
“Brains, Know-How and Native Intelligence,” Season 1 Episode 2, originally aired July 19, 1990
Ahh, that’s the stuff.
Chris Stevens (John Corbett) had a blink-and-you-no-it’s-shorter-than-a-blink-oh-never-mind appearance in the pilot, but here his voice opens the episode, carrying over the town of Cicely, as he relates from his DJ booth at KBHR of the moment during a juvenile crime spree – GTA and a B & E – that “completely and irrevocably” changed his life: discovering The Complete Works of Walt Whitman, which he proceeds to read on air.

Chris, thanks in equal part to the writers and Corbett’s indelible performance, is the primary reason why I was so drawn to Northern Exposure in its early episodes, when I was about the same age he had been when he found art, beauty, and truth in the midst of a troubled life. I was never a bad kid, far from it, but even though I had always been a “reader” and liked movies and TV as much as the next kid, there was nothing that truly spoke to me, that opened my eyes and ears to what might be out there. I’m an only child, and even by my early teens my cultural tastes and appreciation were aimless; in my recollection, during my adolescence my parents didn’t really expose me to anything that I couldn’t hear on the golden oldies or classic rock stations (which is a great start), or that was currently in the PG-13 releases or on primetime TV. There was no one to say “here, kid, read/listen/watch this.” (Later I would come to own more albums by Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, The Velvet Underground, etc. than my parents, who grew up in the 1960’s.) I suppose that with the alternating weeks joint custody that my parents had reached in their divorce agreement (fun with antonyms!), there wasn’t enough time in seven days to impart the great works to me.
I could watch Northern Exposure every week, though, and hear Chris talk about art, beauty, and truth. As these reviews go on I’ll delve more into what Chris meant to the show and to me, both as a character and as a device.
So now then. Joel’s clock radio technically wakes him with Chris reading “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d,” but he’s not fully alarmed until he sees Ed sitting in his bedroom. Ed (who, as a Native American, doesn’t knock because it’s “rude”) wants to make a doctor’s appointment for his uncle, who is stubborn to come in himself. This episode, more so than the pilot, begins a case of the week format that would be used frequently as a touchstone, to help structure the series while allowing the more avant-garde aspects of the show to gain prominence. After Ed meets his Uncle Anku (Frank Sotonoma Salsedo) out in the woods and can’t persuade him to seek treatment, he again “visits” Joel, this time by waiting in his office, feet up on the desk, to invite him to dinner. There’s a nice little routine when Ed tells Joel that Anku is a doctor: “Oh really, which kind?” “Witch.” “Which which?” “Which what?” “Which doctor?” “Right.” “… Your uncle is a witch doctor?” Joel still displays his beleaguered personality from the pilot, but when Ed reveals that Anku has blood in his urine, Joel turns on a dime and shows the immediate concern that’s due. It takes the length of the episode, of course, to finally get through to Anku, with Kentucky Fried Chicken, saunas, and Native dance lessons all being foisted as means of avoidance.
This plays out while the town undergoes an unwelcome change. As Chris departs from reading Whitman to speak on the poet’s homosexuality, and how his learning about this while in prison caused him to reconsider his treatment of homosexuals, Maurice listens while fishing. It is only his distance from the radio station that prevents him from hauling Chris out of his chair more quickly, before throwing him through a window. Chris is fired, because Maurice will not stand to have discussion of homosexuality, let alone allegations, go over Minnifield Communications; Maurice takes over, sharing, in a bit of a wink, his collection of Broadway show tunes while expounding ever proudly of his days as a flyboy. Radio – both music and speech – is used in Northern Exposure to lend a commonality to the other story lines; beyond the thematic approach, it serves a practical purpose, acting as a bridge between scenes or as a soundtrack. It also serves to unite the community of Cicely – in this case, through disgust at Maurice’s airtime. We learn that Holling is the mayor during a town meeting at the church, where Maurice tries to play off his decision, asking to hear ideas. Well, those ideas are presented as a petition with 376 signatures to get Chris reinstated, and a clamor to stop playing show tunes, which causes Maurice to angrily dismiss the meeting.
