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Magical Realism: "Northern Exposure" 25 Years Later

"We used Alaska more for what it represents than what it is. It is disconnected both physically and mentally from the lower 48, and it has an attractive mystery."
—Joshua Brand, co-creator of "Northern Exposure"

CHRIS: Soapy once told me that the thing he loved most about country music was its sense of myth. There's heroes and villains, good and bad, right and wrong. The protagonist strolls into bar, which he sees as a microcosm of the big picture. He contemplates his existence and he asks himself, 'who's that babe in the red dress?' All right. Well, you know the way I see it, if you're here for four more years or four more weeks--you're here right now. You know, and I think when you're somewhere you ought to be there, and because it's not about how long you stay in a place. It's about what you do while you're there. And when you go, is that place any better for you having been there? Am I answering your question?.

JOEL: Uh, no, not really.

—"Soapy Sanderson" ("Northern Exposure," Episode 1.3)


The secret to Dr. Fleischman was in his eyes.

In the pilot alone, they could be darting, distrustfully analytical (as when he arrives in the remote outback of Cicely, Alaska, having been lied to about his presumed term of medical service in Anchorage, and immediately scopes out the one-street downtown with its worn-out shop fronts and wandering moose); they expressed puzzlement (as in his first encounters with Marilyn, the taciturn Native American who turned up at his office reception desk for work, despite never actually being hired); they expressed great fear (as town patriarch Maurice pulled a shotgun on him in a fishing boat); and they could be playful and sarcastic (as when he meets his new land-lady, the bush pilot Maggie, and immediately kicks off a screwball relationship that would make Donald Ogden Stewart reach for his pen).

The eyes were everything, and it's through them that we first got a glimpse of television's future.

Debuting as an eight-episode CBS summer series on July 12, 1990, "Northern Exposure" immediately dropped viewers into a space that felt both alien and warmly inviting. "Exposure" could be called "The Sentimental Education of Joel Fleischman": a young doctor from New York (Rob Morrow) goes to Alaska to fulfill his medical school loan obligations (the state paid for his training), but instead of being based in Anchorage as promised, he is shipped to the small, quirky town of Cicely, one of 845 residents living in the middle of nowhere. There, he encounters townspeople who include Chris Stevens (John Corbett), an ex-con philosopher who is the sole DJ at KBHR, the town's sole radio station (centerpiece-by-default of the grandly-named "Minnifield Communications Network"); radio station owner Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin), a wealthy, pompous, bigoted astronaut hero with dreams of turning Cicely into the Riviera of the northwest; Holling Vincoeur (John Cullum), a kindly 63-year old bar owner, and Shelly Tambo (Cynthia Geary), his wide-eyed, 20-year old ex-beauty queen paramour; Marilyn Whirlwind (Elaine Miles), whose own subtly expressive face acts as a kind of silent Greek chorus on Fleischman's many missteps; and Ruth-Anne Miller (Peg Phillips), the 70-something shop owner who has seen everything, yet somehow remains one of the program's least-cynical characters.

Most importantly, he meets two residents around whom his spiritual journey will be based: Ed Chigliak (Darren E. Burrows), a young Native American filmmaker and budding cinephile, and Maggie O'Connell (Janine Turner), the Grosse Pointe refugee whose relationship with Fleischman will form the backbone of the series. It is this triangle of interactions I want to use as a metaphor in what follows, because I think Joel, Ed, and Maggie each offer overlapping windows on "Northern Exposure"'s role in a broader TV landscape, and why the program still resonates.

Joel looks out at his seemingly barren new home and initially fails to notice its rich, playful magic. Similarly, the notion of a summer replacement series as being anything but a burn-off of a failed pilot, or episodes of an already-cancelled show, was relatively new in 1990, and no one really expected "Northern Exposure" to be different. "I don't know whose idea it was to launch in the summer," Rob Morrow would recall to Entertainment Weekly 20 years later. "I don't think anyone had any idea what they had on their hands." Despite solid ratings and strong reviews, it didn't continue into the fall season, disappearing for six months while its creators, John Falsey and Joshua Brand, and production studio Universal negotiated with the network for a larger budget. Somehow, its reputation only grew in its absence; in a 1991 piece for "Entertainment Weekly" (archived at the invaluable fan site Moosechick Notes), writers Mark Harris and Kelli Pryor quote Falsey's recounting of a screening of an episode at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: "It gave us a real jolt. For the first time, we heard 400 people responding. It was incredibly refreshing."  

