Monday, November 21, 2011

Just After I Had Given Up On It, Northern Exposure Gets Good - "Season Three!"

The Good: Funny, Charming, Quirky, Good character development, Decent plots, Good acting, Good DVD extras
The Bad: No commentaries, Continued sense of repetition, Same packaging issues as prior seasons
The Basics: When the resident's of Cicely, Alaska return for another boxed set DVD, the humor and drama increase to the point worthy of buying!

For those unfamiliar with my reviews, I've been giving Northern Exposure a shot lately and I was pretty underwhelmed with Northern Exposure - The Complete First Season (reviewed here!) and Northern Exposure - The Complete Second Season (reviewed here!). By the end of season two, I felt the show had pretty much done all it could do with what it was given and it was mostly just repeating itself by that point. So, it might seem strange that I even gave Northern Exposure - The Complete Third Season a viewing.

I'm glad I did.

Cicely, Alaska, is much as it has been with its day-to-day routines and schemes that are disrupted by the funeral of Rick (killed in season two's finale by a satellite). This sets Maggie off on a series of adventures that include being stranded in the wilderness with Joel, finding Rick reincarnated in a dog, her parent's divorcing and not sleeping with Joel in Juneau. Joel, for his part, continues to consider Alaska a prison and he makes an effort for find more Jews in Alaska, counsel Maggie on her loss and aging, avoid reconnecting with his ex-fiancee, and learn about hunting. As well, Shelly and Holling do their usual dance around not being married, Ed becomes a filmmaker, Marilyn falls in love, Maurice discovers his illegitimate son, and Chris works his amazing sexual magnetism on the town. And Adam pops up again . . . .

Honestly, I picked up Northern Exposure - The Complete Third Season because this was the season that the show won a bunch of awards for. After finding the prior two seasons less thrilling and more repetitive than I anticipated, I was a bit skeptical about season three deserving the awards it won (it won Best Drama, Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Writing, and Supporting Actress awards for this season as well as a slew of other nominations). But it is quite a bit sharper than I anticipated and I can see how it would have been deserving of many of them.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Northern Exposure takes place in the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska. The town is populated by characters who were supposed to be quirky and different - I found them to be tame. The basic story involves Dr. Joel Fleischman being dragooned to Cicely to pay off his debts for his education. The state of Alaska paid for his medical training and he is compelled to serve in Alaska for five years as the chief medical resident of Cicely. There, he finds himself like a fish out of water (or in the humor of the show, a Jew out of bagels) amid a collection of people quite unlike anything he finds familiar.

In order to better understand the show (and Joel's discomfort), it helps to understand the principle characters. Here is how the third season finds the residents of Cicely, Alaska:

Joel - An uptight, Republican Jew from New York City, he finds himself out of his element practicing medicine in Alaska. Recovering from being ditched by his fiancee, Joel struggles to relate to others, though he does build a more firm bond with Chris and Maggie this season. Plagued by Adam and his crazy wife, Joel finds himself stranded in the middle of nowhere, abducted, knocked unconscious, attempting to hunt, being adopted by a tribe, ballot counting, and trying to get laid at a medical conference,

Chris - The local d.j. finds himself the source of lust among the town's women and plagued (or blessed!) with pheromones that make him virtually irresistible to women. He and his brother Bernard begin sharing dreams, which sends Chris desiring to go to Africa, lamenting his inability to vote, buying into Holling's bar for a time and providing spiritual advice for many of the locals,

Ed - Becomes a legitimate filmmaker. He begins shooting films around Cicely and working with Ruth-Anne at the store,

Holling - The mayor of Cicely and owner of the bar finds himself pondering much of his life. Still in love with Shelly, he finds himself troubled by generations past in his family line, teaching Joel to hunt, in an actual race for re-election, and dealing with the death of a friend. He and Maurice find old tensions resurfacing and an old nemesis pops up to make him rethink his choices,

Shelly - Finds herself most disturbed by the return of her mother, who acts more like a sister. In addition to assisting Holling with his business at the Brick, she finally gets divorced, worries about her fertility, and longs for a real Christmas,

Marilyn - She assists Joel at the doctor's office. This season, she finds herself running an ostrich farm, convincing Joel to be adopted by a nearby tribe and falling in love with the Flying Man,