The other storyline (the series normally has an A, B, and C plot) is more trivial, but establishes a particular dynamic between arguably the two main characters, Joel and Maggie. It’s pretty simple: first Joel’s toilet doesn’t work, so Maggie comes to fix it, but their niceties soon turn into a head-to-head argument – notice how closely they are framed, this type of blocking is used in the next episode and beyond, to display sexual tension – with Maggie (or rather “O’Connell”) calling Joel (or rather “Fleischman”) a “helplessness junkie.” There is some casual, clever dovetailing of the other storylines throughout this plot. When Joel’s shower then breaks down, he knows better than to ask Maggie, so he tries to fix it, after learning from the lakeside trailer call to Chris (with cuts on his face and his arm in a cast) of a “library” at Ruth Anne’s store – which has a three month backorder on Walt Whitman, but a fully stocked plumbing section. While Maurice’s show tunes play over the store radio, Maggie comes in and she and Joel pace back and forth, still bickering, separated by a low shelf of domestic supplies. Maggie taunts him with “What is it about you Fleischman that ssooo irritates me?” He counters with “You are clearly attracted to me and it makes you incredibly uncomfortable.” (Beat.) “Your arrogance.” When Ed visits Joel to update him on the no update from Uncle Anku, Joel still can’t fix his shower, despite his knowledge of physiological systems. He later is forced to bathe in a lake, having gotten the idea from Chris’s own hygiene habits. When Maggie comes in to have her trick knee checked out, they again have a moment that highlights their tension, and after Joel sets her up with a call back to needing help, she leaves without receiving treatment. In the early episodes of the series, it’s unfortunate that as headstrong and self-reliant as Maggie is portrayed, she’s still regarded more as a romantic foil for Joel instead of her own person.
There are many things I like about this episode, including having Ed’s first storyline show his concerned and empathic (but a little naïve) nature, which prompts a particularly great line from Joel out on the street: “Don’t do this Northern brooding thing, I can’t stand Bergman films.” But in the last quarter of the episode, the subtext is made text, a couple of times over. First Joel tells it to Maurice straight, that his on-air personality is lacking and that he needs to hire Chris back, to which Maurice responds, “I can’t do that son, I’ve got my pride.” Joel then spells it out, “That’s what it comes down to, doesn’t it? You, Maggie, Chris, Anku –” “– Who the hell was that last one?!” Then Joel visits Anku again in the sauna, and calls him out: “You’d rather die than save face?” This goes beyond being on-the-nose: it’s unnecessary, but it is only the second episode, and perhaps can be forgiven since the amount of trust in the audience cannot yet be gauged.
At the end, Maurice offers the closest thing to an apology that he can, both on-air and in private to Chris, who he of course hires back. Anku finally makes an appointment for surgery in Anchorage, to remove the tumor on his prostate. And Joel visits Maggie to bring her some Darvon for her knee, and reveals that he’s homesick, by way of explaining his behavior. Rick pops out to check on her – we need a reminder of the obstacles here, folks – and she tells Joel that she’ll fix his shower. Then he does a little Native dance by his truck. Yay.
Shameless Stray Observations Rip-Off Miscellany Section:
  • “This is Cicely, Alaska, not San Francisco.”
  • “Did you hit her?”
  • Tastes in music, astronaut edition: “Scotty” [Carpenter]: West Side Story; Gus [Grissom]: Guys and Dolls; “John-o” [Glenn]: Brigadoon. Maurice prefers The King and I.
  • When Uncle Anku teaches Joel a dance, notice their wardrobe: the former in a tan shirt and green pants, the latter in a green shirt and tan pants – a subtle way of indicating their similarities as medicine men and their differences as men.
  • This might be the only time that we see Chris listen to KBHR, as he takes in Maurice’s defense of both Whitman and himself. Well. For a while, anyway – I’ll have to keep track of that.
  • A bit of trivia: Mrs. Anku is played by Armenia Miles, the mother of Elaine Miles – Marilyn – though she would later play Marilyn’s mother in a recurring role.
  •  “You’ve got a furtive mind, Maurice.” Even the casual vocabulary of the show is a little more intelligent than standard prime time fare.
  • This was written by Stuart Stevens, who would also write the very funny third season episode “Jules et Joel.” Director Peter O’Fallon has a long history of quite varied TV work, from thirtysomething to The Good Wife, with the film Suicide Kings on his résumé too.
Personal notes:
I’d like to offer an enormous thank you for all the interest tracked already from Phil Nugent’s excellent article last night on The A.V. Club (focusing on the season three Christmas episode “Seoul Mates”), and to editor Todd VanDerWerff for giving me the head’s up – I’m glad that there’s an audience, it definitely helps my commitment to working these into a busy week.
Given the timeliness of the above, I wanted to get something up today. I’ve had a busy week and weekend (including seeing some films that I’ll review on here shortly), and you all ain’t paying me for these, so rather than wait longer to post two episodes, I’m putting this up now. I trust that’s okay. I’m used to classic reviews being two episodes at a time, like for my Internet critic bestie Rowan Kaiser’s awesome Veronica Mars pieces, but I also think (as in Mr. Nugent’s case with his Homicide reviews) that one episode can be a lot to work with. We shall see what sticks.


