When the creators of Northern Exposure won the Emmy award for Best Drama Series back in 1992 they said, amongst their thank yous and their dedications, “but it’s a comedy”. As things stand right now Northern Exposure is one of two comedy-dramas to win a big award at the Emmys – the other being Ally McBeal which won for Best Comedy in 1999.
It’s weird to think that, when Northern Exposure first came onto the air in the summer of 1990 that, the dramedy had only been popular for 5 years. It’s one of the reasons that I am keen to see Moonlighting as it was the show that helped pioneer the genre. Without that, we might be without other award-winning shows like Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty, Orange Is The New Black, Pushing Daisies and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Aside from the dramedy side, there is nothing too unique to Northern Exposure when it starts out. It’s a fish out of water story of Joel, a Jewish doctor from New York who is made to work in the small town of Cicely, Alaska as a way to pay off his medical school bills. He comes across colourful small town characters and you can complete it from there.
As pilot’s and first seasons go Northern Exposure is fun enough, but it doesn’t quite seem like a show that would go on to be both award-winning and influential (although I would happily watch John Corbett as small town DJ Chris anytime). It’s only in the final episode of Season 1 that you start to see what this show is heading for… and it’s something they take and run with from the beginning of Season 2.
In effect, this show decides to embrace the madness and increase the involvement of the ensemble. Don’t get me wrong I think Rob Morrow does excellent work as Joel, but the first season felt like it was just forcing him to conflict and that was turning me off. With character like Chris and Shelley (a former beauty pageant winner who now lives with a bar owner many decades her senior) given more screen time and by allowing Janine Turner (who plays Joel’s will-they-won’t-they Maggie O’Connell) to embrace her comedic side Northern Exposure soars.
Also the fantasy sequences. This was something also done in Moonlighting and it works again here. Some of the funniest and most poignant parts of the series happen in dreams or in flashbacks. In Season 3 episode ‘Jules et Joel’ they take it to the extreme by staging the entire episode in the mind of Joel after he is whacked on the head. Similarly, the most famous episode, Season 3 closer ‘Cicely’, takes place in the past with the regular cast playing new roles.
It’s probably a show where it’s worth starting on Season 2 because that’s when it starts properly getting good. Then again, this is just a show that’s really worth watching and, eventually, I will finish this.