Northern Exposure: Season 6 Review
Indeed, all good things do come to an end. Of course, truly awful things also come to an end but have a tendency to feel as though they have taken very much longer to do so. Six seasons of Northern Exposure, though, have gone very quickly indeed, with each season passing quickly by. It doesn't like two years ago that I began watching Northern Exposure via import and decided that this was a show worth reviewing and whilst that might be thanks to Universal's efforts at bringing Northern Exposure to DVD, much credit is also due to the producers of the show. Over 110 episodes, they created a show that changed with the seasons and in amongst the romances, the flights of fancy and the births, deaths and marriages, gave us moments that, be it a piano flying through the air, the shimmering aurora borealis or the body of an old trapper falling down a snowy mountainside, will be with us for years to come. But now it ends.
It's only with this last set that it's become clear how important endings are to Northern Exposure. It's a show that seems to thrive on those final few moments in an episode, when all the heartbreak, the conflict and the freezing Alaskan snow melts away to leave us looking in at a couple dancing by the firelight, at Maggie, Joel or another on their own or at the Cicelians gathered together in celebration. It's impossible to forget hearing Willie Nelson's Hand On The Wheel whilst watching old friends Maurice and Holling head out into the wilderness to bury their friend but, sore, bruised and tired, returning home for a warm bath. Or the snow falling on the town as Holling digs graves before the ground gets too hard and Shelly and Maurice relive old memories as they walk down Cicely. Or the story of how the raven rescued the sun with the faces of the cast lit up by the light of the stage and the sparkle of Christmas. Or the mountaintop baptism of baby Miranda. Or the piano flying through the air, it being not the thing you fling but the fling itself. Or, as happened much more often, life settled down and simply went on as the sun set and a full moon rose into the night sky.
This last season has many memorable endings. Oftentimes, it is simply the sight of that big moon rising up over the trees and mountains around Cicely. Snow falls, the lights of the town go out and the KBHR neon shines in the darkness. But doing something that will have its like-minded audience looking for their pens and paper, thirty-year-old Maggie writes a letter to her forty-five-year-old self in The Letter. An Italian carnival meanders down the main street, Chris and Maggie take to Roslyn and Cicely's Model T and drive though town on Founder's Day and a party in The Brick tells Ed that he's much too nice to become a private eye.
In amongst these, two endings stand out. Northern Exposure was always a show with a specific limit on its time. Fleischman had, after all, only to serve five years to pay back the state of Alaska and in this sixth season, he receives word that he is being released from his contract. Asking that Maggie join him on a quest into the wilderness, Fleischman sees rhyme and reason in the map that he holds on tight to. Passing by mythical figures from his past and present, Fleischman steps through a mist to a frozen lake. Beyond the trees and the glint of moonlight off the ice, Fleischman thinks that he can see the lights of Manhattan and in his typically effusive style is convinced that he must go yet further. Leaving Maggie behind, Fleischman disappears into the night and the snow and ice where, he thinks, New York waits for him. And it does. With Maggie turning for home, Joel stands on the deck of the Staten Island ferry and looks across to Manhattan, where the World Trade Centre pierces the clouds.
In the ending of the series, though, one must pay dues to Northern Exposure's final moments on the screen. From the drama in Maurice's summer getaway, everyone returns home. Night falls and the lights indoors pick out the cast around their kitchen tables or fires. To the tune of Iris DeMent's Our Town, Northern Exposure celebrates Cicely and the lives of those who live in it. Maurice, after a long time on his own, has finally found happiness with Barbara and heads upstairs. Holling, with Shelly beside him, twirls baby Randi above his head and Walt and Ruth-Anne turn off the lights and go to bed. Ed puts on a movie and settles into bed. Chris and Maggie, who've spent six years looking somewhere else, end the show in one another's arms and dancing in a deserted . I don't think I've ever been happier to see a show that I've loved so much come to its end. As Iris DeMent sings, "Just like they say, nothing good ever lasts / Go on now and say goodbye to our town...good night!" And as the moon sits high in the sky, a moose walks down the main street.
Dinner at Seven-Thirty: Nosing around in Ed's fridge, Joel finds a carton of orange juice. Ed tells him that he should not drink it...but it's too late. Falling under the Native American folk medicine within it, Joel collapses into Ed's closet and into New York where he finds himself married to Shelly and living in an exclusive apartment block where Maurice is the doorman. Everyone else is similarly different - Holling is agoraphobic, Ruth-Anne runs a successful medical partnership, Ed is a rich stockbroker and Chris is lost for words. As he frets about a party he's organised for that night, will life return to normal for Joel?
