Thursday, November 24, 2011

"The Body In Question" Yields A Mediocre Episode Of Northern Exposure.

The Good: Good concept, Good debate over consequences, Moments of acting, Holling's character
The Bad: Very simple plot stretched a bit far, Forced character elements
The Basics: When Chris finds a frozen body whose personal effects indicate a different version of the end of Napoleon's life, the citizens of Cicely are torn as to what to do.

For those who follow my reviews of Northern Exposure, it's no surprise to learn that I was not a huge fan (or a fan at all) of the first two seasons of the series. Indeed, with the first season (reviewed here!), I found the show to be not at all as good as others had suggested, specifically not as quirky as many had made the series out to be, and the second season (reviewed here!) was merely a poor repetition of the first. With the third season, I found it to be much of what I had been promised when I began watching the series. It is rare, then, for me to find a third season episode of Northern Exposure that I would have trouble recommending.

And yet, "The Body In Question" is just one such episode. "The Body In Question" has a wonderful concept and makes a wonderful case about the debate between history and culture, but some of the character elements are forced and overdone. Unlike many episodes of the series that are clever or eccentric that develop the characters well, here it feels like writer Henry Bromell did not have a firm grasp on the characters, which is odd because this is not Bromell's first episode of the series and his others are rather good.

Chris is out doing his thing in the local river when garbage begins to wash past him. He is surprised by the nature of some of it and is even more surprised when nearby he finds the frozen corpse of a man. Bringing the frozen man Pierre Le Moulin back to Cicely, Chris inadvertently sparks a series of events that challenge the citizens of the small Alaskan city.

Maurice Minnifield, in his usual way, looks for a way to exploit the corpse for tourism, which looks likely when Pierre's journals indicate he was a friend of Napoleon and that Napoleon may not have lived his life out the way history records it. Maggie is thrilled by the prospect of Pierre helping to rewrite history, as is most of Cicely. On the other side of the argument - as usual - is Dr. Fleischman, who fears that if Pierre is telling the truth, it will undo most of the written history of Western Civilizations.

The basic premise is a clever one: dead body is found which challenges the history most everyone in the world takes for granted. The debate that ensues as a result is a remarkably highbrowed and intriguing one: if one major historical figure's life is rewritten, what are the consequences of that? Who gets to make the choice over what is determined to be "historically correct?" The debate takes the polarizing notions of the value of the absolute truth vs. the importance of myth in history and society. It's rare that an hour of television attempts to wrestle with such big notions, but "The Body In Question" does.

And it generally does it well. "Generally" applies here because the argument is kept pretty simple and as a result, there is a great deal of repetition and because Joel is the only one making the strong argument for the value of keeping history intact, the episode begins to grate on the viewer some. Fleischman has not been doing so much complaining in the third season and that has been a welcome changed for viewers. Yet in "The Body In Question," he seems less like a principled debater and more like a whining, immature guy, like he was in much of the first two seasons.

As a result, much of the episode is driven by the plot, which motivates the characters to simply weigh in on their perspectives of history and the collective unconscious. And herein lies the problem: because someone needs to represent the view that "history is what is already written and to challenge that could unravel everything" and because the character chosen to do that is Joel (the only other reasonable person to do it would have been Minnifield, but Maurice always trumps his conservative nature with profit margins), the audience is asked to overlook how illogical that choice is. Joel has a great deal to gain from proving that Pierre is exactly who he says he is and challenging the history as it has been written. Such a role brings notariety, speaking engagements, profit, everything Joel lacks in his tenure in Cicely and has coveted from the first episode. If it did not get him out of Cicely, it would at least increase tourism and potentially allow him to either have more contact with people like himself or treat more people. Either way, he would be more stimulated than he is when the episode begins.

So, because the episode is stretched pretty thin, there are b-plots added in, or more precisely one b-plot involving Shelly and Holling. The problem is, the two interact so little in the b-plot, it feels almost like they are two separate stories. Shelly begins to freak out and believe that she may be infertile. She becomes obsessed with the idea that because she and Holling do not have children together - even though she's never exhibited any desire to have any - that their love will not last. She becomes convinced she is barren and that drains her (on the DVD version of this episode, there are deleted scenes that are much more explicit and obvious with this, though the aired cut on this tape is at least as good with the more subtle approach).

This is an interesting enough character dilemma, but it feels tacked on in this episode. Somehow, it just does not fit into "The Body In Question." And that is where Holling Vincoeur's story comes in. Holling is agitated from the moment Pierre's body arrives in Cicely. He becomes moody and withdrawn and avoids Shelly some, which sparks her fears about their relationship lasting.

Holling's story is much more interesting than what it appears and the explanation is brilliant. His actions throughout the episode make perfect sense in light of the - admittedly farfetched - character revelations that come out at almost the very end of the episode (which I shall not ruin!). Holling contributes the one genuine piece of actual character development to an episode that is otherwise seriously bogged down with plot points and thematic debates.

John Cullum, who plays Holling gives a wonderful performance and is able to completely sell the audience on his character's sudden left turn with the backstory revelations. Cullum is convincing because he has a quiet dignity and because he is not outlandish, he can make even the extraordinary seem plausible. It is Cullum's ability to play quietly emotional that gives his performance in this episode real weight and satisfies the viewer.

Close behind is actress Cynthia Geary, who gives a much more manic performance than Cullum as Shelly. Geary, whose work on the show often goes underappreciated gives a great performance as a young woman seriously worried about the future and the future of her relationships and the ability to have a family when she wants one. Even though the b-plot with her worries does not seem to fit this particular episode, she pulls the character aspects off well with a very considerate performance. Here she portrays a sense a maturity that her character seldom has and she is wonderful bringing that to the role.

"The Body In Question" has a resolution that is funny and quirky and seems like it might have been more appropriate on Twin Peaks, but it works for this odd show. Were it not so monolithic and repetitive in the debates and focused some more on the characters debating and why they have such an emotional stake in the whole "are Pierre's journals real or are the history books telling the truth" debate, then "The Body In Question" might have been a winner. As it is, it is an above average concept with a below average execution.

[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 reviews, please check out my index page by clicking here!

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