Not everyone loved it. Richard Zoglin of Time would almost completely miss the point, complaining, "'Northern Exposure' is less a realistic picture of Alaskan life than a big-city yuppie's romantic small-town fantasy." But that was a distinctly minority view. When the show came back, it was a top 20 hit, eventually rising to number 11 in the ratings. The program's success would help to make the summer debut—and its corollary, an established show airing new episodes—a growing TV model for everything from teen programs like "Beverly Hills 90210" (which only found its audience by airing new episodes in the summer of '91) and "The OC," to light-hearted/light-headed USA dramas like "Covert Affairs," to "Golden Age of TV" prestige bait like "True Detective."

Joel's fish-out-of-water status made him the show's creative emblem: for all his brusque insistence on his "New York" identity and his initial dislike of his new home, he's also drawn to its residents, its oddities, and its insatiable desire to flip its own script. The epigraph from Brand above captures the program's (and Joel's) need to transmogrify itself every week: as a "Jew doctor from New York" (to quote Maurice's description of him), Joel is "an attractive mystery," as fascinatingly strange to the townies as they are to him, and "Northern Exposure" would use every stylistic and narrative trick it could as as a way of expressing the need to bridge those cultural gaps.

The show was an early example of a dramedy without a laugh track, juggling moods and respecting its audience's ability to get the joke in a way that would help create space for future comedy/drama hybrids like "The West Wing," "Parks and Recreation," "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" and "Gilmore Girls" (whose small-town quirk, screwball-meets-melodrama tone, and character archetypes owe almost everything to "Exposure"). It was also a show that respected its audience's intelligence, wisely ignoring "high/low"divisions of culture and assuming viewers would appreciate references to both Voltaire and "Aliens," Walt Whitman and the Home Shopping Network (in that sense, the program's recurring fascination with show-tunes is not just another entry point for Joel's Manhattan-centric worldview, or a playful way to explore and tweak the homophobia of Broadway super-fan Maurice, but also a tip of the hat to an earlier art form's ability to encompass the whole eight-eighths of American popular life).

Joel's eyes were also a creative window: He might have been resistant to the town's quirkiness (in one episode, he frantically mourns his growing assimilation by renting "The Godfather" and "Dog Day Afternoon," as if they will act as New York booster shots), but he was also its pulsating center, and so many of the program's "dream episodes" or pastiches start from Joel's perspective literally shifting. In one episode, a bump to the head sends him into a dreamscape where he is "Jules," his own ne'er do well twin; in another, a bout of insomnia causes Joel's view of the town to dramatically improve, in a subtle parody of "Charly" (1968) that also sees him enthusiastically coaching the Cicely basketball team; in still another, Joel's accidental ingestion of a Native American herbal remedy transports him to a version of New York where his dreams of big-city life intermingle with wildly different versions of the program's regulars.

"Northern Exposure" took the stylistic playfulness pioneered by "thirtysomething," "Moonlighting" and other '80s shows, and made it more organic to the program's usual mise-en-scene. Falsey and Brand's imagery was no less surreal or playful, but was more fully integrated into the program's ongoing camera and color schemes, so the line between fantasy and reality wasn't as clear or self-conscious; this confusion of space only intensified the show's richness (it's probably no coincidence that "Exposure" debuted the same year as "Twin Peaks," which it references in one first-season episode, or that "Exposure"'s show-runner in its final two seasons was David Chase, who would use a similarly dream/reality template to great effect on "The Sopranos"). Its dense intertextuality and fearlessness in building its narratives around Orson Welles, Ralph Waldo Emerson and—most spectacularly—Gabriel Garcia Marquez (in an episode-long homage to the magical realism of "One Hundred Years of Solitude") helped expand what kinds of stories could be done on a network show, breaking ground that would be followed by the daring of cable and "netlet" shows in the ensuing 20 years. Its open-ended narratives, ensemble casts, often melancholy and wistful tone—all of this speaks to a TV of the future as much as the TV of "Exposure"'s actual airdates. The show was a great success, won several Emmys and Peabodys, and launched many of its stars into great futures. And then it all came crashing down.


