I just finished watching all six seasons of Northern Exposure, a television series that first aired in 1991 about a young doctor forced to work in a small town in Alaska.
Northern Exposure was prestige television before there was such a thing as prestige television. I remember considering it a cut above when I first got into it, though not right away. I’d seen part of an episode when it first aired and dismissed it. My friend Trish insisted I give it a second look. She loaned me several VHS tapes jam packed with Northern Exposure episodes. I watched them with my roommates and we were soon hooked. I watched the first two seasons and thoroughly enjoyed each episode. I continued watching on network television once Trish’s episodes ran out. Then life intervened and I left the country for a while and fell off the Northern Exposure bandwagon.
But I always remembered the spell the show wove, its sensibility, its slightly off kilter humour. When the pandemic hit and I found myself working from (and mostly trapped) at home, I thought maybe some Northern Exposure magic might be just the thing to help get me through. My wife gave me all six seasons as a Christmas present (on DVD; it’s not available on any streaming platforms, as near as I can tell), and I’ve spent just over a year gradually watching them all.
I was surprised to discover how few episodes I’d actually seen. Maybe Trish missed taping a few. Or perhaps I’d completely forgotten some. Turns out I’d never seen any episode beyond the first two seasons. At first I was thrown by the 4:3 (or 1.33:1) aspect ratio, having become accustomed to 16:9 these last twenty years or so, which only became standard after 1996, once Northern Exposure was off the air. 4:3 doesn’t entirely fill a modern television’s entire screen. But after an episode or two the 4:3 aspect ratio stopped bothering me.
I loved re-watching the episodes I’d seen and happily ventured into new territory. The ones I’d seen took me back to a time when I was younger than two of the main characters in the ensemble cast, Joel and Maggie. I was twenty-six when I started watching Northern Exposure the first time around; they were about twenty-nine. Watching the episodes now I found I was closer in age to ex-astronaut turned entrepreneur Maurice Minnifield. So, that was weird. Where has the time gone? (Still younger than the character of Holling Vincoeur, though.)
The first two seasons held up nicely. Much of the magic, I realized, lay in the show’s magical realist elements. The show is at its absolute best when it marries magical realism to bold storytelling (such as briefly breaking the third wall in season two’s War and Peace, or going back in time for a period piece in season three’s finale Cicely). This is not a show with car chases and murders and drama (though death does figure occasionally). It’s a pleasant show, often delightful, shot brightly for the most part, about agreeable, gently flawed people. The music choices are varied, eccentric and entrancing (at least for the first few seasons), featuring artists such as Daniel Lanois, Etta James, Magazine 60, Nat King Cole, Miriam Makeba, Brian Eno and more. It was fun seeing actors like Jack Black, Graham Greene and James Marsters pop up at random. Stars Rob Morrow and Janine Turner are note perfect throughout.
I found the show the perfect anodyne to the increasingly mad world we find ourselves in now. I couldn’t completely escape, though. Unsettinglingly, I heard Trump’s name invoked not once but three times during the course of the series, each instance jarring.
Does it hold up for the entire six seasons? I had read that it doesn’t, but was curious to see for myself. In the middle of the show’s run creators Josh Brand and John Falsey handed the reins over to showrunner David Chase. Chase is famous as the showrunner for The Sopranos, a gritty show about a mob boss, considered one of television’s greatest series. I found this fascinating. Chase admitted not really understanding the premise of Northern Exposure. So this guy, who professed not to understand the premise of Northern Exposure, but who obviously knows a thing or two about making television, wound up running the show. He had other writers (such as Diana Frolov and Jeff Melvoin) to help him, writers who did mostly get the show, so I’m happy to report that the show does indeed hold up. Sort of. Sometimes more, sometimes less. It’s get a bit dodgy around the end of the fourth season and into the fifth, but does eventually find its stride again until near the end of the sixth season.
The sixth season is hit and miss. The season premiere, Dinner at Seven Thirty, is strong, and I thoroughly enjoyed a storyline featuring Joel giving up his medical practice to head north and immerse himself in native culture. Halfway through the season Joel is replaced by another doctor and his wife. The actors, Paul Provenza and Teri Polo, are fine, though little of note is done with them. There’s an episode near the end of the run featuring Ed Chigliak (called Balls) that in my opinion is among the strongest in the entire series (well, one of the episode’s story lines, at least). It provides actor Darren Burrows (Ed) with a material he could sink his teeth into for a change. Another enjoyable episode from season six, Little Italy, curiously presages The Sopranos.
There appeared to be a lack of understanding of some of the characters in season six. Apart from the aforementioned episode Balls, and half-hearted attempts to make him a filmmaker and a shaman, the character of Ed Chigliak gets entirely too goofy over time. It’s a shame; the writers could have done so much more with him. Elsewhere Brian Doan has written (in an essay about Northern Exposure that far surpasses this one in depth) about Chris Steven’s incipient toxic masculinity, and dammit Chris actually does become that a bit. It is painful to watch and a betrayal of the way Chris was presented earlier in the series, when he lived with a self-awareness of his darker side.
Sadly, none of the characters ever live up to their potential. In the first episode of the sixth season (Dinner at Seven Thirty) we see Cynthia Geary as a completely different character. I didn’t even recognize her for half the episode. It was a glimpse of what could have been done with Geary’s character Shelly had the writers allowed the character to grow. And in the final episode of the entire series, Tranquillity Base, which, sadly, bordered on the ridiculous (no, actually was ridiculous), we see Holling Vincoeur as a caricature of himself, more bloodhound than man, while Chris Stevens is ludicrous as opposed to insightful. Still, I like the montage music in the final moments of that episode (Our Town, by Iris Dement), perhaps the only saving grace (one final, parting gift from the series) in an episode that otherwise seemed deliberately designed to make fans repeatedly facepalm themselves.
Although the series ended on a less than stellar note, it was still entirely worth watching. It did not betray my memories of it. And although I will never watch it in its entirety again (unless I somehow become immortal between now and eternity) I fully expect to cherry pick episodes here and there when I feel the need to return to the state of mind that is Northern Exposure at its best.