Monday, March 5, 2012

Northern Exposure - S1E4, S1E5


“Dreams, Schemes & Putting Greens,” Season 1 Episode 4, originally aired August 2, 1990
Jack and Hurley playing golf... oh wait.
To be upfront about it, I didn’t have a strong emotional or critical reaction to this episode or the next, reviewed below. They’re both good outings – each is funny, which the series seems less known for, somehow – and they continue the trend of establishing more about the characters and the town, and there are some nice moments (including some that take advantage of the location), but I wasn’t “hooked” by my nostalgia or by anything inherent to the episodes, except perhaps the sense of community that has been building. I think part of what took me a while to review these, besides my schedule, is that I didn’t have a response at the ready. But here we go…

This fourth episode starts to move away from the series being Joel-centric, though he still bookends the story and has a plot of his own, again revolving around an attempt to mitigate his contract, and his storyline again involves Maggie, but only to dovetail in to the main focus of the episode: the impromptu wedding(s) of Shelly and Holling.
With Shelly believing that she’s pregnant, and a urine test and Joel’s assessment of her symptoms essentially confirming this, she then talks with Maggie about how best to tell Holling. (The series’ first conversation in earnest between two women flunks the hell out of the Bechdel test, with Maggie alluding to Joel, and the next episode doesn’t do any better.) Agreeing that the direct approach is best, Shelly enters the Brick and we hear a glass break, and Holling walks out in a stupor. He comes back in and proposes marriage, and she says “Okay.” The bar applauds, except for Maurice, of course.
Maurice and Joel share the B-story, which is that Maurice is trying to woo investors from Japan into building a resort in Cicely, including a golf course. Joel asks for a one-year reduction in his sentence for being the hypothetical club’s otherwise pro-bono physician, to which Maurice agrees. 
So of course something will happen to prevent this. The show will settle down in offering go-nowhere plots about Joel trying to escape, but they do pop up from time to time. At a dinner with the investors (one of whom translates for the other), Maurice reflects about Shelly over saki, the translator not relaying much of the admiration Maurice has for how he believes Japanese treat women: “How can they kick you in the jewels if they’re walking six paces behind you?”
This is all fine, but the episode doesn’t really take off until the wedding plans for Holling and Shelly get underway. There’s a great walk-and-talk tracking shot of Maggie and Joel out on the prototype golf course as she talks to him about the ceremony – they will be the de-facto maid of honor and best man. (Chris will officiate, since he is an ordained minister: he answered an ad in the back of a Rolling Stone because of course he did.) We get some pretty good backstory details because of the wedding, like that Shelly left home when she was fourteen years old, and – after he’s a no-show to the church – that Holling expects to live past one hundred years of age. Holling confesses to Joel that given his genetics (his dad died at 104, his grandfather at 106, his mother at 42, his grandmother at 44), he’s afraid of outliving Shelly. Perhaps the most touching moment of the episode is when Shelly goes to see Maurice. He thinks she’s coming back to him. 
She wants him to sing at her wedding. Shelly questions his sincerity with “Isn’t a year and a half long enough to have a crush on somebody?” Maurice, ever proud, counters with “I don’t understand, dammit. I’m so much… better than he is – and you’ve got to admit that!” Then Shelly readily delivers this lovely gut-punch of a line: “Maybe you are. But he’s better for me. I’m sorry, Maurice.” I WISH I HAD RE-WATCHED THIS IN MY EARLY TWENTIES.
The climax of the episode is the second attempt at the wedding. 
This allows for a gathering of the residents of Cicely, and its here that the story feels complete and most familiar. Holling chickens out again and takes Shelly outside and basically tells her that he doesn’t want to get married, but that he still wants to be with her, which she’s fine with – if they can keep the presents. 
Maurice tells Joel that the investors passed on the resort, and when Joel learns of this he calls his fiancée Elaine back but gets her answering machine. (It felt weird to type that and not voicemail.) He closes up shop and steps out into the night, where he has a moment with a moose passing through town. Joel, it seems, is married to Cicely, for better or for worse.


