Northern Exposure: Season 4 Review
It's probably fair to say that, with the odd exception, we've seen the back of artists being given time and, more importantly, the money to develop and hone their talent. Where once the Rolling Stones were permitted several albums worth of recording old blues numbers before their writing of Satisfaction, we now consign a band to the dumper if their second album isn't quite on a par with their debut. Similarly, where Francis Ford Coppola was once content to turn out the likes of Dementia 13 for Roger Corman before the likes of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, he'd now have trouble having his phone calls accepted where he to take an equally lengthy apprenticeship.
Television is, of course, no different with both ITV and the BBC directing failing shows to the graveyard slots after only one or two episodes. In fact, it's all the more dispiriting when it occurs on television as, with the nature of shows, word of mouth can take some time to take effect or, more commonly, a show can take a few episodes to hit its stride. Good though the opening episode of Life on Mars was, it was only seeing Manchester's finest of '73 chasing a criminal wearing only their bri-nylon swimming shorts accompanied by the sound of Wings' Live And Let Die that made the concept really work.
As for Northern Exposure, it was only with the third season that the show actually came together. Given that it works around three basic themes - the fish-out-of-water story about Fleischman, the will-they-won't-they Fleischman/O'Connell romance and the general eccentricities of the rest of the cast - it's easy to argue that at least one of those had no place in the show so long as either character was in a relationship and it took until the end of Season 2 for that to happen. Firstly, it took Elaine breaking things off with Joel in Goodbye to All That, whilst a falling satellite put paid to Rick and Maggie in Slow Dance. Therefore, it was only with the third season that Northern Exposure actually got underway and it's probably no accident that of the first three seasons, it's clearly the best.
Again, though, the length of the third season did much for its success with it offering much more variety and being less interested in just the Fleischman/O'Connell relationship. Hence stories like the Holling/Murice-starring Three Amigos, Ed in Things Become Extinct and Maggie in Burning Down The House. Like that third season, this fourth one comes in at twenty-five episodes and takes the main themes of Northern Exposure one step further. With the third season seeing Joel and Maggie carefully stepping around one another, this fourth one offers O'Connell the chance of love with the arrival in Cicely of Mike Monroe (Anthony Edwards), a bubble-dwelling lawyer who's been diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivity. A masterstroke by the producers, the arrival of Monroe stopped Northern Exposure dragging out the Fleischman/O'Connell yet further by adding a third axis and the risk that, as much as he appears to dislike her, Joel may lose Maggie to this new arrival.
Elsewhere, the sharing-out of the storylines that was begun properly in Season 3 continues here, if anything better than it was the year before. The producers take care to warn the viewers that the main cast may not be permanent as an Alaskan state trooper (Office Semanski) shows up in Cicely to put Chris back in prison over a parole violation (Crime and Punishment). Otherwise, there's more of Maurice and his Korean son, including his marriage to a woman Maurice suspects of being the daughter of the North Korean Colonel Pak Soon Ye, who is better known as the butcher of Yangdok and of Ed, who sets out to dub The Prisoner of Zenda into Tlingit (both Sleeping With the Enemy) and has Fellini-esque visions of grotesques (On Your Own). Holling and Shelly remain together but their relationship is tested by the return of his crooked daughter and of Shelly losing her speaking voice in the episode Old Tree but who finds that she can still sing. Finally, the Flying Man returns to Cicely, still hoping, in spite of his silence, to win Marilyn's affection (On Your Own again). And, of course being Northern Exposure, there's a good deal of interference from nature, not least by the midnight sun in the episode of the same name, by the endless night in Northern Lights and by the death of Vicky in Old Tree.
