Northern Exposure: Season 5 Review
Like any show, Northern Exposure had, by this fifth season, become overly familiar with its own rules of storytelling, the fairy tales for grown-up as producers Joshua Brand and John Falsey had first described it. Back in the very first season, the sight of the Aurora Borealis had drawn Adam out of his hiding place, given Chris Stevens inspiration for a sculpture and called Bernard to Cicely with dreams of Carl Jung driving a truck. There, Chris had said, "...knowing how we've been tossing and turning these past few nights for fear of where our dreams may be taking us." It may be an act of paying homage to itself or a continuation of that early storyline but when in this season, in the episode Mr Sandman, the northern lights return and toss the Cicelian's dreams about the town, it feels more like the show finally running out of ideas. Similarly, that first snowfall of the winter, in the episode First Snow, looks oddly similar to the Christmas Eve blizzard in Seoul Mates, whilst the themes of spring are not dissimilar to those in the second season of Northern Exposure.
Actually, though, Northern Exposure always had a surfeit of ideas, so it isn't that which had this viewer worried. Instead, it was the show finally admitting that a will-they-won't-they romance eventually has to end with a they-do! Maggie O'Connell and Joel Fleischman, having bickered from the day that he arrived in Cicely and having already slept together, finally dated and agreed to something resembling a relationship. It ought to go without saying just how much of a disappointing development this was but, to clarify, a fair amount of the pleasure one got from the first four seasons of Northern Exposure was in the squabbling between O'Connell and Fleischman and with this gone - they're actually nice to each other for a fair amount of the running time of this season - it becomes a less interesting show. Ironically, there's an episode in which Fleischman's acts of kindness towards Maggie makes her physically sick. The makers should have spared a thought for the audience.
However, what's most noticeable about this fifth season is that it's not quite as magical as earlier ones. There are some wonderful moments but where the first three seasons had them in such numbers that whole episodes were magical, this fifth season has only minutes here and there that one could describe as magical. Adam, from being a mythical creature Cicelians once only spoke in hushed tones about, now hosts dinner parties whilst Chris Stevens pulls in his more philosophical urges, replacing them with chatter about the population of the town. That said, there are familiar themes and not only those of the northern lights. An evil spirit taunts Ed, Chris continues to sculpt in between rock, blues and jazz on KBHR and Maurice Minnifield goes on making money even in these far reaches of this most northerly state. The big story arc of this season is the birth of Miranda, the daughter of Shelly and Holling, which provides two of the season's best moments, one in which Shelly gets to know her unborn child through meeting her at various stages in her growing up at the laundromat and Holling getting drunk and arguing theology with the priest who's travelled to Cicely to baptise the baby girl.
The more one looks back over this season, the more one realises that it's the first in which Joel and Maggie are no longer the principal characters in the show. Ed has the most development as he goes from script writing hopeful to shaman whilst Maurice has the bulk of the best ideas in the script, from his buying of a rare violin, which drives a musician insane, the burning of his house, his efforts on the blood drive or his attempt to build Maggie's plane, the scriptwriters turn to him time and again to bring some invention to the show. Unfortunately, they look to have lost interest somewhat in Joel, Maggie and, to a lesser extent, Chris. Finally, recognising that the show does need an eccentric and accepting that Mike Monroe did indeed leave at the end of the fourth season, they bring in Walt, who's hard to get to know but gives the season much of its comedy, from his blowing up of a mammoth to stock his freezer, his prickly love affair with Ruth-Anne and to his addiction to a light-mask. Invariably, one welcomes Walt onscreen in the hope that comedy will follow.
However, it is worth saying that this is still one of the very best shows that has ever been produced for television and does at least contain more than a handful of moments that become lost in their own magic. Many other shows running for a season of twenty-four episodes would not contain one such moment but Northern Exposure has enough to keep one happy. What's clear, though, is that the best days of the show were behind it. But like so many that have their bickering leads fall in love, this fifth season simply left an audience counting down the episodes until the show bid them farewell.
