Northern Exposure: Season 1 Review
For the series finale of St Elsewhere, producers Joshua Brand and John Falsey created the most magical series ending. As the final episode - The Last One - drew to a close, Dr Westphall was sitting with in Dr Auschlander's office looking out the window as snow began to fall. With him was his son, Tommy, who had previously been diagnosed with autism.
Just when it seemed as though St Elsewhere was going to end with a snowfall in Boston, the scene cut to Tommy sitting an anonymous-looking apartment with Dr Auschlander on a chair behind him. Auschlander was no longer dressed as a doctor and when the door to the apartment opened, nor was Westphall. Instead, he was dressed as a blue-collar worker construction worker and when he addressed Auschlander with, "How you doing, Pop?", everything had suddenly changed. As the focus of the scene switches, we see Tommy staring into and shaking a snow globe within which is a model of St. Eligius Hospital, in which St Elsewhere had been set. In those final few moments, Brand and Falsey and their team of writers were saying that the previous six years had happened only in the mind of an autistic boy. Unsurprisingly, controversy followed.
By the time Brand and Falsey moved on to Northern Exposure, their stated intention was to created fairy tales for grown-ups - as much a way to let their imaginations run as loose as they had done in the finale of St Elsewhere. Stumbling slightly in its opening episodes, where it possibly tried to cover all that it ever would in less than three hours, Northern Exposure soon relaxed into a meeting of small town folk, the richness of a life lived well and how the subtle changes in nature spring surprises on the people of Cicely. We find, as Joel does, that the Native Americans' belief in the gentle co-existence of man, animals and nature is the key to happiness and the midnight sun, frost in summer, the Aurora Borealis and a dip in a cold, cold lake only serve to shake things up a little but only when necessary.
The show itself is a classic fish-out-of-water story - New Yorker Joel Fleischman is a recent graduate from Columbia University medical school, which he was only able to attend thanks to a scholarship from the state of Alaska. As the pilot episode opens, Joel is on a flight to Anchorage where he has reluctantly agreed to work as a doctor until the $125,000 payment from the state is settled. Unexpectedly, Fleischman is told that Anchorage doesn't need him and he quickly thinks of returning to New York but the state medical department has better news - he will be posted to the small town of Cicely, also known as the riviera of Alaska.
On his arrival, Fleischman meets Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin), an ex-astronaut who has high hopes for inward investment into Cicely and who is the driving force behind his appointment in the town. Chris Stevens (John Corbett) is the philosophical ex-con who works for Maurice on his radio station and hosts the Chris In The Morning show whilst filling in the empty pastoral post in town by his having completed a non-denominational ministry from the back of Rolling Stone. Sometime employee of Maurice's, Ed Chigliak (Darren E. Burrows) dreams of becoming a movie director and has a friendship through letters with Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen whilst Marilyn Whirlwind (Elaine Miles) Ruth-Anne Miller (Peg Phillips) assist Joel in the surgery and run the general store, respectively.
With the oldest feud in the town still simmering between Maurice and Holling Vincoeur (John Cullum), the owner of the bar, over Shelly Tambo (Cynthia Geary), a beauty queen who came to Cicely with the former but who now lives with the latter, it's left to Maggie O'Connell (Janine Turner) and Joel to bicker in a fiery relationship, with his prickly New York attitudes clashing with her Alaskan independence. The will-they/won't-they part of their friendship is never really tested given Joel's fear of dying - all of Maggie's ex-boyfriends died in bizarre circumstances, including Harry (potato salad), Bruce (a terrible fishing accident), Glenn (drove onto a missile test site), Dave (froze to death after falling asleep on a glacier) and Rick (a satellite fell on him) - but there was enough in it to sustain, like St Elsewhere, six seasons.
Whilst quirky, Northern Exposure is never patronising. Instead, this is very much a show that expects its audience to follow its smart humour and cultural references - Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare and Joseph Campbell are all referenced and it pays to have both a knowledge of film and of politics. Chris In The Morning provides readings of poetry in between classic rock whilst the frequent visitors from out of town, state or nation are commentaries on the role of the US in international affairs. Affairs closer to and further away from home are the subject of the Chris/Bernard story in Aurora Borealis, when a strange dream, a work of art and Carl Jung combine to produce this first season's best episode, which ties a story about family ties into sightings of Bigfoot.
When Northern Exposure was as successful as it was in Aurora Borealis, Brains, Know How and Native Intelligence or Dreams, Schemes and Putting Greens, there really was very little to touch it and, even now, these episodes make for wonderful viewing. The chill of Alaska, the warmth of the stories and the genuine affection that Brand and Falsey have for the peoples of their fictional town all combine to make Northern Exposure an outstanding series and one that survives the test of ownership on DVD - it can be watched again and again without ever losing any of its charm.
