Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Lackluster Exposure: DVD Extras Save Northern Exposure - The Complete First Season.

The Good: Interesting characters, Decent enough acting, DVD Extras
The Bad: Nothing really happens, Not especially funny or engaging, Packaging
The Basics: In a close call, the DVD bonus features encourage me to recommend this overrated series for those who might never have seen Northern Exposure before.

Friends, associates and well-wishers through the years (though I'm rethinking that last category as I judge my latest DVD set) have recommended Northern Exposure to me. There has been a pretty constant flow of people recommending it to me and with the DVD release of the series (I'm getting to it now because my local library got it, so I didn't have to invest in it!) it seemed like the right time to see what all of the fuss was about. With the advent and demise of Men In Trees, a dramedy set in Alaska, the basic premise of Northern Exposure was easy to grasp. In the first season of Northern Exposure, Dr. Joel Fleischman arrives in Cicely, Alaska to work off his student loan.

Dr. Joel Fleischman, a New York Jew, arrives in Cicely, Alaska where he is indentured for four years to pay the state of Alaska back for paying for the good doctor's education. In Cicely, Fleischman finds himself in the company very different from people like those he knows. Irritated by the local pilot, Maggie, Fleischman is befriended by the local d.j., takes one of the local Indians under his wing, and is kept in town by the developer and former astronaut Maurice Minnifield.

Over the course of the first season, a paltry eight episodes on the front and back of two DVDs, Fleischman occupies most of the a-plots, wherein he does such things as: arrive in Cicely, works to convince Ed's Uncle to get modern medical treatment, disposes of a windfall inheritance from one of the locals, schemes with Maurice to lessen his workload by trying to sell some Japanese businessmen on a golf course in Cicely, deals with a flu outbreak, and teaches a childbirth class. Most of the plots force Fleischman and O'Connell (Maggie) together where they antagonize one another in a way reminiscent of the protagonists of Moonlighting. In short, there's the sense that the leads of Northern Exposure, kept apart by their love interests the first season, will eventually move from a love-hate relationship to a romantic relationship.

Northern Exposure is a supposed dramedy - it definitely falls more toward the side of drama than comedy - that is almost entirely dependent upon its setting for its originality. Cicely, Alaska is uncharted television domain and as a result, the setting is what provides most of the originality for the series. Otherwise, it's a pretty standard "fish out of water" series with Dr. Fleischman being set down in a place that he is unfamiliar with. In fact, setting is so important in Northern Exposure that it draws instant comparisons to Twin Peaks, another series with eclectic characters that traded on a unique and distinct setting. The comparison is so close that in "Russian Flu," there is a parody of Twin Peaks when Fleischman has a flu-dream.

The main difference between Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure is that Twin Peaks had a purpose. For all of the convoluted plots and weird characters, the series was always going somewhere. The mystery of who killed Laura Palmer motivated the protagonist and drove much of the series. The problem with Northern Exposure is there is no such motivation. Instead, this series rambles and lacks a sense that it is going somewhere. The episodes are largely episodic instead of serialized, which further weakens it on DVD; there are no real consequences that are built upon. The characters do very little in the way of learning and growing. And while the viewer might feel there is an inevitability to the relationship between Fleischman and O'Connell, the series is wisely taking its time in getting there. Wise, but also troubling because the series does not make much in the way of a statement.

Northern Exposure - The Complete First Season on DVD is redeemed by only two things. First, the characters are genuinely interesting and there is a good mix of individuals. The principle characters in the first season are:

Dr. Joel Fleischman - An uptight Jewish doctor who is condemned to Cicely, Alaska after the state of Alaska invests in his education. Pining for New York City and his fiance, a lawyer named Elaine, Fleischman whines and complains his way through the daily chores of visiting with the natives of Cicely and curing them of what ails them,

Marilyn - Fleischman's de facto assistant who created her own job and stoically keeps an eye on the new doctor,

Ed Chigliak - An Indian guide who introduces Joel to Cicely and guides him around the town. Ed has a passion for movies and begins to explore what it would take to make a movie about those around him,

Chris Stevens - The local d.j., an educated young man who spins records, talks to the residents of Cicely, and educates them on which poets were gay. Chris gets two solid episodes when Maurice adopts him so he'll have someone to pass his legacy to and when his half-brother arrives in town,

Holling Vincoeur - Mayor of Cicely and the owner of the local cafe where everyone eats. Holling is in his sixties and comes from a solid family that has extreme longevity and his romantic interest in Shelly keeps him busy,

