Saturday, November 26, 2011

One Bit Of Dialogue Makes An Average Episode Shine With Northern Exposure's "Seoul Mates!"

The Good: Chris's interaction with Maurice, Character, Acting
The Bad: Weak plot, Maggie's b-plot
The Basics: Despite a slow or fractured start, "Seoul Mates" pulls together when Minnifield learns he has a Korean son during Christmas in Cicely!

Virtually ever television series airing in the United States makes an effort - at least once per series run - to capitalize on the Christmas holiday by doing a Christmas episode. Today, I've been enjoying that concept and I watched "In Excelsis Deo," the Emmy-winning Christmas episode from the first season of The West Wing (reviewed here!). I also decided to revisit the Northern Exposure Christmastime episode "Seoul Mates," which was nominated for several awards (it may have even won, come to think of it). The truth is, "In Excelsis Deo" is a grand slam episode for The West Wing, whereas "Seoul Mates" takes some warming up to. That's not to say "Seoul Mates" is not good television, but it does not instantly resonate the way the episode of The West Wing does.

With Christmas arriving in Cicely, Alaska, the small town is filled with raven imagery, much to the confusion of Dr. Fleischman. Deciding to embrace the season, the New York Jew opts for getting a Christmas tree because it has no direct ties to anything distinctly Christian and he likes the way they look. He approaches Maggie O'Connell about decorating it, but finds that she is fretting the impending annual manipulation of her by her parents. She dreads being recalled by her parents for Christmas with their timeworn efforts to make her feel guilty.

On the other side of town, Maurice Minnifield is feeling lonely until he gets a surprise . . . visitors from Korea, one of whom appears to be his adult son!

For those who have not seen or been a fan of Northern Exposure, it is germane to note that Maurice Minnifield, formerly in the military, formerly an astronaut, is a businessman who seeks to develop Cicely and the areas around it for tourism and profit. He's strongly conservative, especially on cultural issues. When he learns of his son, Yung, he is instantly resistant to the idea.

Indeed, Minnifield does not even remember Yung Yong Ja, the Korean prostitute who he had frequented while stationed in Korea when she arrives with Yung. Instead, Minnifield is instantly appalled by the idea that he might have sired a nonwhite child and he is openly hostile toward Yung. There is a dark irony to the confusion Minnifield exhibits when he understands that Yung is his son and demands to know what it is the man wants from Maurice. He is absolutely baffled that the son might not want money, but rather just to know who his father is.

"Seoul Mates" is one of the few episodes of network television I can recall that so thoroughly tackles - without fear or pretense - racism and the weird levels it exists on. Maurice is unabashedly hostile to Yung and exhibits revulsion over the idea that after years of considering the possibility of having an heir, that heir might not be white. In fact, Yung is nothing like what he expected and Minnifield manages to tell him that in what is a remarkably hurtful (through his indifference) way. Indeed, if there is any real fault with Maurice's character arc in this episode, it is how long his confusion persists before he actually becomes angered by the reality of his expectations suddenly turning around on him.

Why am I so enthusiastic about an episode where the main plot focuses on a mean racist whose anger boils up over having a nonwhite child? Because there is a moment in the episode where everything turns. The moment is incredibly clever and writers Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider, as well as director Jack Bender, ought to be given a lot of credit for. The moment comes not with a "Hallmark" turnaround wherein Maurice realizes that his racism is wrong and he makes a full turnabout to embrace his son. No, "Seoul Mates" is smarter than that because while the issue is incredibly important, Northern Exposure wants to tackle the racism within the bounds of the actual characters.

As a result, Frolov and Schneider orchestrate a scene with Maurice and Chris. Back in the first season of the series (reviewed here!), there was an episode where Maurice named Chris his heir, so there has been an almost familial bond between them at times since. Maurice confesses to Chris about just how he is feeling and how hurt and disappointed he is by Yung being he son. Chris, then, goes into the obligatory speech about racism and all its evils. However, instead of putting Maurice in his place, Chris simply notes the good thing about the exact type of racism Maurice is exhibiting, which is that it is a learned trait.

Everyone in that scene performs and delivers perfectly. The writers set up the lines, Chris - played by John Corbett - delivers the story, Maurice - played by Barry Corbin - sets it up with lines asking why this ought to cheer him up and Corbett spikes home the kicker line that completely turns the episode. And no, I won't ruin that. It's worth the slow build-up of the rest of the episode to reach that point and be pleasantly surprised when it comes.

This is an episode where performance does everything, yet the performance is less a change and more the precise embodiment of the characters being portrayed. That is to say how wonderful Corbett and Corbin are in this episode is not based on how they stretch out from how they have played their characters before now. Instead, they simply (and I use the word knowing it is not simple for the actors!) embody their characters perfectly, becoming them without a hint of the performer. They make us believe completely in the reality of their characters with their performances.

They are pretty wonderful.

On the other side of this is a pretty weak b-plot with O'Connell that features her complaining annoyingly through the first acts about how her parents will send her a ticket home for the holidays, which she dreads. This plot resolves itself with a somewhat predictable reversal that those of us who watch a lot of television will be unsurprised to see. It's weird seeing O'Connell running around complaining and I'm not sure it works given her usually level personality. I'm more comfortable with the show when it's Fleischman running around kvetching, probably because I'm not so fond of his character.

The episode also features Shelly pining for an old Christmas like she had growing up - which is odd when one considers how flaky her mother is when she pops up in a subsequent episode. This gives actor John Cullum, who plays Holling, a wonderful chance to show off his pipes and it's a beautiful moment for the series and the Holling and Shelly characters.

Even more important to the episode is the raven image and the story of the Native creation myth that is told at the episode's climax. It's a pretty packed episode, come to think of it. But the truth is, it is dominated by the Maurice story, with the raven popping up throughout, until it is eventually explained at the end. And for the most part, it works.

Anyone who wants to see a decent holiday story that is surprisingly secular and spiritual without plugging a Christian or Paulist agenda, this is a great way to go.

[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 visit my index page by clicking here!

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