Pilot (47m55): Joel Fleischman, a recent medical graduate, is on his way to Anchorage, Alaska to work until he pays off the $125,000 loaned to him by the state in the form of a scholarship to complete his education. On his arrival, he's overjoyed to learn that he's not needed in Anchorage but before he leaves for New York, he's told that he's been requested by the small town of Cicely. Arriving on the bus, Joel can't believe the remoteness of his posting and begs his lawyer fiancee to read his contract carefully to see if he can extract himself from it. But that takes time and between then and now, he has patients to see and his sponsor in the town, Maurice Minnifield, who has a particular way of convincing Joel to stay. Along the way Joel also has time to insult his landlord, Maggie O'Connell, by implying that she's a prostitute.
Brains, Know How and Native Intelligence (47m45s): On his morning radio show, Chris reads a little Walt Whitman before discussing the poet's homosexuality, which outrages Maurice to the extent that he drives into Cicely and physically hauls Chris away from the microphone. As the town mourn Chris' absence and struggle with Maurice's choice of showtunes, Joel tries to find a way to help Ed's uncle, a traditional medicine man, to get urgent medical treatment at a hospital but he learns that he must absorb a little native know-how first. As well, of course, as proving to Maggie that he's not completely incompetent about the house.
Soapy Sanderson (47m56s): Worried about Soapy, a hermit who lives a plane-ride away, Maggie brings him in to see Joel, who persuades him to think about the future and to put his affairs in order. When Maggie flies Joel out to see him, they find that Soapy has committed suicide but that, in his will, he has left a roll of money to Holling for a goodbye party in the Brick, his collection of obscure country albums to Chris and all of his property and land to co-executors Joel and Maggie. Joel cannot believe this turn of events, considering it a personal slight by a bitter old man, but when a tribal financial advisor shows up asking to buy out the land to mine for oil and minerals, he has a change of heart. But when a filmmaker, Laurie Battin (Christa Millar, Jordan in Scrubs) shows up in Cicely wanting to make a documentary about Dr Soapy Sanderson, Fleischman's quick sale slows up a little.
Dreams, Schemes and Putting Greens (47m58s): Maurice has big plans for Alaska and enlists the golf-loving Fleischman in his plans to secure funding from two Japanese businessmen to build an entertainment resort outside of Cicely. In between planning a golf course, Joel still has patients to see and when Shelly shows up having felt sick for two months and missed two periods, he congratulates her on her pregnancy. Problem is, though, that Holling doesn't want kids and despite proposing, goes missing before the wedding can take place.
The Russian Flu (47m42s): The flu has hit Cicely but Joel swears that it won't put a dampener on Elaine's visit. He asks Maggie to fly down to Anchorage to pick up his fiancee but is a little troubled when the two women arrive back as firm friends...just what did they talk about? And was it about him? Either way, he can't worry about it for long as the whole town's getting sick and the only known cure is a homebrew that Marilyn, against Joel's wishes, brings into the clinic. Things get worse when Joel mentions that it might be Russian flu and, when it looks as though it's as bad as it could ever be, Elaine gets sick and Joel ends up in bed with Maggie...or is it only a dream brought about by applying Marilyn's cure to Elaine.
Sex, Lies and Ed's Tapes (47m33s): Shelly's putting on weight and the pregnancy is going well but the arrival of Wayne, her young husband from back home, asking her for a divorce so that he can remarry shocks Holling. As for Joel, well the discovery of a growth on Rick's body gets him worrying that he's going to be the latest victim of the O'Connell curse. Meanwhile, Ed's planning on making a movie but the chores around Cicely waylay him somewhat. Still, this gives him time to imagine Chris as Indiana Jones, Fleischman as Ratso Rizzo and Maurice as a gun-toting cowboy in the old west.
A Kodiak Moment (47m51s): When Maurice's brother dies, the memories that he'll leave behind begin to tear at his soul and, without an heir, he proposes to Chris that he be his heir. Chris, despite being initially enthusiastic, doesn't feel entirely comfortable, at least not with the number of rules that Maurice begins laying down. Elsewhere, Joel and Maggie fly down to Boswell to host a pre-natal class, which Maggie makes a great success but there are tensions in the town as Ed sweeps into the Brick to announce that Jesse the bear is back. Jesse may well once have almost killed Holling but he's determined to capture her on film. Only problem is that Shelly wants to come along.
