Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Quirky Becomes Boring In Northern Exposure The Complete Fifth Season.

The Good: Moments of character, Moments of weirdness or culture, DVD bonus features
The Bad: Not funny, Little new on the acting, Stagnant plots, Pacing
The Basics: A pretty lame season of television, Northern Exposure The Complete Fifth Season does little service to the characters or concepts of the television series.

When a television series becomes tedious, sometimes the best thing that a network can do is pull the plug. As time goes by, I find myself appreciating or understanding why networks have done that from time to time. For sure, there was still plenty of potential in Firefly (reviewed here!), but the more I rewatch Twin Peaks (reviewed here!), I can understand how it did not get renewed for a third season. The middle of that second season of Twin Peaks winds and wends in directions that are not just strangely dreamlike, but are just plain bad. This comes to mind when I consider the DVD set Northern Exposure - The Complete Fifth Season because I am at a loss as to how this season survived for the entire twenty-four episodes as well as how it won a sixth season.

In its fifth season, Northern Exposure does nothing of note or significance that viewers of the series have not already seen before. In fact, the only ones who might find any portion of this season palatable are those who have suffered through the earlier seasons; those approaching just this season are likely to find the episodes tiresome and tired. The season has a homogeneously slow pace with few peaks and one long, extended valley. While the show continues its serialized storylines, nothing of note happens in the fifth season and after sitting through my latest viewing of the twenty-four episodes - each almost an hour in length - I find myself at a loss as to what to write about the boxed set because the season blurs together as one dull mass of images. There is nothing superlative in this season and while the show still occasionally delves into the philosophical or the native american indian culture, the fifth season finds the divergences less quirky and more dull; we've seen it before and for those who haven't it just "reads" as weird and quirky for the sake of quirky.

In the fifth season of Northern Exposure, Joel gets ill with Glacier Dropsy around the same time that Ed gets his calling . . . to become a shaman. As Ed begins to train for his spiritual calling, Maurice has a life-sized wax casting made of himself for a museum, Chris continues working at the radio station and trying to fulfill the spiritual needs of Cicely and Maggie spars with Joel while their passions slowly build up again. Maggie solves a minor mystery and becomes a homecoming queen for the local high school. Elsewhere in Cicely, Holling and Shelly prepare for the birth of their baby, who does eventually make an appearance and Ruth-Anne begins to date Walt.

Adam makes an appearance, to thwart Maurice's efforts to have fireworks in Cicely under the pretense that the company he is using are covert government operatives. Ed returns to working on film, even while training as a shaman, Maurice breaks his leg and loses his house to a fire and Shelly and Holling adapt to the presence of Randi. As the season winds to a close, the resident gay couple in Cicely gets married, Maurice tries to make money off a wheelchair race, and Joel finally accepts the magnitude of Cicely's effect upon him.

The only episode worth watching in the entire season is "Hello, I Love You," which has Shelly meeting a time-travelling version of her own daughter at the Laundromat. The episode is clever, allows actress Cynthia Geary to stretch beyond the strangely immature character of Shelly by giving her some real parental depth. Geary, for much of the rest of the season, is forced to play Shelly like a high school brat and the role becomes tiresome to watch, especially after Shelly loses her musical ability which made her remotely interesting at the end of the prior season. "Hello, I Love You" is psychologically interesting and does a good job of showing what could be if parents were given a chance to see the results of their childrearing before their kids are born and the concept is unique to this episode and it works.

Unfortunately, it is probably the only unique thing in this entire season. Maurice continues to try to swindle other businessmen, he retains his homophobia and he is portrayed as an absolute idiot in "Mite Makes Right." In that episode, Maurice pays over a million dollars for a violin and he refuses to consider the advice of a violin protege who insists it must be played or else the violin will be ruined. That Maurice is played as so monolithically stupid and into his investment just for the money reinforces the anti-capitalist messages Northern Exposure tends to have, save that in this case it does not logically track; Maurice is too smart to be so ignorant and not even pay attention to the violinist's view. "Mite Makes Right" is not a bad episode, but it follows on the heels of the one-note "Mr. Sandman," which is too obvious and the concept (people in Cicely begin dreaming one another's dreams) wears thin quickly.