Shelly Tambo - Holling's young lover, she is thrilled by the older man and believes she might be pregnant with his child, prompting the pair to head for the altar. Shelly was once coveted by Maurice, though she left him for Holling and her big surprise comes late in the season,

Maurice J. Minnifield - Former astronaut and now the business developer who sees the Alaskan frontier as the "new Riviera" and he has managed to get Joel into the community to help develop that vision. Maurice is conservative, somewhat repressed, and always scheming. He is also essentially human, having a brush with mortality, a musing on art in the community and begins to mend his broken friendship with Holling,

and Maggie O'Connell - Plagued by a string of relationships that resulted in the deaths of her partners, O'Connell is gun-shy but dating a fellow pilot, Rick. Antagonized by Fleischman, she nevertheless finds herself pushed together with him when the two inherit land from a dead hermit, she helps him fix up his cabin as his landlord, and the two travel to a nearby town to teach a pregnancy class.

Largely, the series is not funny, though it has quirky moments and most of the characters are more interesting than the standard television characters. A lot of the humor and weirdness of the series comes in the form of dreams and visions, which are generally well-constructed.

The second thing that saves this DVD experience (the case is padded and that's annoying and not a specific reference revealed in the first season) are the DVD extras. With only eight episodes, it's hard to get excited about shelling out on the series, but the episodes are packed with bonus features. Every episode has both deleted scenes and "undeveloped footage." The deleted scenes are, of course, the pieces that were shot, developed and prepared for broadcast that were cut for time or content. The undeveloped footage is a whole series of scenes, clips and sometimes just lines or alternative takes that the editors of the episodes knew were not going to make it into the episode before they ever had it developed. The undeveloped footage gives a wonderful and rare sense of how episodic television is assembled and the ease with which one may compare scenes in the undeveloped footage and the final cut makes for an intriguing viewing experience.

That is, if one cares enough about the series to bother. Northern Exposure is good, but it's not the "light the world on fire" series everyone sold it to me as. The characters are interesting and the setting is good, but I've already gotten a lot more mileage out of my DVD set of Wonderfalls (reviewed here!) than I have out of the Northern Exposure DVDs. Even a series pre-emptively axed like Wonderfalls, which I mention because it has some similar structural conceits, has more of a sense of originality and feel like it is going somewhere than Northern Exposure does in its first season. Once the viewer understands the setting of Cicely, Alaska, which might take the entire first season, the show becomes something of a one-trick pony.

But while the plots do not go anywhere new and different in television and the characters are as quirky as they can be without divine influence or superhuman powers, the acting in the first season of Northern Exposure is good. Even that is hard to judge, though. For example, Darren E. Burrows plays Ed and his performances are often very broken and stiff, which seems like it might be the character, but there's an uncertainty and erraticness to the performance that undermines that argument. Ed is a "live and let live" kind of guy, yet often his body language and delivery of lines is very stiff, which makes me question Burrows' choices as an actor (or the directors).

Rob Morrow is consistent Dr. Fleischman, annoying and whining his way through the series. He has an energy and arrogance to his performance that works well for the character. Similarly, Janine Turner does well as the alternately laid back and hot-tempered Maggie, who plays off Morrow well. Morrow and Turner actually have decent on-screen chemistry which makes their conflict and supposed eventual hooking up seem much more realistic.

The two gems of the first season are John Corbett as Chris and Barry Corbin as Maurice. Relegated to mostly bit roles that seem like cameos, John Corbett creates a distinctive and interesting hippie-like character for Chris. Corbett plays laid back and easy going with an intelligence and skill that works perfectly.

But it is Barry Corbin that steals the show. As Maurice, Corbin is authoritative, knowledgeable and completely in control. Corbin has a bearing and dignity that make him a believable leader and he pulls off the role of Maurice wonderfully.

Is it enough? Barely. I'm ultimately recommending the first season of Northern Exposure because it is good (though not great) television and it is entertaining. The DVD boxed set is a value for those who are into the series or those who want to take a chance on one season of the show. The deleted scenes and undeveloped footage are entertaining and are almost enough to make up for the annoying way that the Universal credit logo rolls before each episode.

For a better idea of what the series is like, check out my reviews of two of the episodes in this set! This set includes:
"The First Episode"
"Aurora Borealis: A Fairy Tale For Big People"
Thanks for reading!

For other first seasons of eccentric shows, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The X-Files - The Complete First Season
Buffy The Vampire Slayer - Season 1
Boston Legal - Season One


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

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

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