Like Maggie—the Detroit debutante who escapes into a new life in the Alaskan wilds—"Northern Exposure" and its creators didn't come out of nowhere. John Falsey and Joshua Brand had been successfully working in TV for nearly two decades: As writers on "The White Shadow"; as writers and producers on Steven Spielberg's "Amazing Stories"; and most impressively, as the co-creators of three critically acclaimed shows in the '80s and early '90s—"St. Elsewhere," "A Year In The Life," and "I'll Fly Away".

As Harris and Pryor noted in their EW piece, Falsey and Brand wanted to use the "displaced doctor" idea they'd pitched to CBS to get at something richer:

"From 'St. Elsewhere,' we were kind of doctored out," says Brand. "Both John and I could hang up a shingle at this point." The producers instead looked to European films for inspiration, and saw, in Bill Forsyth's "Local Hero" and Lasse Hallstrom's "My Life as a Dog," in Giuseppe Tornatore's "Cinema Paradiso" and Federico Fellini's "Amarcord," shades of the series they wanted. "America," says Brand, "tends not to make those gentle, warm, offbeat character comedies. We always say that we wanted to create Alaska as a state of mind, a place where people could recreate themselves in a nonjudgmental universe."

Maggie is Joel's foil, not only because of their obvious screwball dynamic, but because they are actually not all that dissimilar from each other (and thus can quickly find the right cutting words for one another during their arguments). For all of Maggie's constantly-proclaimed independence, she also comes to Alaska partially out of obligation, in this case to a boyfriend doing research in the area. She criticizes Joel's misanthropy and disconnection from Cicely, but her job isolates her for several hours a day in a small plane, and carries her away from the town she fetishizes. Like Joel, she projects a brusque exterior, but it masks a great deal of hurt, which finds its expression in part through her need to make dioramas of her dead boyfriends. While Maggie has unfortunate luck with boyfriends, she also has a quasi-magical ability to save and restore men's health (as in one early episode when a single, fairy tale kiss restores DJ Chris's voice, or in the extended fourth season relationship between Maggie and a hypochondriac played by Anthony Edwards). And while Maggie is certainly someone who longs to "recreate themselves in a nonjudgmental universe," that non-judgment is severely restricted to herself—like Joel, she is quick to berate those (like a female Gulf War veteran who opposes women in combat) who don't match her worldview.

It's a wonderful complexity that Janine Turner captures well, and one that reflected her own background, albeit in a mirror universe kind of way. Her journey from Fort Worth, Texas to New York (where, at 15, she was the youngest-ever Wilhelmina model) was the reverse of Maggie's Alaskan escape from plush Grosse Pointe, but no less of a sea-change. She pursued acting in Los Angeles, but hated the TV work she was getting. "I had no respect for what I was doing when I left," she told TV Guide during "Exposure"s first season. A return to New York to study acting coincided with relationships with Alec Baldwin and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and when that period was over, she found herself, she said, pacing around New York's Diamond District, trying to figure out if she should pawn Baldwin's engagement ring to pay down numerous debts. That was when the audition for "Exposure" came, and she was off to Washington State (where the show actually filmed).

Turner's lightning-quick emotional shifts are crucial to Maggie's prismatic character—in the space of a single scene, she can move from sarcastic to empathetic to enraged, and it almost always registers as real. Her eyes, like Morrow's are remarkably expressive, and much of the show's power comes from how the program builds its shot-reverse shot dialogues or two-shots around their characters. As the show develops, so does Maggie, and a great deal of whatever meaning "Exposure"'s relatively disappointing final seasons have comes from how well Turner registers Maggie's growing desire for something more stable and heartfelt than her previous, itinerant existence.

