Sunday, November 6, 2011

All Together Now In One Place: Northern Exposure - The Complete Series!

The Good: Somewhat less annoying packaging, Setting, Interesting characters, plots, Decent acting, DVD extras!
The Bad: Why didn't they start with this?! On balance, show is remarkably average.
The Basics: An entertaining but inconsistent show gets (mostly) decent DVD treatment which ought to please the fans, but not so much general audiences.

I have been steadily winding my way through Northern Exposure and that task just got much easier with the release of Northern Exposure - The Complete Collection on DVD. Now, all in one place, is the entire six season series in one DVD set. Unlike some collections, this is not a bundle pack of the old issues, rather a completely new packaging of the previously released discs. This makes it analogous to the new Angel Complete Series Set (reviewed here!). For those who already have the previously released individual seasons, there is nothing new in this set that you do not already have (save the bag package). Like the complete series set for The West Wing (reviewed here!), this boxed set takes up at least as much room as the original release, though I like this DVD bag as opposed to the annoying pillowed packaging the individual seasons came in.

For those who have never heard of Northern Exposure, it is a dramedy, one of the earliest programs that defied the clear-cut boundaries between drama and comedy. It began as a series filled with dry humor that seemed to defy the one hour format and evolved into more of a cross-culture, wacky situation drama that was often too complicated to fit into a half hour. So, the fifty-minute shows now appear wonderfully difficult-to-define on 26 discs representing the entire series.

Truth be told, I'm not a huge fan of Northern Exposure; friends of mine told me I'd love it and I generally haven't. The first two seasons are repetitive and not at all as original or interesting as I was told and the last season guts the concept of the show and doesn't truly work, either. And in between, the show is intriguing at times, fun at others and touching at still others, but what it is not is consistent. The show has pretty variable seasons and episodes and while the third, fourth and fifth seasons are worth watching, it's a tough series overall to sell.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Northern Exposure is a dramedy that follows life in Cicely, Alaska. Dr. Joel Fleischman, an uptight, conservative New York Jewish doctor finds himself confined to Cicely, Alaska for a term of five years for . . . his education. While going to medical school, Fleischman was given grants from the state of Alaska with the understanding that when he completed his training, he would become a doctor in residence in Alaska for five years. Fleischman is sent to the remote town of Cicely, which is not what he expected and certainly not what he wanted when he took out the loans.

Fleischman finds himself in a laid-back northern wasteland, living in a cabin and working in the town among people very different from himself. While Fleischman treats the residents of Cicely, he gets to know them and he forms relationships with the townspeople who are unlike anyone he knows back in New York.

Over his years in Cicely, Joel begins to loosen up with the natives and he does such things as join one of the Native American tribes, bring back a mystical woodsman named Adam, and carry on a love-hate relationship with local pilot Maggie O'Connell.

Indeed, Northern Exposure might begin as focused on Joel, but it soon begins to become a truly ensemble work focusing on Cicely, Alaska and all the happenings there. In due time, Ed begins to make movies, Maggie loses another boyfriend, Holling fights his demons in the form of Jesse The Bear, Shelly manages to actually get divorced from her hockey-player husband, Maurice sells a local inn to a pair of homosexuals (this is a big deal for Maurice), Chris builds a giant catapult to fling a cow as an artistic expression, and Marilyn continues to show up for work, despite never actually being hired as Joel's assistant.

This becomes an ensemble dramedy that goes beyond the awkward "fish-out-of-water" (or, in the humor of the show, a "Jew out of Brooklyn") story rather quickly and often Joel becomes a participant in a greater action around town and the show becomes more about the situation than Joel or even his participation in it. Indeed, some episodes do not focus on him at all and those episodes tend to be ones that have rather extraordinary plots, like finding a frozen body of a dead French man who offers an alternative ending to Napoleon's life or a Russian coming to town that Maurice challenges to a duel or Shelly's mother arriving and claiming to be her younger sister.

While the show is often quite plot-heavy, the best seasons do keep the plots focused on the characters and allows the characters to move the plots, as opposed to vice versa. As a result, it is helpful to know who the principle characters are over the 110 episodes of the series. The main characters include:

Dr. Joel Fleischman - Instantly annoyed to be living in the backwoods of the Alaskan frontier, Fleischman - a recent graduate from medical school - is slow to make friends in Cicely. He is soon abandoned by his fiance, leaving him single and very much alone. He soon finds camaraderie with Chris and a sparring partner with Maggie, who he tries to keep at an arm's length despite their mutual curiosity about one another. As he become privy to the medical needs of the townsfolk, he begins to develop sympathy and empathy for them and he soon discovers he is in exactly the right place for him,

Maggie O'Connell - The local pilot (which is an important job in remote Alaska!) who is a fairly liberal woman with terrible luck when it comes to men. Indeed, O'Connell has a reputation for having buried multiple boyfriends who have died in obscure ways, making it a tough sell for her boyfriend Rick to stick around. She delights in sparring with the uptight Fleischman and begins to develop bonds with Shelly and others in the town,

Chris Stevens - The local D.J., "Chris In The Morning," is a former felon who is now the town's resident philosopher. He is kind, slow to anger, and open-minded. Early on, he discovers that he has a half-brother who is black, with whom he shares a strange bond wherein they enter one another's dreams, inspiring Chris to declare himself an honorary person of color. Despite the fact that he works for Maurice, he is nothing like the conservative,