All that said, there's probably no moment that sums it up better than when Mike Monroe walks down the main street in Cicely in the episode Blowing Bubbles wearing an old space suit of Maurice Minnifield's accompanied by Maggie, his new best friend. Enjoying disparaging glances from Joel Fleischman - that will-they/won't-they relationship that he has with Maggie - Monroe enjoys life outside of his bubble within the safety of an airtight suit, safe from the environmental toxins that he's found himself allergic to. Followed by kids, waved at by the locals and even greeted warmly by the conservative Maurice, the sight of a spaceman in this small Alaskan town ought to be out of the ordinary but doesn't feel so here. More that it's written and portrayed as warm, funny and sweet, notes that are often hit by Northern Exposure almost without effort.
In all, Season 4 treads ground familiar to those who enjoyed Season 3 but such is the way with television shows that hit on a successful formula. Granted that it took Northern Exposure longer than one might have expected but with Season 3 it got there in the end. One doubts, though, if it would have been given a similarly long lead now.
Northwest Passages (45m21s): Marilyn wants to learn to drive and after she turns Joel down, she accepts offers from Ruth-Anne, who's terrified by the experience, and from Chris who uses his time in the passenger seat to expound upon the Zen of driving. Elsewhere, as Maggie turns 30, she must come to terms with reaching a year that Maurice describes as leaving youth behind and entering the middle years. As she camps out in the woods, sending letters to those in her past down the big river but as she wakes the next morning, she finds the ghosts of her boyfriends having a picnic in the woods and they're not happy with what she's written about them.
Midnight Sun (46m27s): As the nighttime darkness disappears and the sun refuses to set, Joel finds himself with a boundless amount of energy. And horny. He can't do much with one but he can work off some of the other by taking on the coaching of Cicely's basketball team. Joel isn't the only one feeling aroused, though, as Shelly's cheerleading outfit proves to be a distracting influence on Holling, who isn't the only one with love on his mind as a travelling salesman comes to Cicely and begins romancing Ruth-Anne.
Nothing's Perfect (46m24s): Maurice ponders the influence of time when he buys a unique but very expensive mechanical clock, which, he's disappointed to learn, looks wonderful but doesn't keep perfect time. Meanwhile, Chris Stevens becomes an influence of a different kind when he runs over a dog and falls in love with the owner, a pet-loving mathematician. He fears the relationship may not last, though, when he also kills one of her birds and finds himself allergic to cats.
Heroes (46m46s): Heroes of a different kind come to Cicely as it's visited both by a Brad Bonner, a rock star played by Adam Ant, and by Tooley, Chris' mentor. To his surprise, Tooley hasn't arrived as Chris might have expected but, instead, is dead and in a plywood coffin. As Cicely's younger residents, particularly Shelly, get distracted by Bonner, who asks Ed to film him playing a festival with some Indian drummers, Chris wonders how best to remember Tooley, to eulogise him and to send him into the next world but not before a biblical last supper and Bob Seger.
Blowing Bubbles (46m15s): Outside of Cicely, former lawyer Mike Monroe lives in a plastic bubble, confined to its sterile environment over multiple allergies. When Joel diagnoses him as crazy, Maggie wonders if someone dismissed by Joel is worth getting to know and so drives out to the bubble, finding that, as she suspected, she rather likes him. Meanwhile, Matthew, Ruth-Anne's son, comes to visit after being let go by his employer, a Wall Street investment bank. Tired of the cut-and-thrust of corporate life, Matthew considers moving back to Cicely to open a tackle shop but when Maurice, inspired by Mike Monroe, begins talking about investing in making Cicely a health resort, Matthew can't quite help himself.
On Your Own (46m32s): Love of different kinds is arrives in Cicely, as do the New Perception Players who are putting on a show at the Brick. First, there's a father's love for his son as Maurice asks Mike Monroe to alter his will so to include Duk Won in his will. But mostly there's romantic love between Maggie and Mike, whose friendship is deepening, and from the Flying Man, who's returned to Cicely still in pursuit of Marilyn's affections. Meanwhile, after finding a ring engraved F.F. within a fish that he'd caught, Ed believes himself possessed by the spirit of Federico Fellini, which is only a taster for the crowd of grotesques that pursue him through Cicely.