"Northern Exposure" has a shelf-life built into it premise—Joel is obliged to be in Cicely for four years (with an extra year tagged on midway, almost as a sly commentary on Rob Morrow's tempestuous contract negotiations), after which he will presumably return to New York. Narratively, there are outs if the show became a hit—Joel grows to like Alaska, Joel stays because he falls in love with Maggie—but each one has the potential to upset the program's delicate emotional calculus. So it probably shouldn't be that surprising that a show with such creative power, commercial success and critical acclaim had such a quick burnout. Given her ability to express several emotions at once, it also shouldn't be surprising that Maggie is at the center of two of its notable signs of change.

When Morrow threatened a walk-out over his salary, the producers brought in a potential replacement as Maggie's sparring partner—Mike (Anthony Edwards), a hypochondriac lawyer who moves to Cicely because of its clean air, lives in a bubble-like house and obsesses about germs and the degradation of the environment. When Mike appears at the start of the show's fourth season in 1992, he is funny and odd, and an interesting extension of the show's willingness to go almost anywhere. "Northern Exposure" was coming off an Emmy win as Best Dramatic Series, had ended the previous year with a remarkable episode about Cicely's founding, and was clearly at the peak of its powers.

That might explain why Falsey and Brand thought they could get away with such a preachy, heavy-handed character, and then devote much of the season to his increasingly uninteresting follies. It was the show's first real misstep, and had the writers been willing to more self-critically explore the flaws of their Mary Sue-like Bubble Boy, it would have made more sense to pair him with Maggie (who is a much more interesting take on moral certainty). Still, even if the the move was predicated in part on finding a Morrow replacement, it allowed Maggie to show a greater range of empathy than she'd been previously allowed, and that carried over into the fifth season, which saw a deepening of the Maggie-Joel relationship and an even quirkier tone than before. Mike had left, but David Chase had arrived.

Chase had been the show-runner on Falsey and Brand's "I'll Fly Away," and according to Brett Martin's book "Difficult Men," took a jaded view of its more acclaimed sister series. "The people who worked on 'Northern Exposure' thought they were curing cancer and reinventing drama," Chase says in the book. Notably, he took aim at the Falsey/Brand mission statement: "The premise of the show, as I found out later, was that it was a, quote, 'nonjudgmental universe.' Huh? That's something I couldn't understand. To me it was so precious, so self-congratulatory…I felt it was a fraud at its core."

As documented in Martin's book, the cancellation of "I'll Fly Away" after two seasons dovetailed with a strain in the Falsey/Brand partnership, the quick cancellation of a third show, and Falsey's "withdraw completely into a decades-long battle with alcoholism, during which he and Brand had no contact for almost 20 years." They left "Northern Exposure" after its fourth season (which, ironically, climaxes with the show's single most moving evocation of community, "Kaddish for Uncle Manny," where Joel's Judaism and his secret love of Cicely harmonize), and Chase was handed the reins by a spooked Universal.

He later admitted he did it for money, and it often shows—these are spiky, uneven seasons, which alternate whimsy and smugness, hope and nihilism in equal measure. One watches seasons five and six and gets the sense that Chase—veteran of "The Rockford Files," creator of "The Sopranos," godfather to a generation of cable show-runners, and as gifted a writer/producer as television has ever produced—almost set out to prove his earlier thesis about "Exposure"'s whimsy. 

Watching it now, many of Season Five and Six's best moments—from "Baby Blues," which sees Ed grappling with an agent about a movie script, to "Mite Makes Right," which centers on the crimes of a deranged violinist, to the pitch-perfect "Mr. Sandman," the Garcia Marquez pastiche mentioned above—feel like rehearsals for the digressive, nightmarish blends of the quotidian and the extraordinary that Chase would perfect on "The Sopranos." Too often, however, it just feels like slash-and-burn: reworking Adam Arkin's wonderfully paranoid chef into someone cruel and vicious without purpose; wasting Broadway legend John Cullum's singing voice in the dopey "Northern Hospitality"; confusing Chris in the Morning's complex masculinity for something reductively macho; turning Ed into Forrest Gump. By the time we get to the sixth season opener—"Dinner at Seven-Thirty," with Joel hallucinating a nightmarish New York existence—the cast seems exhausted, we're watching ideas that have already been done to death, and it feels like bad community theater.

