Recently, I logged into my Prime streaming channel, and what to my wandering (and wondering) eyes should appear, but the logo for the TV show Northern Exposure.
My favorite television show off all time.
Being able to find pretty much anything on some streaming channel these days, Northern Exposure was glaringly missing (so is thirtysomething, give me my thirtysomething!). It’s my understanding there was some issue with the rights to the music they used in the show, and if you’ve seen it, you know how incredibly important that music was (Chris in the Morning!).
Apparently, it took a ba-ga-zillion mega company to sort that shizzle out, and now this show is available to stream, with the original music intact.
Obviously, I didn’t hesitate to dive in.
And kid you not, I was moved to tears when I heard the song play over the opening credits and saw that moose wandering down the street.
That said, I went in with trepidation.
Did I exalt this series in my head? Will it be as good now as it was then, or will it date poorly? Was my obsession with it all about my obsession with Chris Stevens (John Corbett)?
All of these were real possibilities.
And I’ll say, in the first (short) seasons, I was concerned. Although there were moments of brilliance (Maurice going to the mat to defend Walt Whitman’s privacy), I will admit to thinking that Chris—the moral compass of the cast—seemed far more wishy-washy than I remember. And back in the day, I didn’t blink at this, but now, Shelly and Holling’s May/December love affair, at first, skewed a bit cringey. Not to mention, Maggie and Joel’s constant bickering seemed forced and a tad grating, and Maurice’s blatant bigotry was not amusing.
And then they found their groove.
Then Ed went on a journey to find his parents. And he did.
And in a later episode, Ed and Ruth-Anne danced on her grave.
Then Cicely mixed Christmas with the celebration of the Native American raven spirit, intermingling the storylines of a Jew navigating a pervasive Christian holiday and a Catholic cast adrift in a space that didn’t celebrate as she found meaningful. And I kid you not, I got absolute chills during the end scene when they panned up the totem pole decorated with Christmas lights and tufted with snow, a metaphorical indication that we can all not only co-exist, we can also celebrate our own traditions and rituals, along with each other’s.
There was further when anti-hunting Joel, in order to understand and not judge without knowledge, went on a hunting trip with Holling and Chris, and he tapped into his inner survivor/provider. Only to down a grouse, yet not kill it, whereupon his healer came to the fore. He lost the bird and hit an emotional spiral where he came to understand, and I quote, “It isn’t the killing…it’s the dying.” (Lawd, what a line.)
In the end, he very well might have eaten that bird during a town sit-down, and there is no horror or judgement, just an understanding of the circle of life. (And I’m not a fan at all of hunting, so I found this episode significant in its acceptance of both sides, and its absolute refusal to come down on either.)
Oh, and the episode where Cicely is having its first election in 23 years, and Chris is constantly pontificating about the sacred beauty of American democracy, almost obsessing on it, definitely glorifying it. And then we learn that Chris, as a convicted felon, can’t vote. A deeply profound lesson that, what many of us take for granted, so many don’t have. It’s almost painful to witness Chris watching this process he holds so dear, and yet he can’t participate in it.
Then there’s the episode where Maurice discovers he has a Korean son, and he’s openly disappointed, and to put the fine point on it that Northern Exposure did not shy away from, it was because he’s racist. He speaks with Chris about his issues, and Chris explains that his reaction is cultural. Maurice asks what he means. Chris explains, “It’s learned behavior.” Maurice asks what he can do about it. And with a stony look on his face and a firm tone to his voice, Chris simply says, “Unlearn it.” (God…damn.)
We are then treated to Maurice sitting down with his son, Duk. They don’t speak the same language. They look nothing alike. But because Maurice tried…simply because he tried…they find they have tons of common ground.
And then there’s the episode where Maggie learns her parents are divorcing, and while she’s in the throes of considering how her whole happy-family memories of growing up might be a lie, she realizes her mother has been unhappy for years. But now, she’s not. Now, she’s free. Now, she has the rest of her life ahead of her and she can’t wait to live it. And the tears in Maggie’s eyes, tears of love and relief that her mother has finally found happiness will totally gut you in the best possible way.
Oh yeah, and the episode that was almost entirely based on Holling and Maurice braving the snowy elements on horses to go pick up their friend who had passed away in a remote cabin so they can lay him to rest. And their adventures in the tundra are narrated sporadically by Chris reading from Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.
I mean, these brilliant minds narrated an episode of a TV show about two “old dogs” out in the snow using The Call of the FREAKING Wild.
Can’t forget, when Joel goes through the initiation process to be adopted by Marilyn’s tribe. Joel, bitching and moaning through every bit of it. But then the ceremony happens, and the elder stands up and proclaims Joel her grandson. Gawd! Shivers. This city boy in the wilderness does not want to be there and makes no bones about it. But if you watch carefully, he always but always goes far beyond the call of duty as a physician to help the people in his community (case in point, him going through the pains of the initiation, although bitching, he did it…all the way through), and the tribe did not miss it. If you aren’t moved at witnessing that sheer beauty, check your pulse, you might be dead.
Oh, and I must mention the time a baby is left in Joel’s waiting room. And throughout the episode, every member of the cast is seen caring for that baby. In the end, the mother just quietly comes and picks her up. Joel is aghast. But the town isn’t. They just pitched in when someone was in need, and then they moved on, no questions asked.
In other words, a rewatch of Northern Exposure does not disappoint. I thrill at the vision of the piano soaring through the air, it not being what is flung, “it’s the fling itself.” The body of the 19th century Frenchman floating down the river with Marilyn looking on. Marilyn simply being Marilyn, and not speaking much, just knowing, and making Joel learn by seeing and doing, witnessing and experiencing. This is her people’s place, she doesn’t have to explain it, he has to do the work to get it (and he always does). Watching Shelly and Holling navigate a variety of relationship issues due to the unusualness of their love and come out stronger every time.
Fucking hell…this show was…is…something.
No, it’s everything.
I wish everyone would watch it. Especially in this day, where we’ve battened down the hatches so firmly on our own ideologies and opinions that we aren’t willing to sit down, like Maurice and Duk, and just communicate, listen, share…try. Try and understand. Try and co-exist. Try and find common ground. Try to live and let live, to celebrate the differences, and maybe (definitely) find in that pure joy.
There was a rumor they were going to reboot this. I do wonder, with the current cultural mood, how it would be received. Not to mention, I tend not to be a fan of reboots. I think there are so many stories to tell, why would we backtrack and go over old ground?
But if it happens, I…am…there when Joel returns to Alaska.
Because being back home in Cicely has been a wild-ass, intense, insightful, hilarious, touching and thoroughly gorgeous ride.
Yeah, it’s no wonder I fashioned Misted Pines from my memories of Cicely. But mine is a poor imitation of the masterpiece. To tell the truth, outside The ‘Burg (which is based on my hometown in Indiana), I think there’s a little bit of Cicely in all my smalltown romances.
Right now, I’m delighted to be able to immerse myself in the wonder and beauty of the fictional town and its inhabitants, all very different people, with different histories, from different backgrounds, religions and cultures, who, even if there are hiccups along the way, get along just fine.