Aurora Borealis (47m57s): The Northern Lights are approaching and there's a full moon in the sky. As Chris says, "...knowing how we've been tossing and turning these past few nights for fear of where our dreams may be taking us, I'm not about to pretend that that man in that moon has our best interests at heart." There's strange behaviour in Cicely - no one can sleep with the light from the moon, Chris has left the radio station to work on a piece of art and Joel has spotted a strangely large footprint in the woods. When he is required to drive out to drop off some medicine to a lonely range fire watching in the mountains, he finds himself lost whilst returning to Cicely and ends up in the cabin of Adam - the fabled wild man of Cicely who turns out to be a gourmet chef. Meanwhile, Bernard shows up in Cicely and forms an immediate and firm friendship with Chris, who's equally fond of the new arrival...but neither of them can figure out why they feel so connected. Then they appear in each other's dreams, as does Carl Jung and things become clear...
When Northern Exposure was first released in the UK, the picture quality was dreadful but this R1 release was a vast improvement as the comparison screenshots below indicate:
Original R2 Release
This R1 Release
Original R2 Release
This R1 Release
Original R2 Release
This R1 Release
Where the old picture was fuzzy, too colourful and soft, this new picture is better than I even remember the original broadcasts being - I really haven't seen Northern Exposure ever look this good before.
The soundtrack is equally as good - clear, bright and just warm enough to complement the stories. The only criticism is that in some places, the original songs have been replaced where clearance rights were an issue but nothing feels out of place.
Again, this R1 release is a clear improvement over the original R2 release with a solid set of bonus features. Only commentaries are notably absent but unless Brand and Falsey and key members of the cast were involved, I can't see them being of lasting value.
Deleted Scenes, Side One: Scenes that didn't make it into the Pilot (7m13s) and Dreams, Schemes and Putting Greens (6m40s) are included here, most of which are simply extensions to scenes that did make into the episodes.
Deleted Scenes, Side Two: Again, scenes from Soapy Sanderson (12m14s) and Dreams, Schemes and Putting Greens (2m21s) are on the first disc's second side and, as with the deleted scenes on the flip side, cover extensions to existing scenes as well as those that didn't make it into the episode.
Video Documentary Footage (9m50s): From Soapy Sanderson, obviously, this is the documentary footage taken by Laurie Battin and includes a fiery disagreement between Maggie and Joel and Maggie learning about Soapy's wife, who, as she sees, looks a lot like her.
Unexposed Footage: As you might expect, the picture quality of this bonus feature leaves much to be desired but is, strangely, on a par with the original UK release. This is simply a collection of bloopers, outtakes and further takes of scenes from the Pilot (2m25s), Brains, Know How and Native Intelligence (3m53s), Soapy Sanderson (10m18s) and Dreams, Schemes and Putting Greens (3m18s).
Deleted Scenes, Side One: As with the first disc, this features additions to scenes already in The Russian Flu (5m15s) and Sex, Lies and Ed's Tapes (2m42s).
Deleted Scenes, Side Two: Again, new scenes and extensions to existing scenes are included for A Kodiak Moment (12m40s), including the footage of Maurice receiving news about the death of his brother, which was only seen by Chris and not heard, and Aurora Borealis (4m55s).
Mock Movie Footage (11m36s): As Soapy Sanderson had mock video footage so this disc has extended footage from Ed's movie fantasies, including a longer bar fight from Maurice, multiple takes of Chris' search for the Ark of the Covenant and Fleischman's attempts to cross the road in the style of Ratso Rizzo.
Unexposed Footage: As with the similar bonus feature on the first disc, this includes bloopers and outtakes for The Russian Flu (5m28s), Sex, Lies And Ed's Tapes (3m50s), A Kodiak Moment (5m53s) and Aurora Borealis (7m36s).
I'm not ashamed to admit that Northern Exposure is the kind of life-changing television show that comes along all too rarely. In falling in love with Cicely, my holiday plans veered north and I can now be found in such colder climes as Iceland, Canada, Norway, Alaska and Greenland trying to capture some of that Northern Exposure magic under the midnight sun or by the Northern Lights. Sometimes it works - Iceland, Greenland and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland all have that Northern Exposure feeling - and sometimes it's not quite there but the search for a real-life Cicely beats two weeks on a beach or sweating in the Mediterranean sun.
This is a show that I fell in love with on its first showing on Channel 4 and despite there being the equivalent of a falling out with the release of the old R2 release, this R1, complete with orange parka-packaging, is a fine way to have Northern Exposure on DVD. Unfortunately, despite bringing over the R1 release of the second season to the UK, Universal have yet to revisit season one, leaving this release as the only way that it should be watched. Considering Northern Exposure? Begin here with this release on import and fall in love with a little piece of heaven in the far, far north.