With such a roller-coaster two years, Chase settling on Maggie—brilliant, insecure, brusque, and longing for something more than she sees around her—as his primary creative vehicle seems almost poetic. Turner's work is inspired, but Morrow's imminent departure casts a pall over everything. 

That Chase and his writers failed to recognize that this was what the whole show was about speaks volumes, and their tone-deafness continued when they replaced Morrow with two new transplants, a wide-eyed doctor (heavy-handedly named "Capra") played by Paul Provenza and his more cynical wife, played by Teri Polo. While Provenza and Polo can be appealing in other contexts, here their characters aren't thought through, their dynamic with the Cicelians (who themselves feel increasingly threadbare) doesn't work as well as Joel's sweet-and-sour prickliness, and it was no surprise when CBS yanked the program in favor of "Chicago Hope"; that the first summer smash ended its run as a set of burned off episodes in July of 1995 was the kind of ironic incident Chris Stevens would have riffed on over at least two or three songs on KBHR.

So ignore Provenza and Polo and those last 8 episodes, and imagine the finale like this: Maggie and Joel embark on the final leg of their quest for the Jeweled City of the North; they are distracted along the way by an oasis of an Inn, where they have one last enactment of what a life together might look like; Maggie—with a rather brave, kind of sad mixture of steely-eyed determination and wistfulness—reminds Joel of his larger purpose, and they leave the Inn. They encounter a gatekeeper, and Joel correctly answers a question about love; the time-space continuum rips open a vision of the Jeweled City: Manhattan. He asks Maggie to come, but she says she cannot. He leaves, and in a later scene, Maggie receives a postcard from her departed friend. Janine Turner says nothing, but in the context of a show whose words were increasingly acrid, that's for the best. Instead, her face registers all meaning, as her eyes and Joel's meet up—metaphorically speaking—one last time, staring at a vision of New York. Joel's postcard message echoes a message about Alaska from the third episode of the show, here applied to his old hometown, as a kind of detente: "New York is a state of mind." After five-and-a-half seasons, the bridge between two cultures is complete, and Marilyn looks up suddenly at her desk and says quietly, "Goodbye."


Life goes on. Rob Morrow would eventually return to television (on CBS, no less) with the hit series "Numb3rs." John Corbett would pursue a country music career, and maintain his reputation for being an endlessly charming bright spot in everything from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" to "Sex and the City." Barry Corbin would work with the Coen brothers on "No Country for Old Men," John Cullum would rack up more Tony nominations on Broadway (for "Urinetown" and a revival of "110 in the Shade"), and Janine Turner would find a second career as a conservative political activist and radio host. David Chase would transform cable TV, then make the moving "Not Fade Away" (2012). Joshua Brand would find further acclaim as a TV producer and writer, most recently on FX's "The Americans."

And what about Ed, the wide-eyed cinephile, who was still forming his language as a shaman and a film director when "Northern Exposure" drew to a close? More than any of the show's characters, it is Ed who is open to possibility, both within the world around him and outside of Cicely. It's notable that Ed is the first person Joel meets when he arrives, when the young Native American picks him up from the bus stop. Although separated by age, culture, education, and experience, Ed and Joel have a lot in common—they both know there is a world outside of Alaska, they both long to reach it, and in the meantime, they can share a lingua franca of cultural references about it to pass the time (other townsfolk might politely tolerate Ed's tendency to see the world through film references; Joel gets on the wavelength and chats with him about the niceties of "Crimes and Misdemeanors").

Darren E. Burrows, son of actor Billy Drago, was born in Kansas, was not actually Native American, and dyed his blond hair black to audition for the role of Ed. He'd been in films like "Cry  Baby" and "Casualties of War," and would follow up "Northern Exposure" with appearances in "NYPD Blue," "The X-Files" and "Amistad." He would also write a book and make a film about his time on "Exposure." That he hasn't had a bigger post-"Exposure" career is a shame, because he's the soul of the program, his quizzical eyes and pursed lips staring out at a universe both unsettling and rich with opportunity. Ed does not seem fully formed as a character when we meet him in the pilot—he's inclined to make pop music references to Bell Biv Devoe that don't seem to land anywhere, and he comes and goes out of townspeople's lives in early episodes without making an impact. I suspect Falsey and Brand weren't sure what to do with the character until they saw Burrows play it, because he does a lot just with a loping gait, an easy smile and an inquisitive stance. 