The Bad Seed (46m29s): Holling comes clean on the Vincoeur's bad stock when a woman arrives in Cicely claiming to be his daughter. Disappointed that Holling never told her the truth, Shelly begins hanging out with Jackie Vincoeur, much to Holling's discomfort. Meanwhile, Marilyn decides that it's time to move out of her mother's house and asks Maggie to find her a new home. Maggie takes more of an interest in this job than most, largely to do with Marilyn moving in with her but as Maggie finds out, Ms Whirlwind's dream home may not be so very far away.
Thanksgiving (46m30s): It's Thanksgiving and even Joel is happy, saying that it's the one feast that's inclusive to all religions and races. At least it was but a ripe tomato hitting him squarely in the chest put paid to that misconception as he learns that it's customary for Indians to throw tomatoes at white people on Thanksgiving as a way of venting their anger over years of being persecuted. Much as Joel tries hard to reason with anyone bearing a tomato - reminding them that he's not really white, actually Jewish - he sees the day getting worse when the state of Alaska write to him telling him that due to inflation he owes them another year. Depressed, alone and soaked in tomato juice, not even sleep offers him a refuge as he visits Sisyphus, who gratefully accepts Joel's offer of assistance.
Do the Right Thing (46m26s): Victor Bobrov (David Hemmings) visits Cicely, making one call only and that is to Maurice Minnifield. Ex-Soviet spy Bobrov has with him the KGB file on Maurice and is offering it to the ex-astronaut if the price is right. With Maurice being as rich as he is, Bobrov's in luck but that doesn't stop him hawking various items of Russian memorabilia around Cicely, including Kruschkev's shoe, "the one he banged at the UN!" Nor does it stop Maurice worrying when his file portrays him as a traitor. Elsewhere, Maggie worries about her mortality when a fellow pilot is killed on a trip she was to take, whilst the Brick is the subject of a public health inspection from an inspector who, to Holling's horror, once closed down his father's restaurant.
Crime and Punishment (46m21s): Chris' half-brother Bernard arrives in town but so too does a state trooper, in town to arrest Christ for skipping parole in his West Virginia home. As the judge arrives, Chris plans on pleading guilty but Mike Monroe, who's hired by Maurice on account of him not wanting to lose the KBHR DJ, argues that the Chris Stevens who left West Virginia is not the same Christ Stevens who currently lives in Alaska. Despite photographic and fingerprint evidence to the contrary, Mike ploughs ahead, finding that the judge, if not sympathetic, is at least prepared to listen.
Survival of the Species (46m44s): A 12-year-old kid arrives at the Brick and offers to work there to pay for his room and board but, to Holling's discomfort, falls in love with Shelly. As Ed worries about the future of the planet - he may well have been listening to Mike Monroe - Maggie finds some Indian artifacts buried in her garden and begins fretting about male attitudes to womankind. With Fleischman taking the brunt of her feminist anger, she dreams of walking in the woods just before sunset...in her best red, hooded cloak and of a meeting with a wolf.
Revelations (46m19s): Although a priest already, Chris books time at a monastery for some quiet contemplation but is surprised to find himself falling for Brother Simon, a monk who's taken a vow of silence. As a DJ, Chris can't quite comprehend silence. As Joel worries about two weeks in which no one feels sick, Ruth-Anne pays off her mortgage on her store, leaving Maurice, who was her lender, at something of a loose end. As Ruth-Anne begins making changes, including repainting it, she and Maurice fall out, leaving a distraught Ed caught between the two.
Duets (46m24s): One-Who-Waits, Ed's spirit guide, returns with news of his father. As Ed accompanies him to the building site where his father works, he gets a job and gets closer to the man who abandoned him when he was just a baby but just can't bring himself to tell his father who he is. Elsewhere, Maggie holds off Mike's advances by telling him that she's cursed and Holling has a blind man tune the piano in the Brick but rues the day that he let him in when he's not what Holling expected.
