Why Northern Exposure Still Stands as One of the Greatest Shows Ever Made
You can’t legally stream it, and most people barely remember it existed, but this antithesis to David Lynch deserves a re-watch now more than ever. Especially since your favorite fun shows call back to it all the time.
July 10, 2015
It began 25 years ago this weekend: Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) flies from New York City to Anchorage, Alaska, toting an unwieldy bag of golf clubs.
Fleischman, whose Columbia med-school scholarship was paid by the state of Alaska, has come to Anchorage for four years of indentured servitude to the state to pay back his debt. He’s told by a smarmy hospital administrator that he’s not needed in Anchorage, but his joy quickly fades to horror when he’s told that rather than being released from his contract, he will instead be dispatched to the remote town of Cicely, population 815. That takes us to Northern Exposure, which over six seasons transformed from the story of a big-city doctor in a small town to a magical, charming, and engaging series that dared to be both smarter and sweeter than anything else on television.
Many reviews of the show online contain criticism to the tune that Northern Exposure fails to capture anything like the “real Alaska” — that it was a silly, soft, pretentious version of a rural small town dreamt up by privileged urbanites. Northern Exposure was not particularly realistic and neither does it aspire to realism. Nor was it purely fantastical — it was both of this earth and not. That’s the strange and enduring essence of the show, those moments when you aren’t quite sure. Those moments — moments the show began to trust as it developed — were ethereal. The show became infamous for its absurd flights of fancy. Frequent elaborate dream and hallucination sequences involve imaginary twins, exuberant dancers, and at one point, the entire town recast as characters in an old Western. A whole wooly mammoth is found perfectly preserved in ice, only to be salvaged for meat by a gruff local woodsman. An entire episode is devoted to a supposed meeting that occurred between Vladimir Lenin and Princess Anastasia in Cicely. Sometimes this schtick came across a bit silly and twee, but when the show got it right, it was so thoroughly convincing that it made for some of the best television I’ve ever seen.
Critically, it has often been cast as a soft alternative to David Lynch’s groundbreaking and bizarre Twin Peaks. Both shows aired at more or less the same time and were concerned with the eccentric residents of rural small towns in the Northwestern United States with a supernatural bent. Where Peaks was unsettling and sinister, Northern Exposure was thoughtful and charming. While the struggling-for-ratings Peaks developed a legacy as a critical darling and cult object, Northern Exposure was for years one of the most popular series on television, but rapidly faded from the public eye.
CHECK BACK FOR THE REST OF OUR NORTHERN EXPOSURE RETROSPECTIVE NEXT WEEK!
But Northern Exposure was a pioneer series in its own right, though it never seemed that way on the nose. It was a sweet show; it was a nice show. By the end of an episode, everyone would have made up, and a dreamy, Walt Whitman-peppered radio monologue might tie the whole thing together. But the show rose instead to a greater challenge: it proved you could be both smart and nice. Watching the show today, it lacks the quick-witted, laugh-out-loud cleverness of critically acclaimed comedies of the past decade. It lacks the moody edge of the much-acclaimed Dark Dramas. It was perhaps the perfect hour-long dramedy, with an unparalleled combination of meditation and laughter, and it all unfolded in the fictional Cicely, Alaska, a place you might just want to go live forever.
Northern Exposure made much of its setting and the unique relationship with nature fostered by such an isolated environment. This effect was largely achieved by extensive on-location shooting in rural Washington State. The real town of Roslyn, Washington, provided the setting for Cicely, striking the perfect balance between run-down and charming. Real-life establishment The Brick (supposedly the oldest continuously operating bar in Washington state) kept its name in the series and was Cicely’s iconic watering hole. Dramatic nearby lakes and the impressive Cascade Mountains offered a gorgeous backdrop that looked very much like Alaska to the untrained viewer. The deep sense of place engendered by the on-location shooting contributed to Cicely’s unique feel. The series dwelt often on natural phenomena — episodes about 24 hours of daylight, 24 hours of darkness, ice about to break, winter arriving, and the Northern Lights were hallmarks of the series.
Although it has since mostly drifted into obscurity, Northern Exposure remains something of a cult object. Bon Iver is a noted fan, whose name in fact comes from the fifth-season episode “First Snow.” The A.V. Club ran impassioned articles on standout episodes “Thanksgiving” and “Seoul Mates.” It enjoys a certain amount of indie cred among the millennial crowd and some nostalgic value among the generations that were actually able to watch it air. The cult effect has been enhanced by the series’ unfortunate lack of mainstream availability. DVDs of the series weren’t released until the mid-2000s, and even so aren’t readily available at retailers. More significantly, it has never been available on a popular streaming service, perhaps the biggest nail in the coffin for any series that wants an enduring legacy these days.
Despite these challenges, Northern Exposure’s legacy lives on. Its particular brand of surrealism, eccentricity, and optimism has clearly inspired many excellent series that are rife with Northern Exposure’s particular terroir. David Chase of Sopranos fame served as an executive producer on the show for two seasons, and the eccentric influence shows. While Chase publicly denounced Northern Exposure, The Sopranos owes much of its acclaimed character writing to Cicely. Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson’s 1996 Spaced draws heavily on its vibe with its silly utopia of eccentric characters who grow to be friends, as well as frequent cutaways and dream sequences. Scrubs’ trademark flights of fancy seem filled with Northern Exposure’s DNA. Pushing Daisies, although much more surreal, has a Northern Exposure feeling in the sweet intimacy among its eccentric characters and its daringly exuberant aesthetic. The iconic ukulele-laden theme song and score of Arrested Development come courtesy of David Schwartz, who scored every episode of Northern Exposure with similar panache. And yes, we will always have Moosefest.
But I don’t think there’s ever truly been a successor series, not even a poor imitation. The feel of Cicely remains, after all these years, unique. Somehow, even in this Golden Age of Television with an astounding variety of excellent series, the now-25-year-old Northern Exposure feels fresh.
The series is now much like the remote outpost Cicely itself. It’s hard to find, but if you’re lucky enough to stumble across it, you might just fall in love.