Rewatching "Northern Exposure"

19 Jan 2009 // places

Before there was the Wire, or even HBO, there was Northern Exposure. I recently started watching Northern Exposure again (sans certain songs on the soundtrack because the bastards won't pay for the rights) partly to relive nostalgia, partly to see how this show had aged, but mostly because Northern Exposure is in many ways my favorite TV series, like, ever.

Having been spoilt by modern television, with their heterogenous storylines, epic story arcs, and some of the finest acting talent on the planet, it's remarkable how well Northern Exposure holds up. Northern Exposure was made in the era of the stand-alone episode TV series, where story arcs began and ended on the hour, and events only loosely referred to previous episodes. The demise of the stand-alone episodes and the rise of the complex plotings of shows such as Lost or the Wire was not due to the lack of ability of writers in the past but rather to the rise of the internet. Today, we have the internet to help us fill the gaps when we miss an episode of Lost or 24. But back in the 80's, when Northern Exposure first aired, it would have been exceedingly difficult for viewers to keep track of complicated story lines if they missed but a single episode. I missed the Twin Peaks train when it first aired because I missed the first three episodes, and everything I watched did not make any sense.

I loved Northern Exposure for two reasons. The first reason is entirely accidental. I grew up in a country town Australia. Whilst, I grant you, there were many kids in my school who were more than satiated by the culture that a town of 40,000 people has to offer (not very much), I was straining to see the wider world. And since my family was poor, I could only do this through books and TV. The character of Joel Fleishman, an opionated New York Jew, lover of bagels and hot jewish girls, exiled to the wilderness of Alaska through a misreading of his med-school scholarship contract, spoke to me in a way that no other TV character ever had. Here was a sophisticated city dweller (that would be I) stuck in the nether regions of civilisation. A man with tastes and desires out of sync with the gorgeous wilderness around him. This disconnection was something that I could empathize with. I've always wondered if it was Joel Fleishman who taught me to appreciate the unique qualities of opinionated intelllectual retro-glasses-wearing jewish girls.

I loved Northern Exposure because it gave me the only characters on Australian TV that I could identify with: Joel Fleishman with his outsider looking in, but also the character of Ed, the outsider looking out. Ed was probably closer to who I was at the time, the dreamy country boy with visions of Hollywood and visions of movies to be made, bursting around inside his skill.

The second reason I loved Northern Exposure was that there was more humanity in Northern Exposure than any other TV that I can recollect. This was a series where a bunch of talented screenwriters was let loose with writing about the human condition. There were episodes that dealt with art, with death, with myth, with food, and even with religion. In some ways it was the inverse of Friends, instead of a bunch of homogenous twenty-somethings mixing it up in claustrobic bookshop in the middle of the largest metropolis in the world, Northern Exposure was a collection of wildly clashing eccentrics mixing it up in the vast wilderness of Alaska. By setting the series in a fictionalized Alaska of wild open spaces, there was plenty of room for beautiful things to bubble up from the deep.

Unfortunately, Northern Exposure could not avoid jumping the shark, many times, in the last two seasons, as it descended into an incoherent mess, especially after Fleishman consumated his desire for the fetching Maggie O'Connell, and Rob Morrow, who played Felishman, left the show. It turns out that you do need a jewish doctor to anchor the weirdness of a an alaskan conclave.

Let me end with my favorite episode ever, "Kadish for Uncle Manny" from season four where Joel receives the news of the death of his beloved Uncle Mannt. Joel is unmoored as the town gathers round to heal their beloved doctor. Joel is conflicted in how to deal with his mourning, as he wrestles with eternal questions about life and death. The episode ends in the town hall, where Joel, surrounded by his people, decides to performs an ancient Jewish ceremony for his uncle, and invites his new community to pray with him. The last shot has the camera panning across the town hall lingering over the faces of the citizens of Cicely, each as different to each other as New York is to Cicely or Lismore, praying, each in the way they see fit, for their dear friend and doctor, Joel Fleishman, to bravely carry the ancient burden of mourning.