Eye of the Beholder: The Library Association is having an auction to raise funds for new books, chairs and a dedicated space in Ruth-Anne's store. Maggie hands in a cast iron bank but finds herself missing it when Chris buys it for $700. To add to his collection of cast iron banks...first he robbed them before moving on to collect them. Maggie intends on getting it back. Meanwhile, Shelly picks up a dollhouse for Miranda's first birthday but has the strangest dream. She wakes up in a bed in the house and meets the previous owner. Elsewhere, Ed lives out his dream of being a private eye but decides that the snooping and spying may not be for him.
Shofar, So Good: A Yom Kippur Carol? Fleischman is loading up on carbs before beginning his fasting for Yom Kippur but the night before it begins, he is visited by the Ghost of Yom Kippurs Yet To Come. And Fleischman doesn't like what he is shown. Elsewhere, Maurice imports a fox, buys a Range Rover and welcomes Lady Ann Reynolds (Jill Gascoigne) into his home. But when Ruth-Anne takes pity on the fox, Maurice's plans for a day's hunting to impress Lady Ann do not go according to plan.
The Letter: Two letters arrive in Cicely, which spell bad news for Shelly and Maggie. The first is a chain letter that arrives with the mystical spirit of Mesopotamia but when Shelly throws it away, bad luck falls on her and on Holling. Maggie's letter is one that she wrote to herself when she was fifteen, after which her fifteen-year-old self appears and is unable to hide her disappointment. Elsewhere, a barber arrives in Cicely and finds a lump on Joel's head.
The Robe: Satan arrives in Cicely, selling whirlpools and with a goat in the back of his car. Letting his crush on Shelly grow, he asks her what her secret fantasy is and when she tells him, he offers to fulfill her dream of turning the Brick into a casino. Shelly isn't sure whether to believe him. Meanwhile, Chris brings ventriloquism to KBHR and finds himself playing second fiddle to the dummy while Ed mixes up the medicine and the placebos that Joel was preparing for a medical trial in the town. Thanks to Ed's intervention, people see the drugs as a miracle cure and Maurice would do anything to discover what it is.
Zarya: Ed is filming Marilyn, both for his own interest in history and, as a shaman-in-training, to help cure the pain in her legs. In front of the camera, Marilyn tells a story heard from her grandfather in which Anastasia Romanov, who had escaped to Alaska and was being guarded by her grandfather, was visited by leader of the revolution Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in a bid to raise morale in a flailing Russia. With the help of the cast, the story of Anastasia and Lenin is revealed.
Full Upright Position: Sitting over a map of St Petersburg, where Joel is due to deliver a speech, his better nature has him inviting Maggie to come along but neither is prepared for what happens on the plane, which begins when Fleischman's seat breaks and gets worse when they remove one of the wings and run out of food, all without actually leaving the runway. Meanwhile, Maurice's young cousin arrives in Cicely to assist in the family business but Maurice learns that the cutthroat drive to succeed is not widespread in the Minnifield clan.
Up River: If nothing else, Maurice looks after his investments. When Joel moves up river, Maurice sends Ed after him but Ed finds only a despondent Fleischman who dwells on the miserable days that he and Maggie have spent since moving in together. Walt also goes missing, heading off into the forest to check on his traps. When he's gone, Ruth-Anne realises that she's fallen in love with him but doesn't want this upset in her life at this late stage. Finally, Chris gets some work done around his trailer but finds that living in chaos is too much for such an easygoing, laidback guy.
Sons of the Tundra: With Joel Fleischman choosing to remain upriver, Dr Phil Capra and his wife Michelle arrive in Cicely to take over the practice. While Phil gets to know the locals, including Ed, who is claiming to see the future, his wife takes a job on a paper run by Maurice. Such things serve to keep Maurice busy but his friendship with Holling is put to the test when Holling applies to join the exclusive Sons Of The Tundra men-only club. Neither Shelly or Chris are particularly keen on the idea - Chris takes the Groucho Marx line that he wouldn't join any club that would have him - but Holling isn't ready to face the old prejudices that live on in Alaska.
Realpolitik: Having already considered running for mayor, Maggie puts her name on the paper and, to her surprise, wins. During a party in her honour, Maggie finds that much is expected of her, not least from Chris, who reveals his passion for powerful women to Ed. When Maggie lobbies for a central dump but discovers that the Cicelians are more in favour of small government than good civic sense. Elsewhere, Joel invites Phil upriver for a game of golf while Marilyn invests in a dog that, to her surprise, fails to serve as a valuable stud.
