This piece has shapeshifted over time. The original draft was for a presentation I delivered in 1999 when applying for a role in academia. I revisited and dusted off the core material for a blog post in 2015. Some of what follows also found its way into chapter 8 of The Neo-Generalist.
The days go past like pictures on a screen.
Sometimes I feel like my life
is someone else’s dream.
— Kate Tempest, Let Them Eat Chaos
No, they were
the scenery of the play now closing,
lengthy run it had.
— Sharon Olds, ‘Object Loss’
Broadcast over six seasons by CBS between 1990 and 1995, Northern Exposure follows the lives and communal interactions of a small group of people living in Cicely, Alaska; the North American equivalent of Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez’s classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. This is neo-modern television with Northern Exposure exploring issues relating to the breakdown of human interaction, the fragmentation of identity in the modern world, the debasement of love, and the beguiling power of wealth. The series indulges in extended philosophical musings through the mouthpieces of the ex-con DJ Chris Stevens (John Corbett) and his brother Bernard (Richard Cummings, Jr.), also offering a critique of capitalist ideology through the characterisation of former astronaut Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin).
Northern Exposure constantly plays with audience expectations. It hybridises genres, borrowing from both comic and dramatic traditions, variously combining elements of romantic comedy and soap opera with aspects of the western and period drama. The series explores, undermines and collapses the distinctions between East and West, frontier and civilisation, science and mysticism, male and female, past and present. Like Macondo, Cicely becomes a mythical space; a repository of all human experiences, philosophies and civilisations.
This is a place where different cultures, religions, ideologies, even psychic spaces become shared. Cicely is where temporal, spatial and personal divisions can be elided. Various episodes concern the town’s founding as a haven of social and sexual freedom by two lesbians in the 1890s (‘Cicely’, third season, final episode), Joel Fleischman’s (Rob Morrow) dream of New York high society (‘Dinner at Seven-Thirty’, sixth season, first episode) and Marilyn Whirlwind’s (Elaine Miles) story of the visit of a Russian princess to the town (‘Zarya’, sixth season, sixth episode). In Cicely, the eternal present reigns, and the discovery of Napoleonic warriors and mammoths, visitations from ghosts and Green Men, or characters sharing or exchanging dreams are treated as commonplace.
The manner in which Northern Exposure subtly and overtly challenges our preconceptions is strengthened by the way in which it promotes its own status as a cultural artefact. It frequently draws attention to communication technology, artistic creativity and cultural consumption through Chris’s learned radio show and his avant-garde sculptures, Ed Chigliak’s (Darren E. Burrows) cinemania and the visitations to Cicely by a variety of artists, filmmakers and performers. The dialogue is also packed with knowing references to famous historical figures, writers, filmmakers, philosophers and scientists.
The episode titles, too, are richly allusive, as witness ‘Sex, Lies and Ed’s Tapes’ (first season, sixth episode), ‘War and Peace’ (second season, sixth episode), ‘Jules et Joel’ (third season, fifth episode), ‘Crime and Punishment’ (fourth season, tenth episode), and ‘A River Doesn’t Run Through It’ (fifth season, fifth episode). At times, as in the opening to ‘Up River’, broadcast in the sixth and final season, Northern Exposure also parodies famous literary passages and film scenes. In this case, the protagonist’s river voyage of both Joseph Conrad’s novella The Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s loose adaptation of it, the film Apocalypse Now.
Through its six-season run, Northern Exposure frequently tackles the topic of mythology. This is achieved through characters referencing theoretical studies of myth such as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Jean Shinoda Bolen’s Goddesses in Everywoman. It is also done through narrative structure. Campbell’s hero adventure, for example, serves as the model for one of the key episodes of the sixth season, ‘The Quest’. In this episode Joel and Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner) seek out the Jewelled City of the North, culminating with Joel’s return to New York City, his personal grail ever since he was first assigned to the remote Alaskan outpost of Cicely in the series’ pilot episode.
