Friday, November 11, 2011

Northern Exposure Starts Bland With "The First Episode!"

The Good: Interesting idea, One or two performances
The Bad: Not funny, Characters are not engaging, Plot is almost nonexistent, Not quirky
The Basics: With a surprisingly disappointing pilot episode, Northern Exposure gets off to a rocky start.

Occasionally as I branch out away from the science fiction and heavy dramas that I am most known for reviewing, I decide to take in something that is almost universally described to me as a classic. When it came to picking up Northern Exposure, I found myself more than a little disappointed. Starting with "The First Episode" (which it is only called on this VHS tape; every other incarnation has it listed as "Pilot") the show was never quite what I would call "classic" and it was hardly as quirky as many people described it to me as. For an hour long dramedy, this one got off to an awkward start.

When Dr. Joel Fleischman arrives in Alaska, he is immediately a fish out of water. He is a New York City Jew and an elitist whose education was paid for by the good people of Alaska. the terms of his scholarship was a residency for four years following his graduation in Alaska practicing medicine where needed. Joel expects to be stationed in one of the major cities of Alaska but is immediately assigned to Cicely, Alaska. Flown in in a little prop plane, Fleischman feels completely lost amid the residents of the 500 person town.

Joel's sense of bewilderment does not fade when he is met by Ed, a young man who seems a little slow on the uptake, who brings him into town. He is immediately disappointed with the lodging, which is a cabin owned by pilot Maggie O'Connell who immediately rubs Joel the wrong way. Joel attempts to get out of the arrangement by conniving with the local hero and economic developer Maurice Minnifield, a former astronaut, who keeps Joel quite effectively in his place. Plagued as well by an assistant he insists he does not need (Marilyn) who gives herself the job, Joel finds himself hanging out with local philosopher, radio d.j. Chris and spending time at the local bar, owned by Mayor Holling Vincoeur and waitressed by far younger squeeze, Shelly. Despite his best efforts to escape Cicely, Joel finds he is there to stay, at least for now.

The plot of "The First Episode" is ridiculously pilot-esque. This is a pilot and as a result, it is all about beginnings. Far too much of the episode feels like it is a beginning, though, most notably the way characters who have supposedly been around one another for years interact. Writer-director Joshua Brand may not have had the time to work with most of the actors before they started shooting, but it certainly would have helped the flow of this episode.

This is especially noticeable in the relationship between Holling and Shelly. The two do not have the sense that they have been together long, nor that they are truly all that attached to one another. This is especially problematic in this episode because Holling and Minnifield have had a falling out over Shelly that has resulted in them not speaking to one another for some time. In order to make that level of feud credible, the pair needs to demonstrate some genuine affection for one another - the episode lacks the sense of romance between Holling and Shelly in any palpable way.

The other severe problem with the episode in terms of characters is in the performance of Darren E. Burrows. Burrows plays Ed Chigliak, a Native youth who simply does not pop. I understand that there is an intended disconnect between Ed and Joel, that Joel is unlike anyone else Ed has ever met, but Ed just seems painfully slow. It's unclear if that is supposed to be his character, though and as a result, it just seems like Burrows is on very shaky ground as an actor. He seems awkward and stiff as opposed to either truly dim or alienated. The result is a performance that is difficult to watch because the viewer wonders why the director did not give the young man another take to get it right!

That said, many of the other performances are wonderful or at least adequate. Elaine Miles plays Marilyn with exactly the sense that one suspects Ed was supposed to be played with, a quiet, Native American archetype who "gets it" but is not all that expressive. John Corbett has a bit role in this episode, but it's still a better performance than he gave years later in The Messengers. Similarly, both Barry Corbin and John Cullum (Minnifield and Holling) begin small but with memorably decent performances.

The two we are supposed to watch from the beginning are Janine Turner and Rob Morrow as O'Connell and Fleischman, respectively. Right off the bat the two have wonderful on-screen chemistry, even if their characters are antagonistic toward one another. Before this, I had seen neither in anything and the truth is from their first scenes together, they had something that worked. They play well off one another and instantly and effectively set up a "will they or won't they" type relationship, despite the fact that both Joel and Maggie are seeing other people. But the truth is, Turner has more on-screen chemistry with Morrow than she does with Grant Goodeve, who plays Rick.

But the true disappointment for me with this episode was that it wasn't what everyone had described Northern Exposure as. It wasn't zany, it wasn't particularly well-written (it's average there), the characters were not irresistible and the setting was not impressive. In short, this pilot fell well below my expectations, making me a little surprised it was picked up as a series (perhaps that's why the first season is only eight episodes!). Maybe the show was trading on the celebrity of creator Joshua Brand, though it does seem this was his breakout hit.

Regardless, "The First Episode" sets up the principle characters and relationships, but the truth is it's not needed to understand the series. Because Joel complains in virtually every episode (at least in the first season) about how he's indentured in Cicely against his will, viewers who skip this and go to other episodes will not be missing out on anything. And the truth is, what other episodes do better than this one is establish the sense that Cicely is a community and Joel is an outsider who is infiltrating that community. In this episode, the bond between the Cicilians is not there to give the sense that Joel is interrupting anything real.

The result is a hit-or-miss episode that is not comedic. Sadly, unless one considers fifty minutes of complaining drama, it's not truly dramatic, either. In short, this is a very shaky start and for those looking for quirky and different, well, this feels almost twenty years out of date (because it's almost twenty years old). There are weirder characters in, for example, Boston Legal (reviewed here!) and virtually every other David E. Kelly production. And there we either get a laugh or a social statement or a genuine sense of something dramatic.

Here, we just get Joel Fleischman kvetching!

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

For other pilot episodes, be sure to check out my reviews of:
"The Cage" (Star Trek)
"Pilot" (Millennium)
"Welcome To The Hellmouth" (Buffy The Vampire Slayer)


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

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

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