“Sex, Lies, & Ed’s Tapes,” Season 1 Episode 6, originally aired August 16, 1990
After the arguably single storyline of the Russian flu in the last episode, this episode has a lot going on but moves along really well, and finds a balance of solid comedy-drama about relationships and fantasy sequences that play with character. Though this isn’t a stellar example of the series, this is the type of episode that I think exemplified Northern Exposure: one that advances character dynamics and experiments with form, all played out in a seemingly idyllic setting.
I’m trying to move away from “recap” type pieces – he did this and then she said that and then this other guy contemplated about the transient nature of art while playing a song that producers couldn’t envision having to pay the rights for – but I feel like with this show in particular, it has little to no fanfare in the modern landscape of TV criticism. Though it’s been seventeen years since the show went off the air, there are older series that are getting examined and shared regularly, and part of me wants to try to capture everything that made Northern Exposure what it was, as knowingly impossible as that may be. As I progress here – slowly so far, I know, I know – I’ll attempt to find a better balance between recap and critical review.
So… Shelly, an eating machine, is visited by her husband Wayne (Brandon Douglas). Wayne wants a divorce – wha? – so he can marry her best friend, Cindy. This of course upsets Holling, who doesn’t think it’s proper to stay with her while she is married to another man.
Shelly doesn’t see the big deal, since she knows she’s committed to Holling and she looks on her marriage to Wayne as a thing of the past. However, she’s still young and is prone to immature behavior; when she and Holling find out from Joel that she is not with child, and is only exhibiting symptoms of a “hysterical pregnancy,” she somehow uses this against Holling, and later uses Wayne to make Holling jealous.
Another storyline concerns Rick, Maggie’s live-in boyfriend. On a routine check-up with Joel, he’s perfect – except for a cyst. Rick instantly worries and thinks he might be the next to fall to the curse of Maggie’s boyfriends meeting early ends, even though there is only a 1/1000 chance that it’s malignant. Rick succumbs to his own superstition and goes to Fairbanks, just as a precaution, under the guise of business; he asks Joel to take Maggie to the powwow that Marilyn will dance in (briefly mentioned earlier as Shelly eats off Marilyn’s plate in the Brick).
It is the third storyline that really spoke to me, both then and now: Ed tries to work on his first screenplay, but keeps defaulting to the mish-mash of cinema lore in his head, imagining the people around him in various sequences from famous movies. There’s not much more to it than that, but these are easily the most entertaining moments in the episode. You should know that this was something fairly new; there weren’t cut-away gags or character’s humorous flashbacks in other shows, like we have a lot of in contemporary TV. Back then, as a teenager, I found it so innovative and refreshing, to get another take on the characters and to use a sort of shorthand for tone, motivations, etc., though of course I didn’t consciously realize any of this at the time.
There is an argument between Chris and Maurice about what gets played on KBHR:
|Chris doesn't want to play show tunes.|
|Maurice doesn't want Native music played.|
There's Joel and Chris walking down the street towards the Brick:
|This reference is Rated X.|
And finally, Ed watches Wayne and Shelly dance (when she tries to make Holling jealous):
|Player piano scratch...|
|Maurice sticks up for Holling, who doesn't pack iron anymore.|
At one point Ed confides to Joel (at breakfast in Joel’s house, because why not) that he doesn’t feel cut out for New Hollywood, and Joel tells him to write what he knows.
Just as with the Ed plot, in his re-imagining the Shelly-Holling-Wayne storyline as part of a movie, their plot crosses over into the Rick-Maggie plot. Shelly comes to stay with Maggie while her divorce with Wayne plays out, with Rick being out of town and all. Maggie explains this away briefly, but when Shelly starts airing her issues about Holling and Wayne, Maggie acknowledges that she knows why Rick really went away. This scene is frustrating, because although it immediately fails the Bechdel test, it’s feminist in spirit, and comes to a humanist perspective, but then falls apart when Wayne visits.
Things are resolved, of course, as Shelly grants Wayne a divorce, and reconciles with Holling in a very sweet moment, particularly when Holling tells her: “I’ve lived my life out in the open but I’ve kept my heart sheltered. Then you appeared and turned me inside out.”
|This is after Holling's neck goes out a second time.|
Then Maggie is with Rick as they learn his cyst is benign, and after a relieved, celebratory embrace, she immediately dumps him because he bought in to the superstition about her exes. “Let me tell you something buster, you may not be dying but you’re gone!” On watching this episode again, part of the ending stuck out, since there’s a rather significant moment for an event that was only mentioned in passing, and wasn’t set up as a storyline in its own regard: the powwow. Joel comes into an auditorium as people sing “This Land is Our Land.” He talks to Maggie, briefly, who’s touchy about Rick. Then a bad comedian comes out, and Joel goes to bail when he learns the powwow is more like a talent show. But then Marilyn is introduced and he stays, out of support and curiosity… and she performs a tribal dance, and he’s in awe.
|It's starting to work.|
Someone who he only regarded as his terse, unsolicited assistant has a talent that she’s proud of, and it’s something cultural that he’s never experienced. There’s a minor lesson here for the “main” character, and it comes in an episode that he’s not really involved in – it’s a smart way to build the potential of the series. The tribal, diegetic music from the powwow then transitions into the score with the last shot, as Ed sits at the computer in Maurice’s office and starts a screenplay, and though it seems simple and autobiographical, at least he’s writing.
So, what’s the theme here? All three of these storylines are not only about getting at the truth, but about something that had lied dormant: Shelly’s marriage (and, in a way, Holling’s feelings), Rick’s superstition, and Ed’s “voice.” The powwow moment even fits nicely into this idea.
I wanted to finally put up something, instead of delaying this further by trying to fit two episodes at once. My next post will finish up the brief first season.