Test Pilot #22: Northern Exposure
Debut date: July 12, 1990
Series legacy: One of the most critically acclaimed and beloved dramedies of all-time
It’s time for a new theme in the site’s most popular ongoing feature, Test Pilot. The primary reason I started this feature almost a year ago was so that I could have a solid excuse to explore television’s history and fill in some of the blanks in my viewing and critical experiences. From the beginning, I have wanted to talk about the differences between television programs from the past (whenever the heck “the past” is) and the present. The theme we are kicking off today tackles that primary issue head-on. With the 63rd annual Primetime Emmy Awards coming this September, I thought it would be fun, interesting and insightful to look back at the 43rd ceremony held 20 years ago. In particular, my guests and I will watching and writing about the five nominees in the Outstanding Drama Series category from that ceremony in 1991.
Not only is 20 years a nice round number to start from in the theme’s examination of where television drama has been, the quintet of nominees from 1991′s Drama Series category is full of generally well-respected but different series. At that time, Emmy voters considered L.A. Law, China Beach, Quantum Leap, Northern Exposure and thirtysomething the best that television drama had to offer. Hopefully taking a look at the kind of programs that the Emmy voters considered “quality” two decades later will shine a light on how the industry and the Emmys have changed — and how they haven’t. Do these series share any interesting qualities? Major differences? Do we have different expectations for greatness today? Is television as a whole that different as it was in 1991? These are the sort of questions and concerns I hope that we can investigate and discuss over the next 10 weeks and five entries.
Unlike our look at thirtysomething last go-around, today’s file Northern Exposure was actually nominated in 1991 for the pilot episode. That doesn’t make too much of a difference, but it does allow us to see exactly what the Emmy voters were looking at and thinking about when they decided to give Exposure three nominations, including nods for Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series. It didn’t win any of those awards, but as they say, to be nominated is an honor within itself.
In any event, the Alaskan-based series that debuted in the summer of 1990 is on the docket for today’s discussion. Perhaps shockingly, my guest today has actually seen Northern Exposure before! Kathryn VanArendonk is a graduate student in the English Department at Stanford University. Her dissertation is on serial storytelling, genre, and episodic structure in the Victorian novel and on television. She blogs at www.telephonoscope.com, and is on Twitter at @kvanaren. Kathryn, take it away:
Northern Exposure‘s pilot episode is really pretty good, and Northern Exposure is a great series because it ultimately bears little resemblance to its pilot episode.
Let’s start with the second part.
The first episode of Northern Exposure introduces Joel Fleischman, a stereotypical New York doctor, and promptly throws him headlong into this very strange town in the middle of nowhere, Alaska. After being assured that he will be allowed to leave should he find Cecily, Alaska to be unsatisfactory, Joel predictably discovers that he’s actually stuck there, doomed by the fine print in a contract to spend four years at the mercy of a crazed, ambitious, capitalistic former astronaut. The narrative arc here is obvious — Joel will bemoan his fate, shake his head at the bizarre native cures and substandard living conditions, slowly come around to the wisdom of Cicely’s inhabitants, and eventually come to love his strange new home.
Happily, Northern Exposure is a much better and more interesting series than the one I just described, in part because after the first few episodes, this type of easy cookie-cutter, city-boy-comes-to-love-the-country story is almost entirely abandoned. For a long running series, of course, it would have to be abandoned. How long can you reasonably extend Joel’s slowly developing appreciation for Alaska? And once Joel discovers he’s actually happy in this new town, how many stories can you tell about his frequent longing for a bagel before it’s no longer cute? At some point, Northern Exposure would have to find something else to do, and the result is that Joel’s acclimation to rural life actually has much less to do with the bulk of Northern Exposure than its pilot episode might lead you to expect. In fact, the comfortable main character status Rob Morrow holds so firmly in the Northern Exposure pilot slips away relatively quickly in the course of the series — even before Morrow expresses his dissatisfaction with his contract and is eventually reduced to a marginal figure on the series. Quite quickly, Joel’s complaints about the weather, about his primitive medical facilities, and about his crazy neighbors, fade from their all-encompassing importance in the pilot, and Joel becomes just one of the many quirky residents of Cicely. By the fourth episode of the first season, Joel’s hand wringing and self-pity are already reduced to a B-plot, making way for a well-developed story about Holling and Shelly’s decision to get married. By the end of the second season, Joel is no more a main character than Holling, or Ed, or Maggie, or Maurice, or even the laconic Marilyn, and the series’ relatively democratic distribution of plot among its major characters plays a huge role in its tone and atmosphere.
