A moose bit Judge Jim Thomas' sister once. No, really...
Our reviews of Northern Exposure: The Complete First Season (published August 4th, 2004), Northern Exposure: The Complete Second Season (published December 22nd, 2004), and Northern Exposure: The Complete Third Season (published July 13th, 2005) are also available.
"I will under no condition, no condition, spend the best years of my life in the worst place on Earth!"
"This is Cicely. She and Roslyn founded the town ninety-seven years ago. Rumor and innuendo notwithstanding, they were just good friends."
In the summer of 1990, eight episodes of a quirky show set in Alaska showed up on CBS. Gone almost as soon as it appeared, Northern Exposure left viewers scratching their heads, going "What the hell was that?" The next spring, seven new episodes followed. By then, viewers started gravitating to this odd show about a young doctor trapped in the Alaskan outback. Critics took note as well, and Northern Exposure was belatedly added to the fall schedule in 1991, where it ran for an additional four seasons.
Universal Studios now brings us Northern Exposure: The Complete Series in a neat faux-fleece aviator bag.
Facts of the Case
Joel Fleischmann (Rob Morrow, Quiz Show) thinks he's got it made. He's fresh out of med school, his fiancée is in law school, and Joel is en route to Anchorage, Alaska. Although he is a Jew from New York, he couldn't afford tuition, so he got a scholarship that paid everything (to the tune of $125,000), in return for four years' work in Anchorage. Joel didn't pay too much attention to the fine print, though, and it turns out that he can be sent anywhere in Alaska. Before you can say Inuit, he finds himself in Cecily, Alaska. Cecily is touted as being "on the cusp of the Alaskan Riviera," but is really, as Joel wryly observes, "somewhere between the end of the line and the middle of nowhere."
Thus begins the fish-out-of-water odyssey of young Dr. Fleischmann, as he struggles to come to terms with 20th-century indentured servitude, and with the nexus of chaos that is Cicely, Alaska.
Northern Exposure was created and developed by Joshua Brand and John Falsey. They were the creative force behind St. Elsewhere, which should hint at the show's tenuous grasp on reality. Northern Exposure smoothly switched gears between high drama and farce, romantic comedy and political commentary, elegy and slapstick—pretty much whatever the writers felt like doing. Sunnydale may have been built on a Hellmouth, but Cicely, Alaska, exists on a mystical nexus of flat-out weird, where anything can—and does—happen. The Brand-Falsey pedigree also tells you something about the quality of the show: Northern Exposure won back-to-back Peabody Awards, and in 1992 won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series.
The show loved to do two things: Put normal people into insane situations, or—as was the case whenever Adam (Adam Arkin, Life) and Eve (Valerie Mahaffey, The Powers That Be) appeared—put insane people into perfectly normal situations. Adam is a borderline psychotic ex-CIA operative turned reclusive master chef; Eve is his borderline psychotic hypochondriac wife. At one point, she made Joel a prisoner so that he could tend to her medical needs. Adam's and Eve's relationship is…well, think The Honeymooners on crack with a soupçon of LSD. (After spending a week trying to figure out how to describe these two, that's the best I can manage. They are simply beyond description). Their infrequent appearances inevitably result in utter chaos, with Joel catching the brunt of the fallout.
Ultimately the show is about identity. It's the one theme that runs through almost all of the episodes and all the characters. Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin, Bull Durham, a former astronaut and overbearing visionary determined to put Cecily on the map, is deeply troubled by his lack of family ties. In the first-season episode "A Kodiak Moment," after learning of his brother's death, Maurice attempts to adopt Chris so that the Minnifield name will continue. The plan doesn't pan out, but in the third-season episode "Seoul Mates" (one of the best episodes in the entire series), Maurice finds himself face-to-face with a son he never knew he had, the result of some wild oats sown in Korea. His tenuous relationship with his son develops in following seasons, coming to a fruition of sorts when Maurice writes his son into his will.
Holling Vincouer (John Cullum, 1776) has his own identity issues. On an immediate level, he is a former trapper who has renounced hunting in favor of photography—but because of his hunting instincts, his cameras are mounted on rifle frames, which is just cool. In some ways, Holling is also running from his identity—he is a direct descendent of French nobility, a house with a reputation for the sort of behavior that fomented the French Revolution. Now, he's settled down to run the local bar, and managed to bag himself an 18-year-old beauty queen. Not bad for a sextugenarian.