Holling Vincour - The owner of Roslyn's Cafe, the mayor of Cicely, and a senior citizen who comes from a long line of men who have lived to be well over 100. He has a temper (especially while waiting for the ice to melt in spring) and a great love for Shelly. Possibly Maurice's best friend in the world, despite having a falling out with him for years over Shelly. He was once a hunter, but renounced it after nearly being killed by Jesse the bear,

Shelly Tambo - Holling's very young lover, she was a former beauty queen who left Maurice for Holling some years ago. She was married to a hockey player (she had nothing better to do at the time), but is deeply in love with Holling, despite their age difference. She has an odd relationship with her free-as-a-bird mother, who treats Shelly as if she were her older sister,

Ed Chigliak - A local boy who has no known family, Ed is a bit of an outsider. He becomes enchanted with movies and becomes a budding filmmaker. A little clueless, Ed often happens into situations he does not understand,

Marilyn - a Native, she becomes Fleischman's assistant by virtue of showing up and declaring that she is. She once dated the Flying Man,

and Maurice J. Minnifield - the local entrepreneur, he is a conservative and a former astronaut. Maurice has a love of guns, drink and free market capitalism and it is a part of his vision of seeing Cicely made into a future resort that ensnares Fleischman in the town. He is brutish, prejudice and has a difficult time accepting things and people who are different from his white, upper-middle class vision of how things ought to be.

The show is well-acted by a pretty great cast and even offers them opportunities to truly stretch their acting wings. For example, in the episode "Cicely," the entire cast plays different characters as they envision the founding of the town ninety years prior. In the pretty terrible "Joel et Jules," Rob Morrow, who plays Joel plays his polar opposite, a character named Jules. Generally, the show is well cast, with actors like Barry Corbin, Darren Burrows, John Corbett, and Cynthia Geary establishing themselves within the mantles of very distinct characters.

Three members of the cast truly define the show, though and over the course of the series they are the ones to watch. Janine Turner, who plays Maggie, has the task of playing off Rob Morrow's Fleischman and Turner has a pretty unique gift for playing combative without being shrill. Turner has an antagonistic relationship (on-screen) with Morrow and the two play the relationship perfectly with a love-hate chemistry that seems utterly realistic. Turner has a wonderful sense of confidence that she brings to her body language that completely sells her abilities and her character.

Rob Morrow is given the task of selling the show, though, as much of the early series revolves around his character of Joel. Morrow is given the early challenge of being annoying and likable and while his character is pretty dismally irksome (he's written that way), whenever he is given the chance, Morrow proves himself a decent actor. In due course, he is forced to act while chained up, perform alternate reality versions of himself and actually smile (and stop complaining). He takes these character changes well and illustrates decent abilities as an actor, often performing with humor and vigor.

But it is John Cullum who is the one to watch when getting into Northern Exposure. Cullum is given the greatest acting duties by virtue of playing the character that has the most moods. So while performers like Barry Corbin and John Corbett might effortlessly establish the crank and the philosopher, respectively, they remain in those roles (or acting ruts, er, niches) almost the entire time. Cullum plays Holling Vincour and Holling is open and loving one episode, secretive and temperamental the next. He has a wide array of emotions and performances and Cullum's challenge - that he lives up to - is to create a unified character throughout, despite the varied performances. It's impossible to describe how, but Cullum always makes his varied performances seem like the function of the same character and Holling quickly became a favorite.

The problem with Northern Exposure is that - outside from the sometimes absurd and wonderful plots - the show often does not seem to know what it wants to do with itself. Take Holling and Shelly, for example. Holling is in his sixties and Shelly is in her early twenties. They are in love and have a relationship that is mostly stable. Every now and again, they fight and the usual issue between them is either cultural issues based on their ages. In the first few seasons, there are at least three episodes where their love is jeopardized because of Shelly thinking that Holling is too old for her or otherwise unsuited because of his age. It always comes back to the age difference. So, there's a cultural difference based on their ages; the only time they seem to address that is when it threatens their relationship. In other words, the show has a habit of establishing characters and relationships and not so much growing them as reiterating them over and over again.

On DVD, this series is wonderful for the bonus features! Almost every episode has deleted scenes and alternate takes (called "unexposed footage"). The deleted scenes are often fun and flesh out the characters and storylines better, though there are some episodes that lack extra scenes and some even have moments that are drawn out as if to fill the remaining time, which is pretty disappointing.

Fans of the series, I have learned, have been dismayed with the music on the DVDs. Having never seen the series outside the DVD collections, I did not notice anything off about the music. However, for the record, some of the episodes apparently replace songs that were in the original release with different music. I've never noticed this as a problem as it all seems to work out (unlike on the DVD released of the first season of Family Ties where the characters mention music that is not actually playing!). Die hard fans of the series will be disappointed to know that these discs are the same pressing as the original ones and the music that was originally altered for the DVD release still is.

On the balance, Northern Exposure is entertaining, but it's a hard sell on DVD. I'd be more likely to recommend seasons 3 - 5 as opposed to the entire series set, so my ultimate recommendation is to recommend this set to the die-hard fans who want the entire series and those who want the best, simply go for the prime seasons. Ultimately, the series falls as perfectly average, though the DVD bonuses are nice.

For a better idea of exactly what this series set entails, please check out my reviews on the individual seasons of Northern Exposure at:
Season 1
Season 2
Season 3
Season 4
Season 5
Season 6



For other television reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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