Grosse Point, 4823 (45m57s): Invited to Michigan for her grandmother's 80th birthday party, Maggie persuades Joel to accompany her posing as her boyfriend, using a pair of Pistons vs Knicks tickets as bait. When they arrive, though, Maggie's grandmother has locked herself in the bathroom and will only let Maggie in to speak to her. As Joel frets about the basketball game, it's left to him to sort out the various crises in Maggie's family, none of which he was expecting.
Learning Curve (45m59s): As Holling goes back to school to get his high-school diploma - Shelly encourages him by quoting the Fresh Prince, "Don't be a fool / Stay in school!" - Marilyn plans a holiday in Seattle. Or, at least she tries to plan it but Joel rather takes over. But when she doesn't arrive at the hotel Fleischman had booked for her, the worried doctor flies down to Seattle to make sure she's safe, concerned that the warring gangs may have pushed her onto the monorail track for her savings.
Ill Wind (46m12s): Forget El Nino, Alaska's own freak wind, the Coho, is blowing through Cicely and the thoughts of the normally peaceful residents of the town turn to violence. Despite Maggie breaking his nose twice - both times in the Brick - they make up by having sex in a barn. Elsewhere, a flock of sheep also blow through the town, albeit more slowly than the Coho, after which the shepherd calls in to talk to the locals whilst Maurice has much to talk to Chris about after the DJ saves him from falling off a roof. Maurice, having survived space, doesn't feel that he needs to be saved from so small a thing as falling off a building.
Love's Labour Mislaid (46m14s): With the Coho having blown itself out, love now pays a visit to Cicely with Ed's Uncle Anku arriving to tell Ed that he ought to get married. Busy arranging a marriage for his nephew, Anku can't quite see what Ed can - that the future Mrs Chigliak is actually in love with another. Love, however, hasn't visited Joel and Maggie, with O'Connell unable to remember having sex with Fleischman despite their announcing it in the Brick. His feelings hurt, Joel can't quite understand if she's blanking him or it's that he just wasn't particularly memorable.
Northern Lights (46m45s): Having already had the midnight sun, Cicely now experiences days of unrelenting darkness with the sun now rising at 4.02 and setting again at 4.48. Holling hibernates, Chris sculpts and, shivering in his office, Joel plans on getting away from it all with a two-week holiday in the Caribbean. Of course, whether the victim of a great cosmic joke that he doesn't quite get or simply working for the state of Alaska, Joel's holiday request is denied. Joel goes on strike but the residents of Cicely, who are without a doctor, strike right back.
Family Feud (46m01s): Shelly is visited by dancers - ballerinas in the main street, a tap dancer in Joel's office and a flamenco dancer in the Brick but the solution comes as a surprise to her and Holling. Elsewhere, rivalries flare up between the Bear and the Raven clans after the unveiling of a new totem. Turns out that Bear clan have taken offence at a couple of fish on the totem, which have something to do with the finding of a coffee jar full of money. Or it may have been embezzlement, depending on who you believe.
Homesick (45m50s): A house rumbles into Cicely on the back of a truck...the Minnifield childhood home. Wandering through it, Maurice is haunted by memories of the past. But as one home arrives, another leaves. With her relationship with Mike settling down into something typical of that between a man and a woman, Maggie thinks that she have finally overcome her curse, particularly when Mike shows signs of getting better. But just as they celebrate with a pizza, he announces he's leaving.
The Big Feast (46m03s): To celebrate twenty-five years of Minnifield Communications, Maurice throws a huge party for everyone in the town...except Joel. As he bears up under the thought of the kind of party a celebratory Maurice might throw, the whole town is bustling. But as the party approaches, there's a disaster in the kitchen as the chef walks out and it takes an old friend, his hypochondriac wife and their little boy, Aldrich, to save the day.
