Friday, December 4, 2009
Northern Exposure Project
Northern Exposure is my favorite tv show of all time. Forever. Period. End of Story. It has been since I was a little hellion living in Sunny Temperate California. I wanted to be Maggie O'Connell when I grew up. All short-haired badass that she was. A wee part of me will admit that I moved to the Greatland because of an early 90's TV show.
I bought all 6 seasons (including the exceptionally dumb Paul Provenza Season) and watch them repeatedly. As a jaded Alaskan now (nobody prays louder than the newly converted) I scoff at parts of the show. SURE, you flew snowmobile parts from Petersburg to Yakutat, Maggie. Um, clearly this girl doing research in Metlakatla would not be on the railbelt to hang out with you, Chris-in-the-morning. Aside from the geographical/ecological stupidity that comes from filming in Washington, they got many things right. The people and the relationships mostly.
So. Because 3 minutes of googling revealed that nobody else has done this (I think) I'm going to recap all 6 glorious seasons of the best show that has ever been on TV (to me). Beginning with the Pilot.
Let's meet Joel. They have written Joel Fleischman, played by Rob Morrow, as "New York Yuppie Jew" against the entire Universe. I have very little experience with folks from the east coast, so I can't adequately judge how close to the mark they are with Joel. All he really needs to do, though, is react to everything around him. He succeeds. The first scene is one that every Alaskan knows well: inside of an airplane stuck next to that guy who just won't shut up. Joel is that guy. See, the only scholarship he could get to attend the illustrious Columbia Medical School was indentured servitude for four years in Alaska. He feels that it won't be so bad because Anchorage has 5 Chinese restaurants. Then he can go back to NYC and become a super-rich Doctor.
For whatever reason, the Anchorage Hospital that Joel was supposed to work at is full, but they are shipping him to the Alaskan Riviera instead. Note: there is no such thing as the Alaskan Riviera in real life. Joel is screaming "breach of contract" and other outraged legal stuff, but ultimately he ends up on a 12-hour bus ride north. Note: Driving that far north on a bus will not land you in a place that is lushly forested as Cicely. The bus dumps him by the side of the road. Joel, sitting dejected on his luggage/golf clubs, looks pretty bad. Since it's 1990 there are pleats on his Seinfeld slacks.
Lo, a truck (appropriately beat up and large) driven by the one and only Ed Chigliak. Ed asks Joel if he's "into Rap" (1990!) and they head off. Ed stops in the middle of the road, gets out and starts walking though the trees because he's home. It's up to Joel to drive to Maurice Minnifield's palatial Log Home Eyesore. Maurice, a former astronaut and current frillionaire, rappels down the side of the building. He is the picture of healthy virility with a checked flannel tucked into jeans belted at his ribcage.
Once cleaned up and inside the log cabin of animal heads and olde timey stuff, Maurice tries to sell Joel on the future of Alaska as a destination. And subtly tells Joel, "I was an Astronaut, son." Joel and Maurice drive into the booming metropolis of Cicely in Maurice's huge, convertible Cadillac. Maurice will not shut up about development opportunities and his media empire (a radio station and newspaper). Note: Radio is a very real part of every Alaskan's life, we live and die by our local stations. They enter Joel's new practice. It's a dilapidated building with peeling paint and animal poop on the floor.
Then we meet Marilyn Whirlwind. I love Marilyn. She nods with a neutral expression to Joel's, "There is no Job!" Oh, she's the receptionist, and always has a tray of whatever Joel needs before he asks.
Joel, now, is completely unhinged. He runs into Holling's Bar (the Brick) to call Anchorage doctor because he doesn't like it and wants to leave. He's stuck! While calling Elaine, his fiancee and legal council, to look at his contract he lets loose a vile deluge of insults about the various rednecks within earshot. Dejected, Joel bellys up to the bar for a Seltzer and an aspirin. Note: Every town in Alaska has the bar everybody goes to. There may be several in a town but there is room for only one in everyone's heart. Holling, wearing a stupid leather vest and bolo tie, gives him club soda. Also, Ed comes by to exposition Maurice and Holling's falling out. Later, an irritated Joel confuses Maggie O'Connell (his landlord) with Maggie O'Connell (a Prostitute). Maggie is a Pilot, not a whore. Like a Pilot with her own plane and everything.
Joel is now home, in a rustic cabin by the lake. And Joel and Maggie Hate Each Other. This will at least be the B-plot, when it's not the A plot, of the entire series. The next morning, Joel is treated to the amazing scenery around him and runs 7 miles into town. To work. Where he again tells Marilyn there is no job. He treats some people, including one beaver (because HAHA Alaskans would take their pet beaver to the doctor) and one couple having marital problems evidenced by stabbings. Mostly, we learn that Joel cares.
Ed wanders in to bring Joel to Maurice. Ed is Maurice's errand boy. Maurice is out on a lake, in a skiff "duck hunting." Mostly, its a clunky way for Maurice to shoot a gun over Joel "I'm a New Yorker badass" Fleischman's head.
Back in Holling's Bar, we learn the following things: Shelly, an 18-year-old beauty queen, left Maurice for 62 year old Holling; Holling and Maurice are no longer friends; and if Joel leaves, there would be a fine of $10,000 and 18 years in jail. Bad news for Joel, he is stuck. He meets this news like a Real Alaskan: by drinking heavily. Plowed, Joel compliments Maggie on her red lips and how pretty, but not great looking, she is. Pretty like Dorothy Hamill. Hungover Joel ends up sleeping at Maggie and Rick's house. Rick is also a pilot who appears without a shirt as often as the script will allow. I guess he is attractive, or at least "attractive." He looks like Gary Cole to me.
FINALLY, we're at some festival. It's realistically named Midsummer Jamboree or whatever. (This is why duck hunting was sort of stupid. Nobody duck hunts in the summer.) All the festivals and get-togethers have somewhat silly names up here, so good for the writers for figuring it out. Maurice emcee's something and shouts, "NORTH TO THE FUTURE!" Which is, sometimes, Alaska's state motto. Joel and Ed eat a Moose burger/caribou dog respectively. We get a fleeting glimpse of Chris-in-the-morning, our favorite philosophizing DJ. Holling and Maurice share a meaningful moment. Aaaand scene.
Honestly, the Pilot is not as interesting as the rest of the series. Over time, the cast hits their stride and we meet a whole host of incredibly interesting minor characters--Adam, anybody? I love this show, especially when it gets better. Also, it realistically portrays Native Alaskan folk as just folks--no real fetishization that I notice. Maybe an Alaska Native has a different perspective? If so, I'd love to hear it.