Three Doctors (45m54s): Like Dumbo before him, Ed wakes up sitting up a tree with no memory of how he got there. Unlike Dumbo, however, there was no abuse of alcohol and Ed's still wearing his pyjamas! Calling Maurice to help him down with a ladder, Ed wonders if his flying in his sleep is a suggestion of some greater purpose. Could there be a higher purpose to waking up on top of the Brick? But that isn't the only suggestion of medical problems in Cicely - Shelly loses her singing voice and Joel complains of pinpricks in his nose, feelings of tenderness in his groin and nausea at the suggestion of eating shrimp. Glacier dropsy, tundra fever or Yukon ague...however you call it, it's what Joel has and something that he's gotta ride out. But while he's laid up, who's looking after his patients?
The Mystery of the Old Curio Shop (45m45s): Most of us would, I'm sure, be flattered at getting a discount at the theatre but not so Maurice, who takes offence when he's offered a senior citizen discount after inviting Ed to the cinema. However, after suffering a mild heart attack and taking a good look at his friends, all of whom have already seen their best days pass them by, could age finally be catching up with this all-American hero? Meanwhile, Maggie stumbles on an odd antique shop when out looking for a present for her father but finds that they don't want to sell her anything that she wants. It's something of a mystery, leaving Maggie dreaming of being Nancy Drew. Joel is wondering too...wondering about the origins of the local language of Tlinkit when he hears a Yiddish word being spoken.
Jaws of Life (45m35s): Maurice receives a pair of eyes in the post. Now such a thing might concern you or I but not Maurice. Indeed, he's quite pleased at that turn of events for he's been chosen by Madame Tussaud's to be cast in wax and placed alongside Ross Perot, Bob Abplanalp and Akio Morita in an exhibit titled Rugged Individualists of the 20th Century. However, Maurice being immortalised in wax is not the minds of most Cecilians, least not when the dentist calls in on his annual visit and Joel breaks some bad news to Chris...he's going to live longer than he'd ever expected to. Uncommonly, that sends him on something of a health kick.
Altered Egos (45m25s): At first, they only shared a trailer but soon found themselves with not only dreams in common but a father. However, when Bernard returns to Cicely, arriving with a new love, he and Chris are surprised when she says that she lived with him for six months during his journey up to Alaska. However, more troubling to Stevens is that she claims that he and Bernard are no different in bed. Elsewhere, Joel drops his wallet and, though nothing is missing, worries that he's losing his New York edge, telling Ed that he'd survived the Big Apple without losing so much as a dime but drops his entire wallet in Cicely. Worse is to come when he sits out on a porch having a conversation about balaclavas! Meanwhile, love is in the air but is its arrow true. Or is Marilyn looking through the patient's medical records in search of a date?
A River Doesn't Run Through It (45m26s): Maggie O'Connell, standing at that moment with oil on her face and in her boiler suit, is flattered to be asked, by a young Jack Black no less, to be the high school's homecoming queen. But at 31, Maggie doesn't feel like homecoming queen material, less so when her 17-year-old date describes her as looking lonely. Meanwhile, Ruth-Anne is being investigated by a IRS auditor who's having problems in her marriage and wonders if it's something to take advantage of. First of all, though, she must get away with her habit of accepting goods in lieu of payment. Something that, unsurprisingly, doesn't go down well with the IRS.
Birds of a Feather (45m25s): Cicely has a way of affecting everyone and no less so Mr and Mrs Fleischman, being Joel's parents, when they visit. Whilst his father's hard-bitten, know-it-all attitude soon grates, moreso than it ever did in New York, Joel is surprised on seeing his mother fall in love with nature, even in her striking up a close friendship with Marilyn. Meanwhile, Shelly wonders about the future of her son or daughter. Not, as you or I might do, about the age difference between its mother and father but about its future as an athlete. When Shelly receives another package in the mail from her mother, Holling looks upset but less so at the troll-mobile than the baseball glove that's in there as well. Turns out that Holling isn't much of a sports fan.
Rosebud (45m21s): It worked for Sundance, so Maurice looks to Ed to use his Hollywood contacts to hustle up a film festival. As is his way, Maurice has his eyes on the bigger picture, thinking a hotel, coffee shops and restaurants but Ed can't seem to pull things together to keep Maurice sufficiently happy. Asking Leonard for advice doesn't help, saying of Pauline Kael that, "We butt heads over Bertolucci!" But Leonard has his own problems, becoming frustrated when he looks into healing in white culture. It may be that Holling and Shelly aren't the best place to start asking. Elsewhere, Ruth-Anne asks Joel to join the volunteer fire service but he declines. There is, though, some justice when his truck catches fire and no one comes to his aid!