The Great Mushroom: Maggie is having terrible dreams that involve Joel and his dying in a number of bizarre ways, including quicksand, being bombed by a WWII fighter and being crushed beneath a giant boulder. Putting her civic responsibilities to one side, she travels upriver to visit Joel and to warn him of...something. But, oddly, all he wants to talk about is the world's largest living organism, a giant mushroom. Meanwhile, the Capras host a party but two guests, on account of being snowed in, cannot leave. Phil and Michelle put up with their guests but find themselves coming up with ways of being left alone once more.
Mi Casa, Su Casa: Maurice is going on holiday and leaves Ed house sitting. It isn't long, though, until Ed is wearing a smoking jacket, putting his feet up on the coffee table and adopting some of Maurice's unique ways. And that's before he asks Chris, Walt and Hayden to watch some ice hockey. Or hosts a dinner party. Meanwhile, Marilyn travels upriver to the village where Joel is living but the doctor is surprised when he finds out that she hasn't come to visit him. He's also unhappy at learning some truths about his old self when he's invited to a dinner between Marilyn and Two-Clocks. And it's not someone that he likes the sound of.
Horns: Joel achieves something of a victory over the state of Alaska. After a visit by Pete Gilliam, the same man who, over five years before, had posted Joel to Cicely and who add a year to the amount of time he owed for payment of his fees in medical school, Joel receives a cheque and an apology for an illegal mid-contract extension. He is a free man. And he is still a man, which is more than can be said for many Cecilian men, who are starting to take an interest in organising weddings, flower arranging and make-up. And running away from their sexually active wives and girlfriends. Something is causing a reversal of the roles of men and women in the town...very soon after Maurice began selling a new spring water. Meanwhile, Cal, the violinist who once attempted to kill Maurice is on the loose. Barbara comes to warn Maurice, who offers her some of his drinking water. As if she wasn't masculine enough.
The Mommy's Curse: Maggie's mother visits Cicely with a new beau. But when he falls dead on a pool table shortly after arriving in town, Maggie realises that her luck with men runs in the family. Elsewhere, Holling and Phil strike up a firm friendship over a boat, which leaves Maurice feeling somewhat jealous. For a man used to getting his own way, this leaves Maurice upset. And upset is just what Ruth-Anne and Walt are feeling when she asks him to help her out in her store. Walt isn't used to life indoors and Ruth-Anne isn't used to any help but from Ed. Their relationship, after so many happy days, is tested.
The Quest: There is a mix of the good and the bad awaiting the Capras. Chris sues Phil for malpractice while Michelle is commissioned to write a review of The Brick for Alaskan Highway magazine. Unfortunately, she can't find a good word to say about the food. Meanwhile, after more than five years, in which he enjoyed a conversation with Sigmund Freud, survived the O'Connell curse, found Adam, experienced the exhilaration of the midnight sun, watched the Aurora Borealis, helped Mike Monroe out of his bubble, hooked Cicely's very own Loch Ness Monster, found a thawed-out mammoth and, finally, left Cicely for a small village upriver, it's time for Joel Fleischman to leave. Discovering a map frozen in the ice, Joel asks Maggie to accompany him as he follows where it leads him but he's surprised at where it takes him.
Lucky People: Founder's Day is coming and as everyone prepares to celebrate Roslyn and Cicely putting the town on the map, Chris and Maggie open up an old shed and uncover, to their surprise, the founding mother's old Model T. As they set to work on restoring it, Chris finds that he has feelings for Maggie. Meanwhile, Phil and Michelle set their sights on building a house but have to contend with an lovestruck (and very confused) moose almost ruining their car. Finally, Maurice sees something of his late Uncle Elvy in Miranda and takes a financial interest in Holling and Shelly's little girl. Which isn't something they're entirely happy about.
The Graduate: Having stood gazing at it during the dying minutes of The Quest, Maggie buys the town's rundown movie theatre. "Welcome to show business!" she tells Maurice. But Maggie isn't ready for the stresses of life in the limelight, not least when Ed and Heather, who are helping out, are more interested in their relationship than making sure the movies are showing. Elsewhere, a couple of college professor's arrive in Cicely to gauge the oral component of Chris' master degree but have a falling out before he can be examined. Finally, a young Air Force pilot arrives in town and begins calling Holling his father. Shelly, who had only just gotten used to Holling having a thirtysomething daughter, is surprised.
Little Italy: Phil and Michelle go for a meal in Cicely, ending up in the town's Little Italy, which really is very little, being made up of three families, two of whom are involved in a feud. The meal is fabulous but their presence makes it look as though they've taken sides. Not a good thing for the town doctor. Meanwhile, Shelly and Holling hit a rocky patch, all over a new cash register, while Ruth-Anne appears on National Public Radio with stories about life in Cicely but finds it tough to stand up when everyone's a critic.
