Monday, August 10, 2015

The Healing Power of Northern Exposure

Recently I woke up after a sleepless night. I was in a funk, and prepared to suffer through what felt like an inevitable really bad day. I felt listless, sad and a bit lost. I wasn't sure where to turn or how to feel better.

Suddenly, my eyes lit up and I sat up in bed. Eureka! I knew what would turn things around!

I popped in my season 3 DVD of the early 90's TV show Northern Exposure. After only one episode I was laughing through tears and had a fresh, new clarity on things. I put on the coffee and began calling friends and family, making plans and setting aside petty grievances.

I was cured.

                                       Dr. Joel Fleishman gets primal on Northern Exposure

The premise of the show is simple enough.  Lifetime New Yorker and newly minted M.D. Joel Fleishman is sent -- against his will -- to a tiny town in the wilds of Alaska to work in a rural clinic in order to pay back his medical school loans.  Suddenly stripped of every modern convenience and diversion that the Big Apple has to offer,  bare bones Cicely may as well be jail to our Joel.

City boy Joel is not happy to be in Cicely. Joel loves Zabars, New York bagels, golf, the Atlantic Monthly and a good cappuccino.

Life is slow in Cicely. VEEERY slow.  Joel goes through the five stages of death as he fights, kicks, screams and finally howls at the moon in desperation at the prospect of wasting years of his hard fought youth in this tiny, backwater way station miles and miles from anywhere. He can't understand why anyone would choose to live in this dreary place.

Finally, after several episodes, he begrudgingly (as we all must when we are stuck in a situation not of our choosing) gives up, accepts his fate and settles in. The occupants of the town are mostly Native Americans and a few refugees of the lower 48 who have found a different way of life, far from modern America. Many are running from something...looking for freedom and a fresh start.

At first glance, Cicely IS a dreary place. Depressing. Distressed old buildings line the main drag. Nothing's been updated for years and years. Peeling paint and old wallpaper line the mismatched walls of the doctor's office.  Nothing appears fresh and new anywhere.

But then, one by one, you get to know the people.

There's Ed, the local native American teenager who was abandoned by his parents and raised by the local tribe.

Ed Chigliak loves Woody Allen, Marty Scorcese and Ingmar Bergman,  and dreams of making his own films one day

There's Maurice Minnifield, a former astronaut and minor celebrity, who left Oklahoma to start a new life in Alaska.

The entrepreneur Maurice dreams of luring big money to the "Alaskan Riviera" from the lower 48 with hotels, resorts, golf courses and hunting lodges. Back in the states there are many who are richer and more famous than him, but here in Cicely,  he's the richest -- and the only famous -- man in town.  He's at the top of the heap and he likes it like that. He also loves the finer things in life, including great wine, art and show tunes. 

                                        There's Ruth Ann, owner of the general store.

Ruth Ann headed north in 1971 with nothing but 800 dollars in her wallet after her husband died. Somehow she ended up in Cicely and never left. She loves bingo, hunting and the films of Louie Malle.

There's Chris Stephens, morning DJ and radio storyteller/philosopher on KBHR, the local radio station owned by Maurice.

Chris was raised in Wheeling, West Virginia by an alcoholic father.  He loves Walt Whitman, Joseph Campbell, Jung, Proust, Willie Nelson, Nietzche and Jack London. He's a sculptor, lives in a tiny trailer, bathes in the lake, and may -- or may not -- be running from the law. 

There's bush pilot Maggie O'Connell.

Maggie grew up pampered in Gross Point, Michigan, the daughter of a GM executive. Maggie's tortured by the fact that her last 7 boyfriends in Alaska have all died sudden, violent deaths -- including the most recent one who was crushed by a satellite that fell from the stratosphere. She's a gourmet cook and loves the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. 

There's Joel's office receptionist, Marilyn Whirlwind.