Heal Thyself (45m46s): After being called to be a shaman, Ed goes on his first house call with Leonard. In spite of being woken in the middle of the night, Ed sees that things go well but then finds himself taunted by an evil spirit, who leaves Ed wondering if that first flush of success will descend into failure. Meanwhile, Maggie gains a washing machine but loses her friends at the laundromat whilst Joel hosts a child birthing class, which goes perfectly well except for Holling giggling throughout. Not only is Shelly embarrassed but another couple breaks up over his wisecracks. Even with his New York attitude, that isn't something Joel had planned on.
A Cup of Joe (45m18s): Chris is planning on becoming a pilot, even taking to air with Maggie to get extra tuition. But when he panics during the written test, he wonders if being a pilot might be the one thing that will remain out of his reach. Maurice agrees, saying that a flake like Stevens won't stand a chance but Maggie isn't convinced and aims to help him through it. The bet that she has with Maurice may have something to do with it. Elsewhere, there's a touch of Ravenous in Cicely, which leads to a falling out between Holling and Ruth-Anne. It turns out that the grandfather of one ate the same of the other during the great blizzard of 1897!
First Snow (45m24s): Cicely is getting ready for winter, awaiting the first snowfall of the season. Unfortunately, given the aging population of the town, not everyone will see the season through, leaving Joel and Holling trying to figure out how many plots to dig in the cemetery before the ground freezes hard. It's an unenviable task and the two men take to it with all the enthusiasm of their planning their own funerals, particularly when an otherwise healthy woman tells Joel that she'll be dead next few weeks. Meanwhile, Shelly and Maurice fall out over a stroll down memory lane - she believes her nose is growing over the lies that she told him during their short relationship - whilst Maggie redecorates but buys a chair that no one much likes. Except, that is, for Joel. Is the chair trying to tell her something?
Baby Blues (45m44s): Childbirth should be a wonderful experience but even the most ardent sexists will admit that it's a painful one. Shelly finds out just how excruciating it might be when, during her baby shower, all the other mothers in Cicely tell her their own experiences of childbirth. With all of the pressures of motherhood hitting her at once, she panics! Meanwhile, Joel and Maggie talk about parenthood, revealing that neither of them like children very much...something else they have in common? Finally, Ed must deal with his own baby when a Hollywood agent comes to town to talk about his script for The Shamen? Unfortunately, he wants to make some changes, something Ed isn't very happy about but, if he agrees to them, is this the break that he needs?
Mr Sandman (45m49s): The Northern Lights flicker in the skies over Cicely and, as they always do, they have a strange effect on the people of the town. Once before, they drew Adam out of hiding but this time, they leave dreams being swapped and secrets revealed. Maggie dreams of driving a talking dog around Quebec, Maurice loses his dream of black stilettoes and blue pumps and Joel sleepwalks looking for sweets. Before this goes too far, Chris organises a match-up service on KBHR to get the dreams back to their proper owners.
Mite Makes Right (45m16s): Joel and Maggie's date out to be a big event in Cicely, so long has it taken to pass, but tiny things come between them when they argue about dust mites. Joel doesn't really mind them whilst Maggie, who's just been successful in ridding her house of them, claims to have an allergy to them. With her home now free of dust mites, she's terrified of kissing Fleischman in case he brings them back in with him! Elsewhere, somewhere outside of Cicely, Maurice enjoys an evening of classical music but when he buys a $1.6m violin as an investment, a musician - Cal Ingraham - attempts to stop him storing it away in his safe awaiting the time he can make a decent profit on it.