Maurice - A former astronaut, he is ruled by an ambition to make Cicely into a tourist destination of choice. As a result, he finds himself trying to buy into Marilyn's farm, romancing a state trooper, discovering his illegitimate Korean son, hauling a corpse across the wilderness, and becoming miffed by tourists during the celebration of the Northern Lights,

and Maggie - The local pilot and foil to Joel. She is rocked by Rick's death and shocked to learn he was unfaithful almost their entire relationship. As a result, she longs for family - which abandons her for Christmas - and is miffed when her mother arrives to burn down her house. As well, she finds herself stranded with Joel in the wilderness and at a conference in Juneau, finds herself attracted to a mysterious stranger, and discovers she is aging when she needs glasses.

Northern Exposure won awards in this season for its dramatic presentation and the show seems to have finally hit its stride by accepting itself within a dramatic niche. The prior two seasons, the show seemed uncertain as to whether or not it wanted to be a drama or comedy and it was shaky as either. It wasn't funny enough to be a comedy and it wasn't direct enough to make for an effective drama. In this boxed set, it comes into its own as a drama with characters who are atypical and intriguing.

Instead, this set works well because it finally seems to have something to say and a pretty confident voice to say it with. The show dwells less on Joel and Maggie and their "will they or won't they" relationship and stretches out to explore more of the other parts of the town. Indeed, the season finale barely utilizes the cast as their regular characters, instead recasting them all as people from 1909 who helped found the town. But because the series is not obsessed with focusing on the awkward not-quite-romance between the two leads, it explores some genuinely interesting issues and character twists.

Perhaps one of the most interesting and enduring moments of the season comes in "Seoul Mates." Maurice is troubled by his Korean son and in a conversation with Chris, the two directly tackle Maurice's racism and what it means. Scenes like that were pretty much absent from the earlier seasons.

The odd thing about Northern Exposure that persists into this boxed set is the way the show often comes up short. For a DVD set flush with deleted scenes and alternate takes, it seems odd when the episodes seem to run out of script and dwell instead. So, for example, one episode ends with Ed and Ruth-Anne dancing on a mountaintop. The shot lasts almost a minute as the camera pans back up into the sky and away. It's long and the mood is tired by the time it's over. I'm all for mood, but it ought to say something. This just felt like "Wow, a helicopter shot!" In other words, it fails to add something to the episode. It is style for the sake of style as opposed to actual statement.

The DVD extras for this set are simply a pretty massive collection of deleted scenes (at least one per episode). There are a few alternate takes, but most of the "Unexposed Footage" this set essentially are bloopers. They are funny for a viewing or two, but I find myself wishing there had been a commentary track on several of the episodes. There were none.

For those who have not been into Northern Exposure before now, this set is perfectly accessible for those who have not been fans prior or who have not enjoyed the previous seasons. Instead, the episodes go out of their way to explain relationships when they pop up and any significant backstory needed. But more than that, the nice thing is that the early awkwardness's of the prior seasons are gone and in their place is a pretty solid show that is entertaining, insightful and overall just plain good. Anyone looking for something that is dramatic with characters who are not your typical ones, this boxed set works out nicely.

And on the acting front, the actors all seem to be well in their niches. The regular cast is strong and they seem universally comfortable with who they're playing. The standout this season on the acting front would have to be John Corbett as Chris in the Morning. Corbett has some real acting challenges, like playing Chris with word salad, some significant dance moves and as both an open mind and quasi-spiritual leader for the town. His character is possibly the most dynamic and well-read on the show and as a result he often is given the most challenges as far as dialogue and he lives up to those challenges, creating a very memorable television character.

Conversely, most of the rest of the cast simply hones their performances without truly straying from their niches. They are decent performers performing well, but for the most part, the third season does not afford them any real acting challenges that we have not seen from them before.

It's easy to see - with this set - why Northern Exposure was popular and this makes a worthy addition to anyone's dramatic DVD collection.

For a better idea on some of the specific content of this set, please check out my reviews on these episodes from the collection:
The Body In Question
Seoul Mates
Burning Down The House

For the third seasons of other comedies, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Weeds - Season Three
Psych - Season Three
Friends - The Complete Third Season


For other television reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

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

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