As often happens in pilots, characters who later hold important roles occasionally don’t make it into the first episode, and that’s also the case here. The pilot loses something by not including at least a few throwaway lines from Shelly, who instead remains merely a silent object of desire for Maurice and Holling, but the episode’s biggest absence is John Corbett as Chris. (He does appear briefly in the closing scenes, but has no lines and isn’t ever named.) For me, Northern Exposure without Chris is like a Shakespeare comedy without a fool, or a Trollope novel without a ridiculously chatty narrator, or Muppet Christmas Carol without Gonzo and Rizzo. Sure, part of that has to do with my healthy pre-Sex and the City John Corbett crush, but it’s mostly about his character, who highlights so much about what makes Northern Exposure great. After all, a popular radio personality who muses about transcendentalism, reads aloud from Russian novels, contemplates humankind’s desire for companionship, and proposes everyone get a little more familiar with Carl Jung says just as much about the type of town who would listen to him as he does about himself.
And that’s really the point, of course. As the series’ opening credits make clear, Northern Exposure is much more about Cicely, Alaska than it is about any individual character, and it’s this element that the pilot episode just cannot fully capture. Some of that’s a product of familiarity and time — it’s very, very hard to express that kind of expansiveness in a single episode, because as an audience, we are trained to follow characters and stories more than tones and settings.
The first part of my opening statement was that in spite of its apparent mismatch with the whole body of the series, Northern Exposure‘s pilot is still pretty good, and a lot of that comes out of one particular moment. It’s clear from the beginning that we are supposed to feel for Dr Fleischman, we are supposed to sympathize with his frustration at being marooned in this tiny, isolated town, and it’s also clear that this doesn’t quite happen. It’s hard, after all, to feel sorry for a guy who’s so unbelievably whiny and so focused on himself, and even from this first episode, it’s pretty apparent that the odd residents of Cicely will quickly become far more appealing than our erstwhile protagonist. And yet, there’s this moment in the pilot. After all his complaining and obnoxious phone calls, Joel wakes up in the morning and looks outside, and finally realizes — just for a brief second — where he actually is. There’s this gorgeous mountainscape in the background, and before he sets off on what has to be the silliest-looking jog of all time, he gives you the just the barest chance to actually appreciate how beautiful this place is.
The pilot is good for a number of reasons, reasons probably more important than just this one moment when Joel steps outside in the morning. For one, it does a remarkably good job of threading the needle of what will continue to be Northern Exposure‘s unusual genre. Somehow, it’s light and comedic while also dealing with serious, dramatic conflicts, and it’s also refreshingly earnest. Part of what makes Joel so unlikable even in this first episode is his initial refusal to see patients, and his lack of sympathy for these peoples’ humanity. When the camera pans across these silent, very un-actorly faces who need medical help, it’s obvious that regardless of Joel’s silly scholarship conditions and Maurice’s goofy aspirations to make Cicely the Riviera of Alaska, the arrival of a doctor in this remote place is serious, and important, and potentially life-saving. (Of course, this gravity is immediately undercut by the woman with the giant beaver sitting in her lap – really, Northern Exposure? – and the very Night Court-esque pilot gag of the wife who keeps shooting her husband.) Still, some element of that earnest, well-meaning, and quite sober emotional reality makes it though all the New Yorker jokes and references to moose burgers and caribou dogs.
Nevertheless, it was that brief glance at the landscape that really made me smile on re-watching this pilot. It’s so nice to watch a series that is just so happy to be where it is, so appreciative and welcoming and warm – Joel Fleischman aside, that is.
