Monday, November 28, 2011

Another Tough Sell Episode In Northern Exposure's Third Season Is "Burning Down The House."

The Good: Moments of concept, Performances, Moments of character
The Bad: Entirely predictable a-plot, Ridiculous b-plot, Utter lack of anything superlative.
The Basics: In a sadly average (at best) episode, three weak plots are combined to try to fill the time, with none of them being truly satisfying.

There is something fun about going back and watching television shows from the '80s now, especially as some of the people who were in shows then age or, unfortunately, die. I first caught the Northern Exposure episode "Burning Down The House," shortly after the death of Bibi Besch, who I had enjoyed in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (reviewed here!). Sadly, this is not one of her more remarkable performances and honestly, this is a tough sell episode (it's one of my razor decisions that ended up falling short in the coin toss.

The fundamental problem with "Burning Down The House" is that it is weakly plotted. There are three mediocre ideas that are lumped together into a single episode and none of the three ideas is enough to carry the episode on its own. The title of the episode puts the focus on Maggie O'Connell, though. It helps to have seen "Seoul Mates" (reviewed here!) because there Maggie learns she is not being recalled home for Christmas Vacation as she is used to.

"Burning Down The House" finds Maggie being visited by her mother, Jane, who promptly reveals that she is divorcing her husband, Maggie's father. Apparently Jane and her husband spent Christmas traveling to rekindle the spark between them, did not find it and have decided to split. Unfortunately for Maggie, Jane finds a spark while in Cicely and she burns down Maggie's house.

Elsewhere, Chris becomes obsessed with creating a cow catapult and, separately, Fleischman becomes obsessed with the chimney sweep in town, who he recognizes as a famous golfer who blew a putt in the Majors some years before. Sadly, these one line descriptions of the plots that take up the other two-thirds of the episode are about that substantial. Fleischman antagonizes Bob into admitting he is, in fact, golfer Larry Coe, and Chris pursues his art and wastes any free moment of the episode with attempting to find a cow to fling through the air to its death. That plot is just plain stupid until the end.

The problem with a weakly plotted episode - other than giving me very little to review - is that the show suffers because it is taking the shotgun approach to storytelling and "Burning Down The House" definitely suffers from that. Because none of the plots are sufficiently developed, the episode pretty much goes anywhere in a desperate attempt to fill the fifty minutes. The problem, in this case, is that the only moment the show is remotely clever is when the Chris and Maggie plots resolve themselves together, though this forces writer Robin Green to contrive a completely new element to O'Connell that we've never seen before.

Jane O'Connell is nothing special and her appearance is somewhat baffling. Why? Maggie uses Fleischman in an earlier episode (in the second season) to impress her parents and Besch did not play Jane in that episode. In fact, it's like the writers forgot about "All Is Vanity," though admittedly Jane did not appear in it. The writers and directors of the two episodes were completely different, so they appear to not have conversed on making Jane into anyone who seems remotely compatible to Frank (Maggie's father). The short of it is, introducing Jane instead of revisiting Frank makes the episode seem a bit more convoluted in the big picture.

The idea that Jane is a pyromaniac is amusing, though it's a short-lived bit of humor. Her arrival and the news she brings is not at all surprising. The moment she appears - especially without Frank - the story she tells is pretty unremarkable. So, the viewer is left with a character relaying a story that is pretty dull and predictable for fans of the show, doing something amusing and then getting lost.

More important than Jane's pyromania is Maggie's dealing with it and the separation of her parents. Unfortunately, this does not come back up for some time in the series and the result of this visit does not move forward any of the bigger plots (I suppose I ought to be happy that the show did not go in a predictable direction and have Maggie and Fleischman move in with one another following her loss of a house!).

Fleischman's part in this episode is as simple as his plot. He pops up, recognizes the chimney sweep and does his usual annoying schtick. Nothing new here.

I wish I could say that the Chris plot challenges actor John Corbett, but he's pretty much standard Chris in this one. He's not as uninspired as he was in The Messengers, but he's nothing to write home about here either. Chris's need to do something artistic that has never been done before is admirable and certainly fits his character, but actor Corbett is not given anything new to play with the character in this role this episode.

So, what we end up with is mush that only Janine Turner (Maggie) makes work well enough to even bring the episode into remotely debatable territory. She plays the wounded adult who must deal with her parents' divorce quite well, though that whole conflict within her character is quickly sublimated to the fear that her mother is a pyromaniac. This does not give Turner a lot to work with, but she does what she can with it.

Ultimately, the episode is a failure to make something that holds up over multiple viewings and that is disappointing. The series does better and you can do better than picking this video up.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Northern Exposure - The Complete Third Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the third season by clicking here!


For other television episode and DVD set reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

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