In many ways, Maurice and Holling are the foundation of Cicely, and the show benefited greatly from having two exceptional actors in these supporting roles. In lesser hands, Maurice would have been insufferable, but Corbin lets us see through the layers (several of which are, in fact, insufferable) to the decent man underneath. Cullum remains a Broadway icon, and his talents allow him to sell any scene, whether it's a romantic scene with Shelly or his reflections on his mystical connection with Jesse, the giant bear that almost killed him. In addition, you will be moved beyond reason on the sadly infrequent occasions when Cullum sings. Corbin and Cullum also work well together. When the series begins, Maurice and Holling, once fast friends, have had a falling out because Shelly fell for Holling. The two old friends' quiet reconciliation at the end of the pilot establishes the simple humanity underlying the show.
Chris Stevens (John Corbett, My Big Fat Greek Wedding) is an ex-con from West Virginia, who now spends his days spinning records and musing on the meaning of life, providing a running commentary infinitely more eloquent and subtle than the brickbat voiceovers in Grey's Anatomy; at night he works on various art projects. In the Season One finale, "Aurora Borealis," he discovers that he has a brother—which opens the door to many other explorations of identity, as they discover that they are "spiritual doppelgangers," identical inside to the point where they appear in each other's dreams, but totally different outside.
Ed (Darren E. Burrows, The Hi-Lo Country) is a local teenager who does odd jobs for Maurice. Half Native Alaskan, he was abandoned as an infant and raised by a local tribe. He's gentle but somewhat tactless, and everything he knows about the outside world he got from the movies. He's pen-pals with Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg, and hopes to become a director himself. In later seasons, he embraces his native heritage and sets forth to become a shaman, aided by his spirit guide Leonard (Graham Greene, Dances with Wolves).
Shelly Tambo (Cynthia Geary, 8 Seconds) was a high school cheerleader when Maurice fell for her at the Miss Northwest Passage Pageant (Shelly won) and brought her back to Cicely, only to see Shelly fall for Holling. Now madly in love, she helps Holling run The Brick, perfectly content to be shacking up with a man three times her age. (All of this is backstory, a testament to the care used in crafting these characters.) Shelly's character really allows you to appreciate the writing—she's consistently written as a teenager, but one deeply in love. It would be easy to "mature" her up some to downplay the age difference; instead, the creators make Holling's family exceptionally long-lived, so much so, in fact, that Holling (in his 60s, mind you) honestly fears that he will outlive Shelly, and have to mourn her in his later years.
In short, Cicely is all about living in the now and discovering who you want to be—the elegiac third-season finale, "Cicely," shows us how two women, deeply in love and searching for a place where they could belong, created the spiritually rich atmosphere that gave birth to the town. And into that atmosphere stumbles Dr. Joel Fleischmann.
When Joel arrives, he has been uprooted from everything he knows, and (from his perspective) has been sentenced to this dreary gulag. His plans for the next four years just vanished into the mists, and all he has left is his self-image as a Jewish Doctor From New York City, and he's going to fight like hell to protect that image. People always ask him why he can't just relax and enjoy the beauty around him. The reason is simple: Joel fears he might literally lose himself in the surroundings. He's the only Jew for hundreds of miles and he can't get a decent bagel without shipping them in marked as perishable medical supplies; all he can do is grab every shard of self-image he has and hold on for dear life.
To an extent then, the show is about Joel learning that he can open up—to nature, to other people, to other cultures—without losing himself (that's really the key to any relationship, when you think about it). Until he learns that, his self-image will always be more of a shield than an identity. The show plays with this paradigm in a variety of ways, from the silly (Season Three's "Jules et Joel," in which Joel meets his evil twin and has an extended discussion with Sigmund Freud (just go with it; the show's dream sequences are always a delight), to the sublime ways (Season Four's "Kaddish for Uncle Manny," in which Joel desperately tries to find ten Jews so that he can say Kaddish for his dead uncle).