Kaddish, For Uncle Manny (46m35s): The Miller boys - all two of them - arrive in Alaska in search of Chris. Seeing as how he managed to dodge extradition back to West Virginia, which they had something of a hand in, they arrive to settle the Miller/Stevens feud. Bernard's shocked but Chris announces himself pumped by the thought of warm blood on his fist. But there's bad news at the surgery when Joel receives a phone call telling him that his uncle Manny has passed away. Not wanting Joel to mourn alone, Maurice says that he needs nine more Jews to pray for Manny and so dispatches the residents of Cicely in search of Jews, each one assigned an area of land and the task of finding 0.67 Jews in each sector to make up the ten.
Mud and Blood (46m04s): The snow is melting as spring comes to Cicely, as do the mosquitoes. But such is a time for celebration with the upcoming Mosquito Festival, for which Chris has bought a pig to root out truffles but who may end up as the main course at the festival. After saving Dave's life, curing Mike of his MCS and not getting bitten once by a mosquito, the Cicelians believe that Maggie has the gift of healing. Finally, Holling pays to sow seeds, something that he's obviously been doing well when Shelly announces that she's pregnant.
Sleeping With the Enemy (46m31s): Shelly's a month pregnant and Holling's already complaining about his juices being backed up, something Chris can well understand having spent time inside. As Holling struggles, so too does Ed but his efforts are in trying to keep the language of Tlingit alive, by dubbing The Prisoner of Zenda. Meanwhile, Maurice welcomes Duk Won into his home once again, this time with his fiancee, Pak Soon Ae and in search of his father's blessing. With Duk Won saying that he does not want for money, Maurice is happy to bestow his blessings upon them but then he learns that his future daughter-in-law is the son of North Korean Colonel Pak Soon Ye, better known as the butcher of Yangdok.
Old Tree (46m00s): Out caddying for Joel, Ed notices that Old Vicky, Cicely's oldest tree is dying. Whilst not a tree doctor, the Cicelians ask Joel for a diagnosis, who's put under pressure by Maurice, who wants to tear it down. Meanwhile, Shelly loses her speaking voice but is still able to sing and whilst Maggie's caring had a positive effect on Mike, her being pleasant to Joel has the adverse effect of him keeping on getting injured.
This fourth season DVD of Northern Exposure is up to the standard set by Universal on the three earlier Region 1 releases, with a picture that's bright, sharp and full of detail. Once again, it's worth saying that this, and the other Region 1 releases, are a world away from the old release of Season 1 on Region 2 DVD, even that they're slightly better than the new Region 2 releases. For a television show, this looks great and the stereo soundtrack is just as good, sounding warm and clean. There are English subtitles for each episode and although this release uses Universal DVD-18s, I have not had a problem on my usual equipment that's shown issues with them on other releases.
As with the earlier season releases in Region 1, this Season 4 boxset comes with a selection of Deleted Scenes and Gag Reels spread over five sides of the three discs, with only the first five episodes not getting some kind of bonus treatment. Nothing that can be described as extra footage lasts for very long - the average is about a minute or so - and neither can it be described as essential with none of the stories suffering for lack of it. Finally, there is a set of promos in their pre-edited versions on Side B of the third disc, none of which last for more than a minute.
Much like, as Maggie did in the opening episode of this season, turning thirty and already feeling that your best is behind you, I probably wrote the best closing paragraph for a Northern Exposure DVD release that I could have done when reviewing Season 3. All that about the collective unconscious, Willie Nelson and the closing music from Three Amigos. This review, then, is undoubtedly going to be something of a disappointment, quite unlike this season of Northern Exposure, which is as funny, warm and quirky as the show ever was.
It isn't, though, quite up to the standard of Season 3, mainly due to the presence of Mike Monroe. Though he added some space to the Fleischman/O'Connell relationship, his frequent pronouncements on the state of the environment are, for Northern Exposure, clumsily explicit and not really what the show was about. Thankfully, these moments are rare and one can look past them without effort, leaving this a season of quality episodes, presented very well on DVD.