Universal // 1990 // 384 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // August 4th, 2004
"When I heard we had a crack at a Jew doctor from New York City, well, I don't have to tell you, I jumped. You boys do outstanding work." -- Maurice Minnifield
The brainchild of St. Elsewhere creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey, Northern Exposure first appeared on television screens in July of 1990, a breath of fresh air in the midst of off-season repeats. As a summer replacement series, the show's first season consists of only eight episodes, which have been gathered together in this two-disc DVD set.
Freshly minted from Columbia University's Medical School, Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow, Quiz Show) arrives in Anchorage, Alaska to work off a $125,000 scholarship the state ponied up for his education. But Anchorage has a surplus of doctors and Joel is assigned to fulfill his four-year commitment at "Alaska's French Riviera," a backwater called Cicely.
Once in Cicely, Joel meets an enigmatic, pop culture-obsessed Indian youth named Ed Chigliak (Darren E. Burrows, Cry-Baby); overbearing former astronaut Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin, Lonesome Dove), who owns most of the town; Holling Vincoeur (John Cullum, 1776), a rugged outdoorsman and proprietor of local bar The Brick, who is locked in a feud with Minnifield over their shared love for former Miss Northwest Passage, Shelly Tambo (Cynthia Geary, Smoke Signals); a quiet but persistent Indian woman named Marilyn Whirlwind (Elaine Miles, Skins) who insinuates herself into a job as his receptionist; and Maggie O'Connell (Janine Turner, Cliffhanger), a bush pilot and his landlord, with whom he gets off on the wrong foot when he mistakes her for a prostitute.
Desperate for release from this uncivilized, New York Times- and bagel-free hell hole with its bizarre inhabitants, oppressively clean air, and horrifying wildlife, Fleischman has his law student fiancée in New York comb the fine print in his contract. The news isn't good: Alaska can do with him what it wishes, and any attempt to shirk his duty will result in a $10,000 fine and 18 years in prison.
* "Brains, Know How and Native Intelligence"
Maurice freaks out when his KBHR radio host and philosophizing ex-con Chris Stevens (John Corbett, My Big Fat Greek Wedding) announces on-air that American naturalist poet Walt Whitman was a homosexual. Fisticuffs ensue, Chris is fired from the station, and Cicely's citizens are subjected to Maurice's taste in music, which runs to show tunes. Meanwhile, Ed tries to convince Joel to treat his ailing uncle Anku, a medicine man uninterested in the services of a western doctor. And Maggie calls Joel a "helplessness junkie" when he's unable to repair his toilet, but has to eat her words when her trick knee forces a visit to Dr. Fleischman's office for treatment.
* "Soapy Sanderson"
When Joel recommends Soapy Sanderson -- a hermit living on the tundra with his team of sled dogs -- move into Cicely for the sake of his own health, the old man sets his affairs in order and promptly commits suicide. In an attempt to right Maggie's romantic difficulties by hooking her up with Joel from beyond the grave, Soapy leaves his land and dogs to the duo. But the ploy fails to spark romance when Joel's acceptance of an offer from a local Indian chief to buy the land as a tax shelter for $50,000 angers Maggie, who wants to turn it into a wildlife preserve. Meanwhile, the arrival of three student documentarians making a movie about Soapy -- who, it turns out, was a retired college professor -- awakens Ed's passion for cinema and fuels his aspirations to become "the Bergman of the North."
* "Dreams, Schemes and Putting Greens"
Joel dreams of escape from his Alaskan bondage when a couple Japanese businessmen/yakuza weighing whether to build a resort in Alaska or Hawaii arrive in Cicely to be wined and dined by Maurice. But when Shelly announces she's pregnant and Holling proposes marriage, lovelorn Maurice is thrown off his game, jeopardizing the deal. The marriage may not happen, though, because longevity among Vincoeur men has Holling worried 18-year-old Shelly -- 44 years his junior -- might up and die on him in the future, leaving him broken and lonely in the last decades of his life, just like his father and grandfather.
* "The Russian Flu"
A visit from Joel's fiancée, Elaine, is disrupted by an outbreak of the flu. As Joel treats the ailing citizens of Cicely -- who feel deeply betrayed by the hollow promises of Glasnost and Perestroika when they learn they've been attacked by the Russian flu -- he's shocked and a little frightened by how well Elaine and Maggie, his regular verbal sparring partner, hit it off. Also, his irritation and demands for western medical protocols fail to prevent Marilyn from dispensing a malodorous tribal remedy to the local sick.
* "Sex, Lies and Ed's Tapes"
Tension erupts between Holling and Shelly when Shelly's hockey playing, knucklehead high school sweetheart Wayne shows up in Cicely. It seems the two are married, and he's looking for a divorce so he can get hitched to Shelly's best friend. Meanwhile, Ed struggles with writer's block as he tries to write his first screenplay. Raiders of the Lost Ark- and Midnight Cowboy-inspired flights of fancy do nothing to help his progress. And Maggie's boyfriend Rick (Grant Goodeve, Eight Is Enough) freaks out when Joel finds a cyst during a routine exam. Maggie's flames have a history of untimely death and Rick fears her curse may be the end of him.