A Bolt From the Blue (45m19s): The last time Joel visited the fire tower, he ended up staying the night with Adam! Things are no different this time around, with Joel going back into the forest and Adam emerging from it, with one talking a newly unemployed fire ranger down from a tower and helping him adjust to the company of others whilst the other attempts to ruin the President's Day fireworks display. In spite of Maurice only hiring the best - the D'Angelos had previously done one of Liz Taylor's weddings - Adam's convinced they're Contra rebels with connections to the mob. Adam breaks in to Maurice's home to tell him! Getting away from it all, Chris and Ed leave Cicely for a fishing trip but Ed experiences the, "Why me?" feeling when he gets struck by lightning.
Hello, I Love You (45m49s): Things in Cicely aren't going anywhere. Shelly is two weeks overdue with there being no sign of labour. Joel and Maggie, having tested the waters between them with their date, feel frustrated when their relationship struggles to get off the ground whilst Ruth-Anne and Walt, out on a shopping trip together, get stuck when their truck stalls. Each of them struggle in their own way but only Shelly is visited by her unborn child in the cleaners, figuring her out through childhood, the difficult teenage years and the twentysomethings before needing a quick trip home in the company of Dr Fleischman!
Northern Hospitality (48m56s): ...or the lack of it with the grumbling over his lack of entertaining his friends finally getting to Joel. Or it may be that Adam, who's hosting the latest Cicelian get-together, is less than subtle on such matters. So when Fleischman gets around to organising a dinner party, things don't go at all well. So bad, in fact, that he might well have poisoned his guests! Meanwhile, Shelly worries about who little Randi is when Holling announces that, long ago, he'd given up his Canadian citizenship. Shelly runs off east with Holling in hot pursuit. Finally, Christ receives some bad news when someone kills himself whilst listening to his show. Only happy tunes from this point on!
Una Volta in L'Inverno (45m22s): Joel dreams of a Family Practitioner conference. Or rather, he dreams of one where every other attendee is female and dressed only in a swimsuit and stethoscope! Unfortunately, the reality is that he's stranded at an airfield shack with O'Connell but, as their relationship blooms, even that has its advantages. Until Ed shows up... Meanwhile, the lack of sunlight finally gets to Walt when he admits depression. Picking up a pair of light glasses, he finds that he can't give them up, finally admitting to an addiction. Chris and Holling intervene for Walt's own good, fighting through the caribou on the main street to save him!
Fish Story (45m39s): Everyone snaps eventually, feeling the need to work it out on their own. However, this year's Cicelian-under-pressure is Ruth-Anne, who gets tired of the demands of her customers and steals Chris' Harley to join a biker gang. There's some poetic justice in that it was Chris' late-night search for crisps that drove her to it. Meanwhile, Holling works out his artistic tendencies with painting-by-numbers sets but thinks about giving up when Maurice laughs at him! Finally, the lake draws a crowd when Joel hooks Cicely's own Loch Ness Monster, Goony! But Goony won't be laid to rest, least not when Joel is taken for a midnight ride by the fish to meet his rabbi!
The Gift of the Maggie (45m25s): Normally, Maurice gets by perfectly well on his own but when his home catches fire and it's found to contain asbestos, he's forced to evacuate. He dreams of Bali but accepts room and board at The Brick. However, despite his offer of rent, Maurice is flatly refused by his old friend Holling, which upsets him almost as much as the explosion in his home. Meanwhile, Chris goes hunting but refuses to take an easy shot at a deer. When he gets back home, he finds a bottle of Buckhorn Sour Mash sitting on the step of his trailer. A case of, as Chris calls it, karmic quid pro quo? Finally, Fleischman makes a medical discovery but has no one to share it with. Maggie, doing the decent thing, brings another doctor to Cicely to let him talk shop.
A Wing and a Prayer (46m18s): Out one morning, Ed peeks through Ruth-Anne's window and sees her making breakfast for Walt. That she's in her dressing-gown and he's in his long-johns means that he must have stayed the night...but no one knew about the relationship. With Ed finding it hard to keep his lips shut, he begins to gossip, upsetting Ruth-Anne as he does so. Meanwhile, Maggie gets a new place - a home kit that she's got to build - and hires Maurice to help build it. But his attention to detail gets to her and she fires him! There's also something worrying Shelly when Father McKerry arrives to baptise Randi and she gets concerned about what might happen when the Catholic priest meets the agnostic Holling.
