Some folks would have you believe that the second golden age of television was ushered in by the arrival of Tony Soprano and Co. at the end of the last century. But almost a decade prior to that, co-creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey brought to the small screen the deeply idiosyncratic charms of a fictional small town in Alaska in a series which received the kinds of accolades and praise equal to any of those now iconic HBO offerings which set the industry on that distinguished path it still treads today.
Like many showrunners and creators, Brand and Falsey had experienced huge success previously with their eighties era-defining medical drama and celebrated Channel 4 import, St. Elsewhere. But while that series was a more overtly mainstream offering, Northern Exposure – still under the banner of NBC, a major network channel – seemed to trade a little on that offbeat vibe rival station ABC had conjured up with David Lynch’s unforgettable venture to TV land, Twin Peaks. Coming a mere three months after that show debuted, Northern Exposure’s certainly didn’t wear it’s eccentricity on its sleeve in quite the same way as Lynch’s murder mystery did, yet the two certainly shared a similar sensibility.
Twin Peaks had a fish-out-of-water element to it with FBI Agent Cooper heading out to an insular small town setting, while Northern Exposure used that machination as the central premise to hang its colourful array of characters around. In the show, a young urban physician Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) lands in the town of Cicely in Anchorage, Alaska to take over the role of GP for a four year period, as per the requirements of his student medical endowment. Hailing from New York City, Fleischman is initially at odds with the remote – if highly picturesque – surroundings he finds himself within. However, it isn’t long before he succumbs to the town’s laidback atmosphere. Cicely is truly a place that doesn’t so much march as amble, blissfully along, to the beat of its own drum.
This is the kind of scenario could have worked equally as well in a quirky 90 minute indie movie from that decade. But free from the confines of that medium via the world of long-form TV, there’s the wonderful opportunity to really let the whole set-up breathe and unwind, allowing story beats and character arcs to leisurely develop as the viewer takes in that utterly delightfully locale. While Morrow makes a fun and relatable neurotic lead, it’s the show’s magnificent ensemble which was undoubtedly the binding agent. Ask fans at the time to name their favourite character and opinions would swing from Chris Stevens (John Corbett), the ex-con turned philosophical DJ, forever waxing lyrical between Billie Holiday tracks at the local (and only) radio station, through to Fleischman’s hilariously stoic and laconic Native American receptionist, Marilyn Whirlwind (Elaine Miles).
But to single out any one of the rich assortment of townsfolks – and indeed the unforgettable performers who portrayed them – would be a tad disingenuous. Collectively, they are undoubtedly the reason why the show has endured and is spoke about in hushed reverence by those familiar with it. As recent as last November, there was talk from CBS of reviving it – although that might be on ice right now, giving the tragic passing of Falsey only last month. But in many ways, to revisit Northern Exposure does run the risk of diluting that original magic. If it did slightly waver in quality towards the end of its run – Morrow actually jumped ship midway through its sixth and final season due to contractual issues – the overall greatness of Northern Exposure is now preserved in the annals of pop culture for TV enthusiasts who came of age later on to discover for themselves and fall in love with.