It is not until "Soapy Sanderson," the third episode of the show, that Ed really starts to take off, by taking hold of a movie camera. A pair of documentary filmmakers show up in Cicely, and Ed is fascinated. The moment when Burrows gets to hold their camera in his hand is like watching Luke Skywalker swing a lightsaber: You know that this is what he's made for. And suddenly the writers know how to focus Ed's speech (as he describes his pen pal relationships with Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese), how to frame Ed's face with a camera, and how to make Ed the conduit for the show's spirit of generosity.

Aside from its heavy-handed, fourth season approach to environmentalism, "Northern Exposure" explored social issues with a great deal of grace and wit. Twenty years before the "Obergefell" Supreme Court case, the show had TV's first gay marriage (and wonderfully, let its gay couple avoid well-intended stereotypes of nobility, and be as funny, thoughtful mean, selfish, rude, and bigoted—in other words, as complex—as the show's many straight characters). The season three finale showed the founding of the town by a lesbian couple in the 19th century, without condescension or "Philadelphia"-like self-congratulation. The complex gender dynamics between and among men and women were handled throughout the run of the show with novelistic detail and thoughtful contradiction: if Maggie and Joel offered one take on gender, certainly Maurice Minnifield—stereotypically macho in many ways, and stereotypically not in just as many others—is the show's most complex vision of what gender and sexuality can mean. The show explored questions of race and ethnic identity with sensitivity and humor, using its own magical realist whimsy as a metaphorical portal for thinking about the twists of American identity and history: twin interracial brothers who with telepathic powers, cross-cultural surprise pregnancies, and as wide a range of Native American characters as has ever been on a network television show.

As much as any specific issue, "Northern Exposure" was committed to a spirit of humanist generosity. As Chase's dismissal of the "nonjudgmental universe" above suggests, it's easy to reduce that idea to a kind of Colbertian "I don't see color" naivete (without Stephen Colbert's irony), but I think it's more than that. The "nonjudgmental universe" isn't just about acceptance, but an openness that allows people the space to be screw-ups, to be selfish, and annoying, and paradoxical at every turn. 

In a "Golden Age of TV" when "complexity" or "changing the discourse"  sometimes feels like coded shorthand for "self-involved, privileged Caucasian anti-hero," the broad perspective of possibility "Northern Exposure" imagines can seem like a signal beamed in from Saturn. But its spirit is there in the shows I mentioned up above, and in recent landmarks like "Friday Night Lights," "Community," "Freaks and Geeks," "Veronica Mars," the U.S. version of "The Office," and the first season of "Glee." In a way, it's even there in the struggles towards grace (achieved or not) by Tony Soprano and the denizens of Sterling/Cooper, even if those shows take it down a different path. That thread of humanism works to remind of us of what someone called the audacity of hope. 

Ed himself is half-white and half-Native American, left by a tree by his mother when he was just a baby. He was raised by his tribe, has lived all his life in Cicely, and takes its casual multiculturalism as a given. And his spirit of generosity is strong. Whether he is helping Ruth-Anne come to terms with her morality by purchasing a grave site in "A-Hunting We Will Go"; conjuring up a shaman to help him find his birth parents in "The Big Kiss"; or grappling over the meaning of voting in "Democracy in America," it is Ed who strives the hardest to understand the world outside of Cecily, and his place in it. Absent Chris's philosophical loquaciousness, Joel and Maggie's emotional armor, and Maurice's endless money, Ed just has his wits, his talent, and his open face. But in a shifting world of television, that's enough. Twenty years after "Northern Exposure" closed out its life with a big party at Maurice's house, I like to imagine Ed lighting out once more for the territories, a camera in his hand, a question on his face, another magical realist tale about to be shared.

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