Marilyn infuriates the NYC raised Joel, as she is a young woman of very few words. Filled with native wisdom, she rarely speaks and quietly exudes non-verbal, non-judgmental wisdom. She is the textbook definition of "guileless" and is completely comfortable in her own skin. Naturally, this drives Joel crazy. Marilyn raises ostriches, and she loves knitting, dancing, doing laundry and reading Joel's Sharper Image catalogs.

Lastly there's Cicely's one happy couple -- Holling and Shelley, who run The Brick. It's the only bar/restaurant in town, and the perpetual gathering place for Cicilians. With it's comfortable atmosphere and perhaps a Bob Dylan tune lilting out of the juke box, it's a metaphorical and literal shelter from the storm (or should I say, blizzard). There's no sadness that a smile from the lovely waitress Shelley or a relaxed game of pool won't soothe at least a little.

Holling is a man among men, honest and hardworking. He gave up hunting bears for nature photography,  and he loves camping.  Shelley's into ice hockey, fluffy slippers and Bon Jovi. 

Each of these characters is, except for Maurice,  completely removed from the rat race of modern America. They drive old cars that need paint jobs, and they buy their clothes at thrift stores. Their simple homes are filled with mismatched dinnerware, framed paint-by-numbers pastoral scenes -- lovingly created -- and gently used but well cared for furniture.

In short, they've given up the trappings of materialism.

What's scary to most of us is it's these very things -- nice clothes, houses, cars -- which we hide behind. They're all part of an eloborate mask we've created which shields us as we compete in an ever accelerating race of ego-driven achievement and accumulation of stuff.

Equally alarming is the fact that in Cicely, there's no TV, no internet. They have VCRs where they watch classic movies from Ruth Ann's video rental wall at the general store, and that's about it. 

How do they survive without going crazy? 

It's hard to pin down. 

The characters go through tough times, loneliness, depression and malaise -- especially during the months of total darkness that is the Alaskan winter. Week after week, we watch rapt as they seek ways to deal with these emotions that we all feel at one time or another.

Chris in the Morning, the radio show, is the pulse of the town. Chris reads from the classics, he plays the best music from all genres, he tells stories and tries to find the meaning of it all. He explores everything: loneliness, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal, existentialism, good vs. evil, poetry, the laws of attraction, wildness, quantum physics,  art and beauty, the nature of consciousness -- and delves into myths and stories from cultures far and wide. 

His radio show is the soundtrack to life in Cicely, lilting in the background in every home and business. His searching, dark yet hopeful and optimistic take on life sets the tone for life in the town, and for the gentle lessons of the show. 

One particularly dark, dreary winter, Chris shook himself and the town out of their funk with a surprise light sculpture which he lovingly built using bits and pieces of lamps, neon signs and twinkly lights from all over town.

Humor and whimsy enter the dialog via hilarious and entertaining peripheral characters who come and go through the years. There's Leonard the Shaman,  Adam the genius gourmet cook who may, or may not, have worked for the CIA, and his brilliant but hypochondriacal wife. There's the by-the-book Officer Semansky (she's the only law-enforcement officer for 250 miles) and Mike the allergic-to-the-world lawyer who lives in a completely sterile geodesic dome. 

25 years ahead of it's time, there's Eric and Ron who buy a bed and breakfast, marry and settle in Cicely. When former Marine Ron meets the somewhat homophobic military man/astronaut/Alpha male Maurice for the first time, without skipping a beat Ron mutters "Semper Fi," with a wry smile, pats a confused Maurice on the shoulder and walks off with Eric.

Northern Exposure is also a modern masterpiece of Magical Realism. Dream sequences flow through nearly episode, unmasking fears and fantasies. There are demons and spirit guides, talking trees, humans reincarnated as dogs, the Flying Man, people dreaming each other's dreams, the healing power of the Aurora Borealis. Or not. Like the best Magical Realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it's all done in a whimsical way, where beauty, reality, and magic blur together. 

Kinda like life.

Mainly, I think, the show is a meditation on how to deal with loneliness. Most of the characters live alone, and have chosen to come to the wilds of Alaska -- alone. Family and friends pass through and then return to the states, romances flourish and die, friendships shear apart and sheepily reattach as they realize how much they rely on each other in this wild place.