Balls: And they looked so happy. Phil and Michelle arrived in Cicely full of beans but when she proves herself better at bowling, he feels threatened. After an argument, he moves out! Still in the bowling lanes, Chris tells Maggie that she needs a new partner now that Fleischman has moved on...but is she ready for a new relationship? As Ed and Heather get closer - and they get very close on the sofa in front of Holling's television - her father offers to finance Ed's script but there is one condition and it appears that Lester might be making a point about Ed's relationship with his daughter.
Buss Stop: Ron and Erick return to Northern Exposure, which surely spells a musical or, at the very least, a stage production. Bus Stop? With Ron's financial backing, Erick gets a starring role in Michelle's production but petty jealousies threaten the success of the play, not least when everyone takes their art terribly seriously.
Ursa Minor: Or the little bear, something that Ed learns much about when he finds and cares for an abandoned cub. Maurice hopes that he can include Ed's adopted cub in Cicely's census as the population of the town appears to be falling. Such negative publicity has him driving into the Welcome To Cicely sign. Short of adding to it by involving himself with ladies of a child-bearing age, what can he do? Meanwhile, Chris finds a machine that he can use to control what happens in his dreams, something that he uses to work on the issues that he feels are present in his relationship with Maggie. And the problems that began in the bowling lanes continue to dog Phil and Michelle. She is still refusing to move back home.
Let's Dance: Maurice enjoys a late-night visit from Cal who asks that Maurice take him back to what Maurice calls a lollipop factory. But Cal has a plan. By returning of his own free will and with a positive report on his mental state by Phil Capra, the authorities will allow him to go free. Happy to be finally arresting Cal, Barbara Semanski transports him back to the mental hospital...but places his plan in jeopardy when she falls for his violin playing. Elsewhere, Chris takes dance lessons from Marilyn while Marilyn's mother, Mrs Whirlwind, is offended when Phil breaks tribal protocols. Every effort he makes to apologise simply makes things worse.
Tranquility Base: The last ever episode of Northern Exposure begins with Maurice welcoming Officer Barbara Semanski to his summer lodge and confiding in Ed that he plans on proposing to her that evening. It would be the perfect end to the series, would it not? Barbara doesn't think so and nor does Maurice, with the two of them falling out over her treatment of his guests. And her punching him in the face. But love is occupied elsewhere. Holling and Shelly lock themselves in their room when Holling announces that he is in rut, during which short season he mimics the mating characteristics of caribou. On account of spending so long in the woods with them. Phil and Michelle try and work out the problems in their marriage, helped by Ed and a rabbi who has parachuted into the gathering while Chris finds himself alone...but spends his time thinking about Maggie.
Thanks to Universal Pictures UK being so very generous with their season boxsets, I decided to hold out for the R2 set for Northern Exposure's last season. This, though, is a tale of two televisions. On one, a 28" CRT, this doesn't look particularly good but is manageable. It does sport an obvious NTSC-to-PAL conversion, with colours that are too some variable from scene-to-scene and an obvious softness to the picture. On a much bigger plasma screen, these faults are all the more obvious. What was a slight softness before is now much more of a problem and while the colours remain as peculiar as they were on the smaller set, the sharpness in the picture comes and goes. It doesn't help that the worst-looking episodes come early on in the season. Things do get a little better come the third disc, when, by some coincidence, the quality of the drama also improves but it's hard to leave the state of those early episodes behind. Although I don't have the R1 set to hand, past experience would have it that it is (probably) a much better-looking set and, out of the option of one over the other, history would direct me towards picking up the R1 set. That said, none of the other R2 releases with the exception of Season 1, have looked this bad. This could be very much better.
The DD2.0 audio track is on a par with those of earlier seasons and really doesn't come with any noticeable problems. There is a small amount of background noise if you listen carefully and a little of the dialogue does get lost at times, particularly names and places, but it, more often than not, a fine listen. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles for this set.
The only bonus material in this set are Deleted Scenes, which are available for most of the episodes in the boxset and are spread over all six discs. By this stage, the producers of Northern Exposure were running a tight-knit schedule and little was being left to chance. As such, each set of Deleted Scenes lasts only two minutes or thereabouts and really doesn't add anything to the final cut of each episode. However, for offering a sense of completeness to the show's final season, one ought not to pass these by, particularly as they do have that peculiar Northern Exposure view on life ingrained within them.
The Last Word
Reviewing these boxsets of Northern Exposure has been one of the treats that DVD Times occasionally affords. If I haven't said very much about the actual season beyond the endings, well, DVD Times (and their suppliers) have afforded me ample opportunity over the last couple of years to say a good deal about Northern Exposure. Perhaps not everything but, then again, there is such magic in Northern Exposure that I freely admit to being unable to do justice to here. The best way to experience it is simply to watch it.