  1. I'm glad you're writing about this show! I really love it, and I'm looking forward to your next write up!

    I love this series for a ton of reasons, and it touches on some of my favorite themes over its run (community, high and low culture, what art is good for etc.). One of the things I really admire about this show is how it values multiculturalism and zigs and zags around issues of stereotype and connection. It's way too easy when trying to demonstrate a pluralistic cultural value (one that really values both difference and sameness) to make errors on one side or the other--to either put together a text that says "cultures are different in irreconcilable ways, what can you do?" or "all our differences are imaginary, hey, we're all human!", both dire and unsatisfying over-simplifications. At it's best, this show builds a community of people who have real differences (in character, in attitude and in culture) but who are fundamentally in dialogue with each other. The residents of Cicily are all well drawn and wonderfully themselves, but they're also beautifully free to accept the best from all the world's cultures have to offer and mix them up and share them with each other. Other episodes might do this better, but a lot of that attitude shows up in this one.

    It's there when Maurice kicks Chris off the air over mentioning homosexuality and replaces him with wall-to-wall show tunes. The show doesn't make this into a hacky joke, like other series might, but it does let the irony hang there. It's there when Maggie and Joel bop around traditional portrayals of gender roles (he can't fix stuff! She's stoic to a fault about her physical pain!), but again without a tacky rim shot, and in the end the show seems to think that there are both strengths and weaknesses that come from being too helpless or too independent. It's there when Joel identifies Mr. Anku's sauna as a "schvitz", gently pointing out how all cultures can enjoy the pleasure of sitting in a hot room.

    It's most present in the Mr. Anku plot. When Mr. Anku says he knows he has prostate cancer because he had a dream, read some tea leaves and saw a specialist, it's kind of a blueprint for how this show handles multiculturalism-- In a lesser 90s paean to multiculturalism, the Mr. Anku character would be refusing treatment for his cancer, it would have been because he has some spiritual wisdom (accessible to him on account of his native-ness) about the foolishness of trying to avoid death or something, from which the white dude (always the protagonist) could Learn A Deep Lesson. I'll admit that on my first viewing of this episode, I was waiting for the story to hit that beat. Instead, he's got the same thing Joel does--professional pride. It's a lovely reversal. The show doesn't shy away from showing the differences between Joel and Mr. Anku, but it also demonstrates their sameness. I think Joel can figure out that pride is Mr. Anku's problem because he can identify with it as a doctor. I like too, that early in our introduction to the character, we hear Mr. Anku talking about how he has to collect willow bark for a patient of his, even though he and she both know that the medicine is the same as aspirin, the patient won't stand for the substitution.

  2. Wow, now that is a comment! Thank you!

    Some very good insights, I appreciate it.

    Now that I know smart people are reading this, I'll have to step up my game! ;)

  3. Aw, now I'm a little embarrassed--I didn't realize my comment was that long while I was typing it! I guess I was just! so! excited! to be reading about this awesome show!

  4. I'm reading, too, and encourage you to carry on. This show means sooo, soo much to me as I'm sure it does to you all as well.

    Mr. partial robot, you hit on some of my favorite themes of NX and are the very reason that, IMHO, the show is one of the best shows of its kind (episodic dramedy)ever.