A classic fish-out-of-water story if there ever was one, Northern Exposure was one of the cleverest, quirkiest and most under-appreciated television series in the 90s. Following the lives of a collection of colorful characters in a small Alaskan town, the show received an avalanche of critical accolades and developed a faithful and smitten fan following that persists to this day.
Joel Fleischman, a young Jewish doctor from New York, arrives in the town of Cicely, Alaska to begin a four-year tenure as resident physician after he went through medical school on a loan from that state. His urban sensibilities scream in protest to being consigned to a seeming backwater where moose roam the streets freely. And ahead lies a steady stream of culture shocks, starting with the eccentric residents of the town who do not conform to his notions of isolated hillbillies.
The characters drive the plot of Northern Exposure and are quite possibly the most interesting ensemble cast to date. Maggie is a former debutante from a wealthy Michigan family who makes her way as a bush pilot. She is strong, independent but a little insecure because all her beaus have perished in improbable accidents (death by falling satellite being one of them). Maurice is the Cicely’s bigwig, an ex-astronaut and heck of a model American who is always scheming to promote Cicely in the eyes of the world. Chris is the DJ at the local radio station, an erudite ex-con who typically muses about life, the universe and everything beyond on his popular radio show (the only one in town). Holling and Shelly are an unusual married couple who run the town’s bar and grill: Holling is in his 60s and Shelly is a perky twentysomething but they’re both very much in love with each other. Ruth-Anne is a venerable old lady who owns the general store and dispenses sage advice to all who patronize her business. Young Ed is a feckless half-Native American who has a strong passion for films and wants to become a director, if it doesn’t interfere too much with his shaman training. Marilyn is a stoic Native American young woman who works as Joel Fleischman’s receptionist and barely speaks two words in the course of any given day.
The mix of comedy and drama centers on Joel’s daily experiences and the contrast between his neurotic New York habits with Cicely’s laid back, close-knit community. The show doesn’t shy away from supernatural themes but neither does it provide exhaustive explanations for the frequent surreal moments, much to Joel’s frustration and bewilderment. Slowly and surely, the young doctor is charmed by Cicely, much like the audience watching his misadventures.
The series won many awards, including two prestigious Peabodys, Golden Globes and Emmys. Memorable episodes include Ed’s search for his biological parents with help from his Indian spirit guide; Chris’s troubles when all women in his vicinity become attracted to him; a circus troupe rolling into town and making things even weirder; and the story of Cicely’s founders, two lesbians who envisioned a cultural oasis in the Alaskan frontier. Northern Exposure aired for six seasons, with Rob Morrow (Dr. Joel Fleischman) leaving due to a contract dispute the final year. Needless to say, the show suffered without his involvement and Northern Exposure called it quits in 1995.
Still, to this day, fans still congregate each year in Roslyn, Washington (the small town that served as Cicely, Alaska in the series) for an annual celebration. Little has changed there and you can literally walk down the same streets and even toss back a cold beer at “The Brick” just as millions of Northern Exposure admirers have done over the past decade. It’s a testament to the warm memories people still have for this classic show.
Were you a loyal fan of Northern Exposure? We’d love to hear your recollections of this beloved series in our comments section.