Recurring characters like Bernard and Officer Barbara make their annual appearances, as do Adam and Eve. But the quirkiness that once made Northern Exposure interesting is gone and the series seems to be stretching for stories to tell. This seems as good a reason as any for the appearance of the gruff Walt to give Ruth-Anne a love interest and the plot with Walt becoming addicted to a light treatment is predictable and just bad. Fan-favorite characters like Chris are relegated to few scenes and almost no complete plots. Instead, Chris, Maggie and Holling (and even Joel for most of the episodes) take a backburner to stories focusing on Ed, Ruth-Anne, and Shelly. Unfortunately for viewers, they are not enough to carry the season.

For those interested in who the primary characters of Northern Exposure are, this is how the fifth season finds them:

Dr. Joel Fleischman - His tenure in Cicely rapidly running down, Joel looks to escape even as he realizes how much of a part of Cicely he has become. Irritated by a visit from his parents, he tries to have a dinner party (but fails completely) and he begins to date Maggie outright. He makes an effort to work with the fire department and admits to Maggie he cannot stand children. And when he and Maggie hit a bump, he is swallowed by the giant fish living in one of Cicely's lakes where he is taught a very valuable lesson,

Maggie O'Connell - Slowly warms to Fleischman after trying to solve a mystery of a local store and its weird owners. She builds her own airplane, becomes a homecoming queen (despite being in her thirties), and she buys a clothes washer only to discover she misses the socialization of the Laundromat. She also snags a doctor friend for Joel,

Maurice - Exposed as a shoe-fetishist when others dream his dreams, he tries to swindle a local native american businessman only to be bested in the transaction. He finds his colleagues have become geezers and tries to have Ed organize a film festival. After purchasing a rare violin, he breaks his leg and his house burns down and he is forced to rely upon others in Cicely,

Holling - Nervous (still) about becoming a father, his troubles multiply when Randi is born and he has to admit he renounced his Canadian citizenship decades ago. Things get weird for him with fellow birdwatcher Ruth-Anne when it is revealed his ancestor ate one of Ruth-Anne's during a blizzard. He begins to paint-by-number after Randi is born,

Shelly - Insecure about becoming a mother and shrill after Randi is born with Holling over religion and childcare, she has a brief lull when she meets future versions of Randi on the day Randi is born. She gets irked at Holling for his acting out during birthing classes,

Chris - Continues working at the radio station, save a portion of an episode where he quits because he learns that bloodpressure medication will keep him alive well beyond his initial expected life expectancy. Otherwise, he does sculpture, is frustrated when Bernard's new girlfriend (who is one of Chris's ex's) cannot tell them apart in bed, and he fawns over the Catholic priest who comes to baptize Randi,

Ed Chigliak - Gets the call to become a shaman. As he trains for that (undermined by a Green Man), he continues working on his film work and working at Ruth-Anne's store. He fails to arrange a film festival and when he snags an agent, his agent wants to completely alter his script "The Shaman." He betrays Ruth-Anne and Walt's relationship at a dinner party and still struggles to understand what virtually anyone in Cicely is saying,

Marilyn - Continues to show up to work at the clinic each day, though she uses patient's records to figure out who to date,

and Ruth-Anne - Pursued by Walt suddenly, she begins to question her priorities. After having a spat with Holling, she and Walt hook up. Still, she becomes upset with the residents of Cicely and abandons the store to join a motorcycle gang. Upon returning, she and Walt are outed.

There are no great performances in Northern Exposure The Complete Fifth Season. In this season, all of the principle cast simply does what they have been doing for the prior years and their performances in this season seem somewhat lackluster, as if the actors know they are not doing anything new and they are peeved about it.

On DVD, Northern Exposure The Complete Fifth Season comes with a slew of deleted scenes, many of which simply offer more quiet, awkward moments to each episode. Given that this is DVD, it is disappointing that there is no branching that allows the deleted scenes to be put back into the episodes. Given that the deleted scenes are now all relegated to the fifth disc, putting the clips back in their relevant episodes is not even remotely possible. There is a season five featurette as well and a "play all" function, but there are no commentary tracks on any of the episodes.

Northern Exposure is a supposedly quirky dramedy set in Cicely, Alaska and there is nothing quite like it on television, either before or after. In the case of how the fifth season presents its stories, this is not a bad thing. Fans of the series will find greater economic and space-saving value in Northern Exposure: The Complete Series (reviewed here!), but those looking at the seasons of Northern Exposure and considering which ones to buy can easily pass "The Complete Fifth Season" by. It is not funny, it is not well-developed and it is not distinctive or even interesting for most of its episodes.

For other fifth seasons of television shows, please check out my reviews of:
Gilmore Girls - Season 5
Frasier - The Complete Fifth Season
Friends - Season Five


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

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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