What a wonderful, eccentric series. While it ran out of steam in its last season, Northern Exposure was a landmark creative show. The strength was the writing, followed by a fine cast of actors.
The pilot episode finds physician Joel Fleischman arriving in Alaska to fulfill his medical school obligation of spending four years serving the State, in return for paying for his education. He arrives believing he will be working in a city hospital, but he is reassigned to the small town of Cicely, anxious for a full time doctor. Joel does not like his new assignment and only slowly does he warm up to the eclectic townspeople.
Joel spends the series trying to adjust to rural Alaska and the challenges brought to him by the various townspeople. In the 1990s, television was home to the proverbial fish out of water, which Joel Fleischman is. He is a New York Jew, who has fine cultural tastes, and a fiancé back in New York.
Joel’s main battle, besides residing in the backwaters of civilization, is with local pilot and his landlord, Maggie O’Connell. Their love/hate/attraction powers the dramatic tension/comedy of the series.
Maggie thinks Joel is an arrogant, self-centered jerk. He thinks she’s sexually frustrated and hostile. They totally talk around each other. She denies any attraction to him, even after they eventually sleep together. To her, it never happened. That totally frustrates him. Maggie’s previous boyfriends all met with an odd and unlucky demise, which gives her a reputation that scares off all but the bravest men.
Very quickly in the first season, the show began to mix fantasy as the characters began to appear in dream sequences and exploring subconscious themes and unresolved desires and past issues. While the theme of the show centered on Joel’s struggle to blend into a new culture, also in the first season, the show expanded into the lives of the other characters, and each episode had more than one story, often connected. For example, Joel’s fiancé arrives for a romantic visit, just as the town deals with a major flu epidemic, which derails the romance. Secondarily, his fiancé and Maggie strike up a friendship which confounds Joel.
Maurice Minnifield is a retired astronaut, has milked every ounce of fame to build his financial empire in Cicely. He owns the radio station, newspaper and various other businesses. He is also responsible for bringing Shelley Tambo to Cicely, the source of contention between himself and bar owner Holling Vincoeur, his good friend, until Shelley desired Holling instead. Maurice is used to getting what he wants and his ego is permanently bruised by the rejection. Maurice is egotistical and believes he is better than everyone else because of his fame.
Chris Stevens, a cosmic and philosophical young man is “Chris in the Morning”, the main DJ for Maurice’s radio station. Chris does not just play music, he provides a unique perspective on life each morning. His musical taste, as well as what he shared from poetry and other literary works, is eclectic, and provides context for many of the show’s themes. Chris is quite the ladies man, who find his earthiness and new age attitude alluring. He is also an ordained minister, having answered an ad in the back of Rolling Stone. Chris has a Black half-brother who becomes a semi-regular character. When Maurice’s only relative dies, he looks to have Chris become his son, which naturally fails, but shows how lacking Maurice’s life really is in human relationships.
Ed Chigliak is a jack of all trades around Cicely, a likable native-Alaskan, who yearns to be a filmmaker. He spends several episodes trying to figure out where he came from and pursues a builder who may be his father.
Marilyn Whirlwind is Joel’s receptionist. She has a confident, but quiet demeanor and tends to see through Joel. She constantly baffles Joel and is immune to his quizzical and excitable reaction to most things.
Ruth-Anne Miller runs the general store. Originally, a reoccurring character, she became a central character in the second season. Direct and unabashed, she often sparred with Maurice. Ed works for her and they share a love for film. Very independent and opinionated, she is comfortable being alone, but eventually finds love, which proves as unsettling as enjoyable.
There were a number of featured characters that came and went, but often appeared for a story act. Mike Monroe lived in a geodesic dome like a bubble world because of his health sensitivities. He struck up a relationship with Maggie. Adam was a mysterious and angry man living in the wilderness who also happened to be a master chef. Bernard Stevens is Chris’ brother. Ron and Erick are two gay men who purchase a house from Maurice to turn it into a bed and breakfast. Officer Semanski, sent to investigate a rash of thefts, eventually becomes Maurice’s girlfriend.
One of the most creatively written episodes was “Spring Break” in season two. The use of dreams and a community experienced emotional impact of winter ice about to melt, makes everyone behave unlike themselves, resulted in a deliciously funny episode.
By the end of season one, the writing was crisp and the eccentricities of each character was being peeled away like an onion, to be explored in each episode.
The series was created and produced by Joshua Brand and John Falsey, who achieved earlier success with The White Shadow for MTM Enterprises (Mary Tyler Moore) and then the medical ensemble series St. Elsewhere.
St. Elsewhere was essentially a black comedy, a dramatic series with a major case of schizophrenia. Viewers got a dose of hallucinations, delusions and disorganized behavior, as it became difficult to know what was reality and what was the mind at play. Northern Exposure was a tamer version of that series, outlandish fantasy and behavior, but unlike St. Elsewhere, the characters on Northern Exposure were all likable and the tone was not dark and foreboding. The humor though, was every bit as cleaver. In later seasons of Northern Exposure, one of the writers and producers was David Chase, who would go on to create The Sopranos.
By season six, Northern Exposure was changing. Rob Morrow, who played Joel, left the series, replaced by two new characters. His absence was felt, and the show was gone at the end of the season.