Monday, July 12, 2010

The Benign Universe of Northern Exposure


“Yeah, O’Connell”

It’s been 20 years since we first heard that call and response. Northern Exposure debuted in the summer of 1990, against reruns of L.A. Law, which it beat out.

It was indeed a surprising summer replacement series sizzler, and so CBS asked creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey for a full season. Negotiations took quite a while, so it didn’t come back until April 1991. But the wait was worth it to the team, because they were given the coveted Monday night, 10 p.m. slot, following the well-established hits of Murphy Brown and Designing Women.

And that says a lot. Northern Exposure entered the TV landscape of the acerbic, Washington insider, just-out-of Betty Ford, uber tv magazine anchor, and the Atlanta, Ga., collective of feminine charm and smarts that was Sugarbaker Designs, with its signature monologue of indignation delivered by Julia. Both series brought issues into prime-time entertainment: racism, homosexuality, single parenting, AIDS, breast cancer, and medical marijuana, among others.

Northern Exposure dealt with issues too, but with no soap box in sight.

And it wasn’t about “women,” it wasn’t from a female pov (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Instead, it was about community and how the social organism relates to our emotional and inner lives. Heart and emotions: that was the magic of its appeal.

There was one TV community that cast a large shadow over the Alaskans — that crazy lot over in Snoqualmie County, Washington.

From Jeanine Kasindorf’s much-quoted April 1991 article for NY Magazine, “The New Frontier, How ‘Northern Exposure’ Became the Spring’s Hottest TV Show”:
“The show seems to have caught the imagination of an audience still hungry for the eccentric characters of Twin Peaks but no longer hungry for that show’s obscurity and rootlessness.”

Funny she should say that. Ron Powers in TV Guide, July 1991:
“Some strange spell falls over reviewers when they tackle the wonderfully woolly Northern Exposure on CBS: They always make a reference to Twin Peaks. Oops. Look at that: I've gone and done it too, keeping the record perfect. The lockstep wisdom seems to be that Exposure is Peaks' younger, smarter, nicer brother. Or that if David Lynch hadn't invented earflap-chic, viewers might not be able to make sense out of the more recent Joshua Brand-John Falsey creation without an interpreter's guide.”

Ron then goes on to say that NoEx goes much deeper into American mythology than being the sweeter Twin Peaks.

That avenue of explicating seems to have been misguided, if the creators get to decide intention (with due respect to Wimsatt’s Intentional Fallacy): “For what it’s worth, “ Falsey says, “we hadn’t even heard of Twin Peaks when we wrote the pilot, and it wasn’t going on the air for another three months.”

Cicely, Alaska: Pop Culture Heaven

Morty the beloved Moose walking through the opening title sequence was an important visual that declared an important idea: that there are stories in this big country worth telling outside of spitting distance of US 1. (Interesting to note that the Bloodworth-Thomason’s Evening Shade, set in Arkansas and starring Burt Reynolds, ran from 1990 to 1994.)

Dr. Joel Fleischman, the Jewish New Yorker from the Upper West Side, is the bridge to this strange new world for the audience that isn’t comfortable away from the Northeast corridor. He’s the fish out of water, the doctor who has to pay off his college loans by working in Anchorage, a good-size city. In the pilot, he learns that Anchorage doesn’t need him and they have sold his debt to Cicely, Alaska, a very small, genuinely rural town.

The pilot starts with a very conscious Joel-as-Woody-Allen voiceover telling his backstory to the guy sitting next to him on the plane, who is none other than Dr. Anspaugh! When Ed Chigliak drives Fleischman to Maurice’s house and starts spouting medical jargon, Ed says “St. Elsewhere, I love that show” (created by the very same Brand & Falsey).

So while we may not know much about Alaska, we are instantly swaddled in unifying elements of pop culture. This is a place we will enjoy visiting.

The Benign Universe

Kasindorf wrote that Brand & Falsey often called their creation the “benign universe” — a nonjudgmental place where individuals can flourish while serving the greater good of the community. Where Joel and Maggie can pas a deux to their heart’s content and a 62-year-old man marrying a 19-year-old girl isn’t creepy because Holling and Shelly Tambo make sense; a place where a Native American medical secretary exerts steely control over her boss and Chris in the morning (John Corbett in his pre-Carrie Bradshaw days) can wax poetic from Voltaire to Einstein to Kerouac as a welcomed Greek chorus of one (although some did find him cloying).

The memorable episodes are many: “Aurora Borealis,” when Chris discovers Bernard is his black half brother drawn to Cicely by the midnight sun, and Joel runs in to Adam, the wild gourmet cook in the wild; “Jules et Joel,” when Joel’s slick twin brother comes to town; “The Big Kiss,” when Chris loses his voice to a beautiful woman, and can only get it back by sleeping with another beautiful women, that being Maggie; TV’s second gay wedding (but the first most people saw); the story of the lesbians Cicely and Rosalyn who founded the town; Chris flinging the piano (in lieu of the cow); and “The Quest,” the last episode for Rob Morrow/Joel, when he and Maggie go searching for the Jeweled City of the North. When they come to a crossroads, Joel sees his future and goes through the woods and comes out of the fog on the Staten Island Ferry. The view of the Twin Towers was surprising to me — I still flinch when I see them in a TV show that I’ve forgotten that they might be present in.

"It's not the thing you fling; it's the fling itself." — Chris

It was the emotional side to these stories that viewers found very satisfying, and that dynamic was heightened by the exquisite use of music. Miami Vice was the first series where the weekly soundtrack was as important as the dialogue. Its sounds were classic rock and ‘80s mélange. NoEx brought the American songbook into prime time, with Louis Armstrong, Mancini, Bacharach, kd lang, Peggy Lee, Patsy Cline, Etta James, Van Morrison, and so many others.

Ned/Ed from the Cicely episode:
“One person can have a profound effect on another. And two people...well, two people can work miracles. They can change a whole town. They can change the world.”

Brand & Falsey didn’t change the world, but they did bring a unique sense of love and well being to the airwaves. And they employed David Chase as an executive producer for 47 episodes from 1993 to 1995. Who knows, without that we might not have had The Sopranos.

(Written for Edward Copeland on Film.)


clairehelene7 said...

Oh, excellent post. I saw that today was Northern Exposure's 20th anniversary. That seems crazy to me - I was 9 when it started - but I remember watching it with my parents and loving it. It remains one of my favorite tv shows ever. One of my good friends still blames Sex and the City for ruining Chris in the Morning for her. :)

Anonymous said...

I loved Northern Exposure back in the day, and I still love it now I live in Alaska. We really do have a lot of odd characters up here (ok, no snide comments).

M.A.Peel said...

Claire, yes it's frightening how fast 20 years goes!

Anon, we had odd characters back in the hometown too :)

You know what's amazing about NE is how fondly its audience remembers it. People really did love it--I can't think of another series that people feel as warmly about at all.

dorki said...

Northern Exposure was one of the few enjoyable TV shows I have ever seen. I liked the locale displacement, the quirky but (almost) believable characters, and great stories. I still giggle about the Struck-by-Russian-Satellite episode.

iPadCary said...

Joel's from Jamaica, Queens--139th & Main Street, actually--not the Upper West Side.
He lived on the UWS while at Columbia.

Ellen O'Neill said...

iPadCary, thanks for the clarification. I love precision.

iPadCary said...

As well you should! 2+2=4, not 3.9, y'know.