“Russian Flu,” Season 1 Episode 5, originally aired August 9, 1990
If The Twilight Zone was a little more in touch with its emotions?
This is one of the rare episodes in the series that, to me, really has only one storyline, and it works well because it relies on the collective of Cicely, but there’s still not much to it, and it’s rather easy to see the gears turning. It starts with Chris giving a radio shout-out to Joel, who wakes and montage-prepares excitedly, screeching in to town. As he relates to his patient, he is jazzed to be seeing his fiancée Elaine (Jessica Lundy), because it’s been two months since they saw each other. But the patient, just diagnosed with the flu, is the pilot who is supposed to pick up Elaine!
Joel, desperate to find a pilot, asks Rick at the Brick. Holling is out sick. Maurice coughs. We can all see where this is going. Maggie comes in and Joel relents. He apologizes for the both of them for their last argument. She charges him double. I could write much of the review in this style, because the episode does feel overly familiar, not because of my memory of the show, but because I’ve seen so much television and know how a lot of stories work, instinctively. But here’s the thing: I’m still fine with it, and I actually enjoyed it, despite it being hard to make much of in a review. I don’t see the flu and the Elaine storylines as being separate, because they’re both so centered on who Joel is, and it’s inevitable that Elaine gets sick and her visit is ruined, so it feels not so much like plotlines intersecting, but more of a “slice of life” entry for Joel, which actually makes the episode better. And hey, it’s funny. Even only five episodes in, the series gave viewers plenty of reasons to hang out. Maybe serving up some fairly non-challenging plotlines, as long as they’re told well, will help build comfort and secure loyalty, which will be counted on when the series takes to loftier aspirations. We do get a sizable experiment in fantasy in this episode, as well as a quick homage / dig for another show about a quirky small town that was wildly popular at the time.
Maggie and Elaine become quick friends on the plane ride, which perplexes Joel to no end, of course. The reunited couple go back to Joel’s cabin and just as they are about to get busy, Ed interrupts as is his wont: “Maurice is sick… Chris is puking.”
So that’s really the focus of the episode: all of Cicely gets sick, eventually. Joel’s office is completely packed. We see him on the phone to a colleague, trying to get help for the town. “I’m dealing with a patient base that lacks a certain savoir faire when it comes to most of the common medical practices of the 20th century.” Marilyn, bless her, brings in a tribal remedy (which thanks to http://www.moosechick.com/ I know is spelled Hi-oh-Hi-oh-ipsinio), which smells completely horrendous but apparently works, because the patients she illegally supplies it to start feeling better towards the end of the episode.
When Joel comes home, he finds Elaine lying all sexy-like on the bed, and the air-conditioner that he fought with Maggie about is now hooked up. Joel is suspicious of Maggie helping and questions Elaine about the circumstances. He’s delaying his own gratification by arguing about another woman. Ed interrupts them again, which is actually a pretty funny contrivance, because Maurice has called a town meeting. It’s these scenes with the show’s representatives of the whole town that I enjoy the most. When Joel says that “A flu virus is named for its point of origin…” and starts rattling off areas, the townsfolk pick up on the “Russian flu” like a cold war conspiracy. They turn on him, assuming his grandfather was a Trotskyite. Ed says later “People get mean when they get sick, but they don’t mean it.”
Elaine gets sick, and Joel, desperate, uses Marilyn’s disgusting remedy, but their time together is essentially ruined. 
Things come to a head soon, when Elaine makes the observation “Do you realize that since I’ve been in Alaska, we have not had one conversation that didn’t end up in an argument about Maggie?” They seem to reconcile, but when Elaine leaves, the embrace that she and Joel share feels final – to me, for sure, and I think to the characters as well. 
That is an epic hug, y'all.
Even only having met Elaine in this episode, it’s a genuinely sad moment, because it’s always sad when something that brought happiness ends, and even in being able to point towards Maggie as a possible cause and therefore a future romantic interest for Joel, we feel the investment and history that these characters had. That’s a pretty great accomplishment for only a few episodes in to a show.
Joel comes back to the office, and wants to partner with Marilyn to sell her treatment, but she doesn’t play along. He finally comes down with the flu himself, and Maggie comes to check on him, bringing some of the remedy. She asks if he wants her to rub it all over him… “In your dreams, Fleischman.” FIN.
So, about those dream / fantasy sequences: there’s a segment in Manhattan that's cute (Maurice in a space suit, Holling as a doorman, Shelly as a call girl, Marilyn as Joel's maid, and Maggie as his wife), but beyond points for creativity and trying something different, I didn’t feel it added much to the show other than reinforcing that Joel and Maggie are going to hook up. 
Further screencaps might have been taken of this sequence.
There’s also a neat little Twin Peaks sequence just before Elaine leaves: 
When this episode aired, it was between the first and second seasons of Twin Peaks, and that show was dominating talk of TV at the time, deservedly, so this “nod” or whatever you want to call it feels about right.
Shameless Stray Observations Rip-Off Miscellany Section:
  • “If you want a Cadillac, you go to Detroit. If you want a doctor, you go to New York City.”
  • “Warm liquor gives me gas.”
  • “The Vincouers have always been known for generations as one-woman men, myself included.”
  • From the Japanese investor that supposedly didn’t speak English: “Come on… one song, Maurice. Give the kid a break.” This is a familiar if seldom-used comedy trick, but I always think it works.
  • With everyone out with the flu, we learn that Ed is sixth on the list for replacing Chris at the station: “This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time… Gooooood moooorrnnniinnnngggg Cicely!” He then plays “New York New York” by Grandmaster Flash. Later, as Joel and Elaine spend their last moments in town, Chris is back and is joined by Ed. They play a special song for the couple: “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King because fuck yes. I hear the first season DVDs retain the original music, unlike the rest of the series, but I’d hate to imagine what generic muzak would replace that song.
  • Elaine, to Joel, about what Maggie said about him: “She said you were a great guy. She thinks you’re funny, smart, and compassionate. […] She doesn’t understand why you don’t cut anybody any slack. Why you can’t roll with the punches, why you think everyone you meet has an ulterior motive. Why you can’t be spontaneous. And why you can’t see the beauty that’s all around you.” This is of course very much on-the-nose, a sort of These Are Our Protagonist’s Flaws, Stay Tuned for How We Exploit Them moment, but it still sounds genuine, thanks to and a real credit towards Lundy.
  • I like that Joel has Maggie as a foil, and I don’t mind that their storylines are mostly bouncing off each other to some degree, because they do have great chemistry. Like I said before, it’s not a matter of “will they,” but when, and when I first saw the show as a teenager, I didn’t really care about teasing out the relationship. When I watch these episodes now, perhaps because I ultimately know what happens, I’m able to enjoy all of their little interactions more. Joel, to Maggie, about Elaine: “What interpersonal problems? We didn’t have any until you showed up!”

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