Beyond this fantasy, myth, and dreamworlds permeate all 110 episodes of Northern Exposure, serving to create a magical-realist universe in which the fantastic and the commonplace are treated equally. Joel, Maggie, Chris, Ruth-Anne Miller (Peg Phillips), and Holling Vincoeur’s (John Cullum) daily activities catering to their community as doctor, pilot, DJ, general store owner and bar proprietor respectively, are juxtaposed with explorations of magic, myth, ritual, shamanism and dreamworlds.
In many episodes, the Native American characters become associated with these more magical and mythical elements. The differences between their worldview and that of city characters like Joel is eloquently suggested, for example, in their alternative approaches to medicine. Episodes such as ‘Brains, Know How and Native Intelligence’ (first season, second episode), ‘Russian Flu’ (first season, fifth episode), ‘Wake Up Call’ (third season, nineteenth episode) and ‘Three Doctors’ (fifth season, first episode) juxtapose, often to comic effect, Joel’s scientific approach to medicine with the magic of his Native American counterparts. It is the industrial world and its practices butting up against traditions drawn from the nomadic and agricultural eras.
The fantastic, however, is not the exclusive domain of the Native Americans. Chris, for one, actively seeks out fantastic experiences, and they also become part of the Cicely lifestyle for many of the other characters. Ed, for example, is hounded by a dwarf-like demon known as the Green Man (Phil Fondacaro) whenever he experiences self-doubt. Many of the town’s inhabitants are constantly dreaming, blurring fantasy and reality, and, at times, even experiencing one another’s dreamworlds, as in ‘Aurora Borealis’ (first season, eighth episode) and ‘Mr. Sandman’ (fifth season, twelfth episode).
Joel, on two occasions, in ‘Fish Story’ (fifth season, eighteenth episode) and ‘Shofar, So Good’ (sixth season, third episode), is visited by the ghost of Rabbi Schulman (Jerry Adler), who, in the latter episode is accompanied by the ghosts of Yom Kippur past, present, and future. Fantastic communal events, also occur with some regularity. In ‘Horns’ (sixth season, thirteenth episode), for example, bottled Cicely water has the effect of reversing gender behaviour in the community.
As with so much art, Northern Exposure captures the zeitgeist of its time. Its revisiting of themes that obsessed the modernists of the pre-WWII era is not coincidental. History has a tendency to both progress and echo. Artists are often part of the advance party, gauging the temperature, spotting trends. A couple of decades on from Northern Exposure and we have witnessed a period of financial boom and bust, the revival of extremist political ideologies, unpleasant rhetoric about nationalism and migration, land grabs and military muscle-flexing, dramatic and accelerated advancement in our communication technology, as well as in our governments’ monitoring of it.
During this period, we have also seen an increasing number of people challenge the status quo, questioning our leadership models, our social structures, our approaches to education and work, our rampant disregard for the environment, our very purpose on this planet. Surely there is a better way, they ask. Surely we can make a difference together rather pursuing the path of increased fragmentation, of separation by borders and walls, of differentiation through race, belief, gender and age.
One of the most fascinating things about Northern Exposure is its portrait of community. Cicely is a small town that celebrates diversity, that welcomes in, adapts to and absorbs outsiders – with key characters like Joel, Chris, Shelly Tambo (Cynthia Geary) and Mike Monroe (Anthony Edwards) among them. It is a community that functions both as macrocosm and microcosm in the shape of smaller groupings centred around the bar, grocery store, radio studio and medical practice. This is a collaborative, cooperative community, made up of interactive cells of people, with several individuals flowing freely between them, sharing ideas, inspiring others to action.
We have to keep reminding ourselves of the stories we told ourselves in the past. Our myths, fables, poems, histories, novels, films, paintings, sculptures, music, television series and games. All this culture is not purely for the sake of entertainment. It is a source of inspiration and learning too. It helps build understanding of both ourselves and our communities. It reminds us how we dealt with the problems of the past, and provides the scaffolding for how we will address the future too.
It would be a scrapbook, a collage, a graphic novel, a dissolving of the boundaries between forms because Crow is a trickster, he is ancient and post-modern, illustrator, editor, vandal.
— Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers
You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you.
— Claudia Rankine, Citizen