* "A Kodiak Moment"
After the death of his brother, Maurice adopts Chris in an attempt to build a lasting legacy. But carrying the Minnifield name, along with all of Maurice's expectations, becomes too much for the free-spirited ex-con. When Joel is ordered to teach a child birth class in Boswell, a little town six hours away from Cicely, Maggie joins him but is offended by his disdain for natural child birth. Each learns a thing or two, though, when one of the students gives birth in class.
After a near-death encounter with a bear named Jesse in '88, Holling traded his gun for a camera and hasn't killed an animal since. When Ed announces that the wily grizzly has returned to the territory, violating an unspoken agreement between Holling and the beast, the former hunter decides he must make one last kill. But when Shelly insists on going along on the expedition, Holling's thoughts turn from death to sex.
* "Aurora Borealis (A Fairy Tale for Grown-Ups)"
A vivid full moon is troubling the dreams of Cicely's residents, and Chris tries to alleviate their suffering by reading Carl Jung on his morning radio show. During his off hours he works on a huge sculpture made of sheet metal and found objects -- the Aurora Borealis. When Bernard -- an African-American former IRS man from Portland who quit his job after feeling an inexplicable call to travel north -- arrives in Cicely on his Harley, he and Chris hit it off and he joins in the work on the sculpture. After a restless night in which Bernard and Chris share the same dream, the duo learns they're connected on more than just a psychic level.
Meanwhile, Ed tells Joel of the legend of Adam, a man-beast known to steal Cuisinarts and cookbooks from the homes of Cicely. When Joel's truck breaks down after a routine visit to a forest ranger assigned to a remote outpost deep in the bush, he meets Adam (Adam Arkin, Chicago Hope) face to face, and discovers the mythical creature is a caustic, enigmatic misanthrope who lives as a hermit, claims to have been a Vietnam P.O.W., and has almost preternatural gourmet cooking skills.
Northern Exposure was the sort of refreshingly odd little show that typically disappears into television obscurity immediately after it debuts. Fueled by the American television audience's waning interest in a flood of sitcoms that had begun nearly a decade before with Cheers, the hour-long mix of comedy and drama would last a surprising six seasons and 110 episodes. In the end, it would fall victim to the same narrative kiss of death that offed the Bruce Willis/Cybill Shepherd vehicle, Moonlighting. The sexual tension between Joel Fleischman and Maggie O'Connell became the centerpiece of the show, and the giddy thrill of unrequited romance has a short narrative shelf life. It can't be sustained forever, but resolving it marks an end -- we want to know that a fantasy couple lives happily ever after, but we don't want to see them doing so. The sixth season episode "The Quest" offered a fine resolution to Joel's and Maggie's love/hate relationship. Rob Morrow's farewell to the series, it found the duo following an old map to a mysterious lost city, facing off against the gatekeepers and syrens of all mythological quests. The fantastic city they discover at journey's end is the home of Joel's heart, New York. He continues on, while Maggie turns back to Cicely. It's one of the best-written episodes of the show, and would have made a poetic series finale. Unfortunately, eight unnecessary episodes followed as Northern Exposure tried to survive the departure of its star. Audience interest waned, the network moved the show to a different time slot, and it was canceled at the end of the season.
But in this two-disc DVD set, we find the series at a very different place, at its beginning. The episodes gathered here are like those of most television shows in their early seasons. One can feel Northern Exposure finding its legs, its writers and directors and actors discovering the rhythms of the world they're creating. The exposition required to set up character and setting is here, but handled with far more aplomb than the average TV show, rarely bogging the stories down or feeling false. From a precociously quirky start, the series builds steam, getting stronger and stronger with each episode, culminating in "Aurora Borealis," an episode as smart and tightly-written as any from subsequent seasons. In form, "Aurora" approximates the magical realism associated with South American writers like Gabriel García Márquez (Love in the Time of Cholera), a style that deftly melds realism with fantastic elements from folk tales and mythology, and is particularly fascinated with shared experience, cyclical history, and the connections between culture and identity. This final episode of the first season set the stage for future episodes in which Ed finds a ring perhaps belonging to Federico Fellini during an impromptu visit by an absurdist circus, or Chris creates a sculpture/performance art piece in the form of a cow-flinging catapult, or Rob Morrow doubles in the role of Franz Kafka in a tale of Cicely's founding by turn-of-the-century lesbian lovers Roslyn and Cicely, or the aforementioned "The Quest" episode, which sees Dr. Fleischman's departure from Alaska.