They have profound conversations deep into the night about the nature of existence, why we're here and why we do the things we do.  They banter about through the ins and outs of Native American, Russian, Korean, Catholic, African myths and cultures -- and especially Jewish ones, which is Joel's journey. 

They laugh, they play chess, they cook and share meals together, they fish and hunt for days in the wild. They contemplate life and death through the lens of film, music and the printed word. And mostly, they treat one another with a kind hearted gentleness -- a good spiritedness which comes from knowing how dangerous and wild the world really is. They know how much they need each other.

But it's never, ever syrupy sweet, or pretentious, or preachy. Don't ask me how they do it. They just do. 

Countless TV comedies render themselves to watching and rewatching each episode, over and over, sometimes hundreds of times over a lifetime in syndication. Seinfeld, Sex and the City and I Love Lucy spring to mind.

But TV dramas, no matter how high quality, don't tend to hold up in the long run in syndication. I think the primary reason is they tend to look very dated. Miami Vice is a prime example. We loved watching it in the 1980's. But to watch it now, the music, the clothes, the hair -- yikes. Excruciating and unwatchable in 2015.

TV's Moonlighting. So cool and fun in 1985. Now? Fuggetaboutit.

Northern Exposure, on the contrary, holds up extremely well. The producers used classic music and songs for the soundtrack from all genres and eras. The characters were not into fashion, so their hair and clothes look like what a modern day Alaskan might wear. 

Of course, the heart of the show is Joel's journey. In season one, he is stripped down to his basic humanity, clueless how to proceed without all of the trappings of modern capitalistic society. He is truly hopeless. But over the arc of the 6 seasons, he slowly learns how to rebuild his life from the inside out rather than the outside in. 

In "A-hunting We Will Go," Joel, good Jewish New Yorker that he is, waxes forcefully and loudly about the evils of hunting. "It's Killing Bambi!" he cries. After much debate amongst the townspeople, though, he has an epiphany.  He sees that since he eats meat, he's a hypocrite if he loves tearing the flesh ofp a rib with his teeth at a cookout, but is at the same time offended by the killing.  He agrees to go on a hunting trip with Chris and Holling. Once on the hunt, almost immediately he understands the attraction of shooting and killing an animal that he will then eat for survival. "It's so raw. So primal. So honest," he says. But this was before he finally got his first kill. 

After shooting his first grouse, the doctor in him kicks in when he sees that the bird is wounded but still alive. Instead of completing the deed by breaking his neck, he goes into triage mode, rushes the wounded bird to his office and performs emergency surgery to save his life. When the grouse dies, he's devastated, and confused by his conflicting emotions. But he learns.

Watching the show (yes, over and over again) has a strange therapeutic quality that I can't quite put a finger on. If you've never seen it, or barely remember it, I strongly recommend buying the DVD's or watching them on Netflix (for whatever strange reason, it's never been on streaming). But I can say from experience that spending an hour or two in the presence of these people seems to bring perspective, decrease anxiety and increase clarity and understanding.

Why ask why? Just do it.   :-) 


  1. Magnificent essay on my all-time favorite TV series, one I'm currently watching start to finish for the dozenth time. Even though Morrow's decision to leave the show effectively killed it (some of the episodes in the second half of season six are painfully bad), prior to his departure Northern Exposure was (and remains) an absolutely unique series. Nothing has ever explored the joy, pain, magic, mundanity, genius, and myth of the human condition more effectively and enjoyably.

  2. Thanks for the nice words, Ncounty Guy! During our travels to remote places like we are now, a daily episode is a crucial part of maintaining my spirit and emotional health. Merry Christmas! :-)

  3. Hi again, Liz. I decided to re-read your essay today because I'm feeling much like you did in your first paragraphs and therefore thinking about firing up the series again. I hope all is well with you!

    Bon Hiver!

  4. Thanks! Hope you feel better soon after you rewatch again. Let the healing begin... :-)