And now my perspective as a brand-new viewer:
I have to say, I am very glad that Kathryn dedicated her section to discussing Northern Exposure’s shifting focus from the pilot onward and its generally unlikable “lead” character because Joel Fleischman is terrible in the majority of this opening episode’s 45 minutes. Exposure is basically what I thought it would be coming in, but I never expected that the entry point, the one character those of us in the proverbial “lower 48” are supposed to relate to, would be an insufferable, privileged douche that I hoped would get attacked by any of the beautiful Alaskan wildlife at any second.
I’ll admit to not liking Rob Morrow that much, but it’s not really all his fault in this case. By trying so hard to position Joel as a FISH OUT OF A WATER, this pilot crafts an unsympathetic lead who isn’t worth the slightly ignorant, mostly charming hospitality he is shown throughout its running time. Kathryn mentioned that the series pivots away from Joel a bit in later episodes, but I’m also hoping that his initial douchebaggery pays off in some way. The writers are obviously setting him up to see the error of his ways at some point, but it has to be more than that. Joel is such a miserable presence in this pilot that there has to be a reveal of severe emotional issues or an epic comeuppance. I’m guessing that neither of these things actually did/do happen, but they should have. I’m having trouble picturing how and why 1990 television audiences, generally used to more likable and charming leads, would like Joel and by association, Northern Exposure as a whole. I don’t mean that to say that 1990 television audiences were simpletons who couldn’t appreciate complex, unlikable leads that came to define television in later years, I just mean that people in 1990 probably didn’t like pricks any more than I do here in 2011.
OK, I think I have divulged all the Rob Morrow/Joel Fleischman-related rage out of my system. I am happy to hear that Exposure eventually focuses on the ensemble players that populate this quirky world because they are definitely the strongest part of this initial episode. Barry Corbin, Janine Turner and John Callum all turn in appealing performances that avoid too much of the stereotypes that plague bad “small town” series. Well, aside from Corbin’s prosthetic teeth. As Kathryn discussed, there’s an obvious sense that most of these people care about one another in their own awkward ways, no matter their personal histories that subsequent episodes surely dive deeper into. It is no surprise that I was more intrigued by the intertwined politics and posturing between the locals than Joel’s whining.
Though Joel overreacts to all of it, the pilot does a rock-solid job of setting up the tiny, moderately off-kilter (in a television or film kind of way) locale. Joshua Brand’s* fine direction emphasizes the gorgeous locations, but also uses light to soak some of the inside sets/locations with lots and lots of sunlight. The town’s outward sunny disposition is reflected in the lighting choices and that really stood out to me amid Joel’s ranting. For a pilot shot more than 20 years ago, Northern Exposure looks really lovely.
*Exposure creators Brand and John Falsey previously created St. Elsewhere and as Jaime Weinman told me on Twitter, they left that series because they felt like it was becoming too quirky. That makes a whole lot of sense. Nevertheless, the jabs at Elsewhere in the opening moments of this episode were even better since I recently obtained that knowledge.
Drama series all about quirky small towns are difficult to pull off and that especially feels true coming from someone who grew up in the post-Twin Peaks/Northern Exposure/Picket Fences era. It appears as though this early 1990s era was something of a halcyon time in the quirky small town drama and as time passed, writers have either forgotten how to craft these series or networks have become disinterested in making them.
In recent years, any attempts at crafting an hour-long small down drama/dramedy have ended up laying on the quirk, the odd and the earnestness too much. I’m looking at you, October Road and Happy Town. Other things like Desperate Housewives are somewhat defined by the intense closeness of the people living in one spot, but it is certainly much more interested in the soapy and melodramatic generic categories to really fall under the same category. I hate to go to this well again, but Friday Night Lights might be the one truly great representative of the small town drama series in the 21st century.* Small town settings also used to work on the comedy side of things as well and despite all our love for Parks and Recreation, apparently the framework isn’t too hot there either.