I Feel the Earth Move (45m26s): After a baptism comes a wedding, this time that of Ron and Erick. Unfortunately, they find that, like so many other couples, their relationship is strained by the pressure of preparing of their big day. They bicker and argue and Holling doesn't help matters when he cuts corners on the catering. However, his substitutions on the menu don't quite match Ron and Erick's expectations. Dubuque honey-baked ham instead of prosciutto? Canned apricots instead of casaba melons? Chicken liver paté instead of foie gras? Still on the subject of the wedding, Maurice, who's never been happy at the relationship, tries to get out of attending. Elsewhere, Maggie begins feeling sick, not lovesick you understand, more a nausea that comes with each act of kindness from Fleischman!
Grand Prix (45m26s): This year's sporting event is being organised by Maurice, who's intent on bringing wheelchair racing to Cicely! But in spite of the spirit of fun about the event - Chris reminds everyone that losers are just as vital in a race as the winner - Maurice puts too much pressure on his own contestant. When another contestant goes to Ed for help with the healing of her tennis elbow, she suffers from a rash due, Ed thinks, to her treatment. Suffering yet more doubts, the little green man returns to taunt him!
Blood Ties (45m19s): It's blood week in Cicely. Sweeney Todd is playing on the radio, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave is in the cinema and there's a blood drive going on, sponsored by Maurice. But in spite of his promoting it, Chris is steering clear of the blood drive, claiming that he feels squeamish about needles. But Maurice isn't going to let him away with it, at least not when he has a bet on with the neighbouring town of Cantwell that Cicely will raise more blood in their drive. However, with Maurice getting close to their target, Joel finds it hard to draw any more blood. Joel is also on the mind of a visitor to Cicely, an old boyfriend of Maggie who's come back for her and offers Joel $30,000 to leave. But is that what he wants?
Lovers and Madmen (46m00s): It's being building all year - five years actually - but we've finally reached the point at which Fleischman realises that he has become a true Cicelian. However, when he discovers a frozen wooly mammoth, he's surprised that he's the only one who seems impressed by it. Maybe he's not a Cicelian after all. Meanwhile, Chris arranges for the beautiful Meredith Swanson to come visit him but she's not at all like he remembered. Maurice arranges for a criminally insane prisoner - Cal Ingraham, again - to serenade he and Barbara with some violin playing. But then he escapes! Maurice calls in Holling to help track him...
This fifth season of Northern Exposure is right up to the standard set by the previous four releases, remaining a world away from the old Region 2 release of the show's first season. Instead, this, like the rest of the Region 1 releases and the subsequent Region 2 issues, Universal have remastered Northern Exposure, ensuring that it has a picture that's bright, sharp and full of detail. For a television show, this always looks very nice and though there's some use of stock footage - the melting of the snow looks to be the same as that in Season 2 - and some reuse of film, particularly the snowfalls of Seoul Mates in the show's third season, it's still a good-looking show, with its origins on film showing through with these transfers. The stereo soundtrack is just as good, sounding warm and clean and though the back of the box warns that the music may differ from the television versions, there's nothing obvious. Finally, there are English subtitles for each episode.
Universal have included a set of Deleted Scenes (38m36s), which are spread evenly over thirteen of the episodes here. As with the actual episodes, they're all subtitled in English but like a lot of other deleted scenes, these don't add very much to the original shows, particularly not when presented out of context. There is the odd laugh to be had, some slight development of the characters - though, five seasons in by this point, the forty minutes or so of these scenes, don't add very much - and a little more story to each episode but, taken all together, they aren't indispensable.
Given that I've had a problem with other double-sided releases from Universal, notably the Extended Edition of Dune, I'd always expected the worst with Northern Exposure but in spite of four seasons of double-sided discs, never found them a worry. However, whether through cost of producing the discs or of concern over problems with the discs, Universal have issued this fifth season on five single-sided, dual-layer discs. The quality of the image isn't actually any better - though it's still good - more that it removes any doubt from those who've had trouble in the past as well as the worry about damaging either side of the disc. Otherwise, this is a fine release but, as explained in detail above, the best of Northern Exposure was already behind it. All that there was now was to find a way to end it, as Joshua Brand and John Falsey had with St Elsewhere, in such a manner that one would never forget.