At its heart, Northern Exposure is about PC shibboleths like multiculturalism, inclusion, tolerance, and a vague New Age spiritualism. It works, though, because it never puts moralizing ahead of story or character. Even Maurice Minnifield, Cicely's answer to Archie Bunker, is treated with nuance and respect by the show's writers, directors, and actors. In "Brains, Know How and Native Intelligence," we assume he punches Chris out because the disc jockey had the audacity to out Walt Whitman as a homosexual, but by episode's end we learn his motives were more complex. Whitman is a hero to the former astronaut, and he's outraged by Chris's use of the term "queer," a word he finds derisive. For Maurice, tearing down a hero is unacceptable -- they're larger than life, and they ought to be left that way. It may not be an enlightened view, but it's a far cry from the simple homophobia we at first assume is driving his rage. As Chris puts it, Maurice is deep where we think he's shallow, and shallow where we think he's deep. We may at first read Maurice as a type -- an aging, multi-millionaire, jingoistic flyboy from Texas -- but our broad assumptions about the man break down the more we get to know him. Northern Exposure was mostly successful in presenting a dense tangle of ideas and intellectual abstractions, while still being fundamentally about specific human beings.
All of the show's actors do the hard work of creating real characters. Their performances eschew the beat-driven, set-up/punchline rhythms of standard TV comedy, as well as the furrow-browed histrionics of TV drama in favor of a naturalism that makes it easy to get involved with them and care about their lives. The outtakes offered on these DVDs show how the show was shot much like a movie would be, the actors playing their scenes before a single camera in specific set-ups, and given multiple takes to explore variations in their delivery. There's little doubt the performances were also bolstered by the show's being shot on location in Roslyn, Washington. The tiny, rustic town makes a perfect Cicely, Alaska, adds to the cinematic texture of the show, and immerses the actors in a location far more believable than anything created on a Hollywood back lot. The result is some of the finest ensemble acting ever found in a weekly television show.
Like any show lasting 110 episodes and subject to the vicious whims of television executives, Northern Exposure had its storytelling ups and downs, but its still one of the finest series from the 1990s and, in my book, one of the finest network shows ever.
Universal offers the show's first season on two flipper discs with two episodes and some extras on each side of the discs. The production made heavy use of handheld cameras, shooting on 35 mm stock, and the elements have held up well. The full screen image on these DVDs is impressive throughout. No major wear or damage is evident, sources were clean, and the color reproduction and detail is excellent. It's a step up from the way the show looked during its original broadcast. The Dolby Surround audio is also more dynamic than the original stereo broadcast, offering crystal clear dialogue and punchy music.
In addition to the episodes, each side of each disc contains deleted scenes. The scenes -- which are sometimes complete scenes that didn't make the final cut, and sometimes extensions of scenes that did -- are indexed by episode in the menu, which also offers a Play All option. The deleted scenes for each episode run anywhere from 2 to 12 minutes. Side Two of each disc also offers an "Unexposed Footage" section, which has alternate takes, bloopers, and other miscellany from each of the episodes. Like the deleted scenes, the amount of footage varies from episode to episode but, on average, each episode has six to eight minutes of goodies. The "Unexposed Footage" is actually more entertaining than the deleted scenes because it offers the comedy of outtakes, along with alternate takes that provide a glimpse of the actors' approach to their characters, and how the show was shot.
The second side of Disc One also contains a "Video Documentary Footage" featurette that features the raw video cam material shot by the student documentarians in "Soapy Sanderson," some of which was used in the show proper. The entire footage runs about ten minutes. Disc Two's second side offers a "Mock Movie Footage" featurette that runs 12 minutes and contains unused shots from Ed's movie daydreams in "Sex, Lies and Ed's Tapes."
The set's extras don't look like much on paper, but with a lot of the individual episodes having 10 minutes of deleted scenes, bloopers, alternate takes, and other stuff, there's actually quite a bit for Northern Exposure fans to enjoy. Commentaries would've been nice, but they'd have also likely increased the price on this already expensive set (more on that below).
The beautiful presentation of the show itself is what counts, but there are a couple of annoyances with this set that need to be addressed.
First of all, center-circle labeling on the flippers is backwards from the convention. Normally, if you can see "Disc 1, Side 1" on the label while the platter is sitting in your player's tray, you're about to play Disc One, side one. Not on these discs. You have to put the "Disc 1, Side 1" label face-down in the tray to play Disc One, side one. A minor quibble.
A more serious hassle is the episodes aren't individually indexed in the menus. The shows are divided into chapters, but you have to start the program and use the remote's "Next" button to jump from scene to scene.
Finally, there's the issue of cost. Northern Exposure: The Complete First Season's list price of $59.90 is a whopper for a mere eight episodes on two discs. However, the price point is driven by the high cost involved in re-acquiring the rights to the music that appeared on the show when it first aired. In other words, the cost isn't avoidable for those who want to see the show preserved in its original form.
Great show. Good DVD. If you're a fan, the nifty parka packaging gimmick alone should make it irresistible.
Review content copyright © 2004 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 384 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes from Select Episodes
* Video Documentary Footage
* Unexposed Footage from All Episodes
* Mock Movie Footage