Seen in that context, the love-hate relationship between Joel and pilot Maggie O'Connell (Janine Turner, Cliffhanger) makes perfect sense: she's his exact opposite. Maggie's a debutante from a wealthy Michigan family (her dad invented the hatchback), but she has rejected that life completely in favor of one of her own making. She began just as much of an outsider as Joel, but she has embraced her surroundings completely. In a way, she's gone native. But all is not well in McConnellville: All of her boyfriends tend to die bizarrely (think "Spinal Tap drummers"). At the end of Season Two, her beau Rick is killed by a falling satellite, leading to a funeral only a few steps removed from that of Chuckles the Clown. The possibility that hers is a kiss of death adds a further element of tension to the Joel and Maggie dynamic; should she not sleep with him because she doesn't want him to die, or should she sleep with him because she wants him to die?
Joel does open himself up, of course—to the landscape, the cultures, and the people. Morrow's swan song, Season Six's "The Quest," is essentially an encapsulation of Joel's journey of (re)discovery. It is the series, writ small—he is mystically returned to his beloved New York City when he comes to understand that despite all that has happened to him, his love of NYC is still deep in his soul and New York is truly a state of mind. In a perfect world, that would have been the series finale, but the show limped through a handful of additional shows before CBS pulled the plug.
The show featured some great cinematography, and the video transfer does it justice. Viewers can appreciate both the stunning landscapes, the warm earth tones, flowing water…just amazing. The film grain is there if you look closely, and there is some loss of definition indoors, particularly in the darker scenes, but there's nothing really to complain about.
Audio is Dolby Digital 2.0, and it's a good 2.0, full and rich. Dialogue is clear and the music fills the room (unless it comes from an onscreen source, such as a TV or radio). My kids are too young to really understand the plots, but they love listening to the music; they come running when they hear the theme.
There are no new extras here, only those included in the single season sets. But at least the series is offered on single-sided discs, instead of the flipper discs used for the individual season sets. There's some good stuff here—outtakes, alternate scenes, and even complete storylines that didn't make the final edit. In some cases, those deleted storylines are substantial.
At first I was a little apprehensive about the packaging. The twenty-six discs come in fourteen slimline cases, tucked into a faux fleece aviator bag with the show's logo. I wondered how the thing would fit into my bookcase or DVD rack, but the strap lets the bag hang neatly on the side of the rack. The fifth and sixth seasons are a concern, though; while the third and fourth seasons fit 24 shows plus extras on six discs, the fifth and sixth seasons cram the same amount of material onto five discs, suggesting that Universal might have cut some additional corners by cranking up the compression ratio. Nothing obvious has jumped out at me, though.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Oh, but for the music…
Northern Exposure used a lot of music and, more importantly, used it well. But no one knew how the video industry would develop, and so licensing agreements specified that the music could be used only for broadcast and syndication. When video entered the picture, bands started asking for ridiculous fees to relicense a song for video. In the first season of NBCs Profiler, an episode incorporated The Police's "Every Breath You Take." When it came video time, The Police wanted so much money to relicense the song that the producers were forced to cut the episode from the set.
Northern Exposure faced a similar problem. They used a lot of songs, and the licensing fees added up quickly. The first season set had a MSRP of $60—for a mere eight episodes—due to the licensing fees, and even then there were a few songs that were replaced. Fortunately, they did not cut Joel lip-synching to "Who Put the Bomp (In the Bomp-a-Bomp-a-Bomp)," so I didn't have to hurt anyone. But fans were furious about the high cost of that set, so Universal tried to bring the price down—at the cost of losing more songs, which made fans even more furious. The reaction is justified—the show did an exceptional job of using music to accentuate both mood and theme (witness the pervasive Russian-tinged music in Season Two's "War and Peace"), and every cut song diminishes the quality of the set. The cuts aren't that prevalent in the first two seasons, and you can use those to get a feel for how integral to the show music was. In the later seasons, if you notice a striking disconnect between the scene and the music, it's all but certain that said music is a royalty-free replacement. To their credit, the producers appear to have spent some time reviewing their music cues, and tried not cut any that were critical to a scene or story.
Northern Exposure is truly classic television, a shining example of what can happen when you loose a vast amount of creative talent in a weekly format. These days, you just don't see networks taking many chances in prime time. If this series were pitched today, CBS would probably say, "hmmm, a doctor in Alaska…how does CSI: Cicely grab you?"
Most assuredly not guilty.
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