Judge Bryan Byun's ethical considerations prevent him from eating mooseburgers, but he still finds much to enjoy in this modern TV classic.
Our reviews of Northern Exposure: The Complete First Season (published August 4th, 2004), Northern Exposure: The Complete Third Season (published July 13th, 2005), and Northern Exposure: The Complete Series (published November 28th, 2007) are also available.
Joel: "Hey, we play to a very sophisticated television audience! They know Maurice is not going to kill Nikolai, and they definitely know Nikolai is not going to kill Maurice."
Maggie: "Wait a minute, Fleischman! You can't just take it upon yourself to step out of character—nobody yelled 'cut'!"
Few television shows garner the kind of devoted following that Northern Exposure continues to enjoy; nearly ten years after its final episode aired on CBS in 1995, not only is the show's fan base still active, but there is a Moosefest fan gathering every year in Roslyn, Washington, where the series was filmed. Who would have thought that a show about a neurotic New York doctor living among the eccentric residents of a small Alaskan town would have such legs?
It goes without saying that the demand for Northern Exposure on DVD has been sky-high, especially with the sporadic appearance of syndicated reruns. Apparently, music licensing issues, that familiar bugbear of pre-DVD TV series, held up the show's release for years, but now the discs are rolling out.
Facts of the Case
Northern Exposure: The Complete Second Season offers up seven episodes (the show began life as a summer replacement series, so the first two seasons are drastically truncated) on two flipper discs:
• "Goodbye to All That"
• "The Big Kiss"
• "All Is Vanity"
• "What I Did for Love"
• "Spring Break"
• "War and Peace"
• "Slow Dance"
The moment that I fell in love all over again with Northern Exposure was during "What I Did for Love," when the people of Cicely are discussing Joel Fleischman's impending doom, and Maurice, speechifying about death, proclaims, "A man likes sweet words from a woman when he's about to go into the Beyond." It's not delivered as a laugh line, but something about it—maybe the earnest sentiment in Maurice's face as he said it—doubled me over with laughter. Only Northern Exposure could deliver a line like that without being either pompous or sarcastic; the series was suffused with a kind of gentle absurdism, and managed to convey both heartfelt sincerity and ironic self-awareness in every line of dialogue.
Northern Exposure was a rarity in television, a "smart" show with a passionate heart; a show that combined cerebral, neurotic wit with old-fashioned, small-town simplicity. In creating the town of Cicely, Joshua Brand and John Falsey brought to life a world so real and so inviting that viewers never wanted to leave. Cicely was a town that knew no crime, where everyone knew each other, and where everyone was free to be as crazy and self-indulgent as they liked. In truth, it's kind of a hokey concept, one that never should have worked, but somehow it did, and over 110 episodes transcended the television medium to achieve the status of literature.
Not that the show didn't get off to a rough start. The second season of Northern Exposure is a marked improvement over the uneven first season, during which the series was still finding its voice. Joel is still a fish out of water among his fellow Cicelians, but he's much less grating; characters like Maurice and Chris take on depth and complexity; and the writers seem to have figured out how to handle the Maggie-Joel tension without turning the show into Moonlighting in Alaska.
The high point of this brief season is "Spring Break," which cranks the absurdity up to dizzying heights and provides some of the funniest moments of the series, such as Holling's repeated attempts to get someone—anyone—to fight him, only to be let down by fellows who remember what happened to the guy Holling fought the previous spring. The following episode, "War and Peace," is another strong entry, telling the kind of story that only Northern Exposure could tell.
Universal's presentation of this second season on DVD is pretty strong overall. Video quality is a little uneven, with evident print wear in some scenes (and one particularly glaring defect in "Slow Dance"), but for the most part it is excellent, with bright, clear images and deep, subtle colors. Sound is a vital element in the series, in both music and atmosphere, and both are conveyed quite well with a clean Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack that does the job.
My hopes for audio commentaries on these episodes appear to have been in vain, but each episode does come with a set of deleted scenes and some "unexposed footage" that consists of various outtakes and between-take shots. Both are quite the bonus for fans who've seen these episodes a zillion times. The deleted scenes are plentiful and, for the most part, entertaining; and the outtakes are a lot of fun, featuring the cast goofing around and cracking each other up. (One minor caveat: There is swearing in many of these outtakes, so parents or those sensitive to "mature language" should take note.)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Fans have voiced strenuous disapproval of a couple of aspects of this DVD set. One is the extremely high price; $60 is a lot to pay for just seven episodes (although the set can be had for much less—it's listed at $41.99 at Amazon, for instance). The excuse has been the high cost of musical licensing, which is understandable, but that just leads to the second, more valid complaint. Apparently, substantial portions of the original music in the episodes have been replaced with what has been described in some cases as "elevator music." Since the music plays such an important role in the series and in the hearts of the fans, it's an issue that Universal needs to address. As a longtime fan of the show, I wasn't really bothered by the substitutions (the really crucial music, like the Lindsay Buckingham song that bookends "Spring Break" and the zany "Simply Irresistible" number in that same episode, seems to be intact), but I can certainly understand why many are upset.
If you're a fan of the series, there's no reason not to pick up this DVD set, even with the musical substitutions. If you've been wondering what the big deal is, this is your chance to jump on and take a ride into beautiful Cicely, Alaska.
Northern Exposure: The Complete Second Season is cleared on all charges, although the death by satellite of one local man is still being investigated.
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Scales of Justice
• Deleted Scenes from All Episodes
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