*Gilmore Girls and Everwood fans might tell me to screw off and they might be right. Haven’t seen enough of either to make a suggestion.
I don’t want to say crafting a good small town series is impossible in the second decade of the 21st century, but I do think I know why we haven’t really seen it lately. As I watched the Northern Exposure pilot, I thought to myself that none of the major networks would greenlight something like this today. Theoretically, we’ve seen these kinds of stories over and over again, but I also think the earnestness of something like Exposure doesn’t quite work in today’s cynical post-modern (post-post-modern?)era. If you push too hard with the earnestness, you end up like October Road and that’s probably not a good thing.*
*Full confession: I’ve seen every episode of October Road.
What is interesting to me is that while the major networks wouldn’t do a series like this in 2011, The CW apparently would, because they are: Hart o Dixie. It even has the same sort of logline: doctor transported to unfamiliar location! Once I remembered this, I started to think about how The CW and formally The WB have been more overt go-to locations for series with a small-town emphasis. Obviously lots of programs are set in small towns, but series like the aforementioned Gilmore Girls and Everwood and other products like One Tree Hill use the “small town vibe” to drive a number of their stories and their aesthetics. Heck, even genre-leaning series like Smallville, The Vampire Diaries, Buffy and Veronica Mars develop much narrative weight based on town histories, politics and more. Clearly Northern Exposure is not One Tree Hill and Hart of Dixie will probably end up more dissimilar from it than not, but I’m intrigued as to why the small town framework works better on one network and not the rest of television. Cable networks are certainly more intrigued by gritty, anti-hero-led dramas and the broadcast networks are unfortunately still charmed by anything with crime solving/preventing/prosecuting teams to really take a chance on a solid character drama with a small town engine.
Nevertheless, the modern struggles of the small town drama are also reflected in Emmy hardware as well. Obviously, I didn’t particularly care for this pilot overall so I had trouble quite understanding why the Emmy voters drizzled (three nominations isn’t quite showered, right?) it with love 20 years ago, but I certainly don’t think that if Northern Exposure somehow made it to the air in 2011, it would be nominated for an Outstanding Drama Series nomination. We can chalk most of that up to the fact that television drama is just so much better and much more diverse these days, however there is definitely a certain bias to this kind of program today. Friday Night Lights’ lack of nominations for its first three seasons were well-documented and even though voters finally got around to showing it some love in the final two seasons, critics and fans alike are still sort of baffled by the shifting winds.
Interestingly, Emmy voters appeared to fall more in love with Exposure during its third and fourth seasons – the series had 16 noms and six wins in 1992, 16 nominations but zero wins in 1993 – and then suddenly they didn’t care at all. By 1994, Law & Order was a big-time television player and NYPD Blue had debuted, ushering in a different, much grittier era for broadcast television. The small town charms and politicking of Northern Exposure didn’t quite matter when NYPD was full of cursing and nudity and pushing all sorts of FCC boundaries. The series’ final season was not its only one not to be nominated in the Outstanding Drama Series category and Exposure certainly doesn’t fit with 1995’s nominees like The X-Files, ER, Chicago Hope, Law & Order and NYPD Blue on paper. Its time had so obviously passed and the small town drama hasn’t quite made a substantial comeback on broadcast television yet.
Ultimately, I am of mixed mind about Northern Exposure. I really dislike Joel, but am charmed by everything and everyone else involved the series. And even though I liked thirtysomething‘s pilot more, I’d be more inclined to watch more of Northern Exposure if I ever had the time and the episodes became legally available on a streaming service. AND YET, I’d say that the framework of Northern Exposure is more of a product of its time than thirtysomething is, despite the latter’s Generation X-soaked malaise. The story of Northern Exposure feels more inherently timeless than the yuppie whining on thirtysomething, but we’re more likely to see a “White People Problems” drama than we are one about slightly oddball small town folks. Maybe that’s disappointing, maybe it’s not.
Conclusions on legacy: Likable and warm despite its borderline-awful lead character; Representative of a very specific era in television that doesn’t — and probably won’t — exist today.