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Puff Piece: Northern Exposure

Thanks to the generosity of a couple of Gentle Readers, Your Humble Blogger has been watching Northern Exposure, which was my favorite television show for a few years. I don’t have a favorite television show any more, except perhaps Jeopardy!, which I don’t even watch very often. I wonder how many favorite television shows I’ve ever had? The Muppet Show, as a kid. I liked Barney Miller and Cheers a lot, but I don’t know whether either was ever really a favorite. I think, restricting it to shows that I was watching when they were being produced, and where I watched or tried to watch new episodes weekly, it would be Northern Exposure, The Muppet Show and Homicide: Life on the Streets.

Digression: Have y’all seen The Games? Listening to Mssrs. Clarke and Dawe is like attending a seminar on the use of rhythm in comedy, only without having to do any reading beforehand, and without anybody reading any analytical papers. OK, it’s nothing like a seminar. But why would you want it to be? And the good news is that they’re still at it. End digression.

Anyway, if you had asked me, back when they were still making episodes of Northern Exposure, why I liked it so much, I probably would have said that I liked the characters and the actors. The actors really are terrific: John Cullum is wonderful as Holling, his face and voice always worth close attention; John Corbett is lovely to look at and listen to as Chris-in-the-morning, with wonderful rhythms in both speech and gesture; Cynthia Geary’s Shelley is hilarious; Janine Turner’s Maggie is sexy; Elaine Miles is magnificent as Marilyn. And, more surprisingly, nobody is bad. In a big cast, nobody is bad. It’s amazing.

At the end, during that last terrible season and the decade or more following, if you asked me what was so good about the show, I would have talked about the incredibly sophisticated structure, where three (usually three) subplots would play around with a single theme, sometimes commenting on each other and sometimes looking at different aspects. Take, for instance, the eighth episode of season three: “A-Hunting We Will Go”. The main plot is that Fleischman, after being repulsed by the idea of hunting for sport, decides to try it. The secondary plot is that Ruth-Anne has a cast on her leg, leading Ed to cosset her, particularly when he finds out she is seventy-five years old. The third plot is about Holling discovering that after fifty-odd years of hunting (first with bullets and then with a camera), he would rather stay home with Shelley and tend the bar. Craig Volk, the writer, weaves the plots together very loosely, and doesn’t (imao) make a big heavy-handed deal of the mortality/age/death deal, but then he also doesn’t shy away from a big gesture: the episode ends with Ruth-Anne and Ed dancing on the grave plot he gives her as a birthday present. This structure-of-threes really is a strength of the show, although I think I exaggerated it a bit to myself; some episodes have unrelated subplots, and some related plots are heavy-handed or dopey.

As I’m watching them now, though, with the magic of little shiny discs (and, did I mention, friends who don’t mind lending things out for quite an unreasonably long time), I am struck that the real strength of the show is the dialogue. There’s a Northern Exposure style, a heightened rhetoric, long sentences with flights of exaggeration and cultural reference, a magnificent creation that is nothing like the way actual people speak and that I could listen to for ever so long. Yes, the characters are different and have different speech patterns which largely hold constant from show to show, but even the most taciturn characters are prone to come out with the most amazing turns of phrase. In one episode recently, Maurice was talking about Alan Shepard’s tiny feet. Adam spews bizarre and hyperbolic bile. Ed pops an obscure movie reference, or a blockbuster reference as if it were obscure. Fleischman, of course, never stops talking, and his stream of complaint and criticism is annoying, but I have to think that if there were the faintest hint of naturalism in it, if it sounded like any complaining that anybody had ever done in real life, it would be so annoying the show would be unwatchable.

My Best Reader and I are about halfway through the third season. I think we started watching at some point during that season, although it’s also plausible that we started watching in the fourth season and have seen a few of the earlier episodes on reruns or syndication. Mostly, though, we’re watching shows we haven’t seen before, in a series we’ve seen a lot of. It makes a good last-thing-in-the-evening-before-going-upstairs entertainment; enjoyable but not (usually) too distressing, or hilarious either for that matter. Comforting. Good television. There’s something in each episode to chat about as we’re closing up the house, but not enough to keep us up late dissecting it.

What seems strange to me is the sense that I don’t really remember it as it was, that we’ve romanticized it, inflated its qualities in our memories, and I think that we really have done that, but that I like it anyway. I’m much more used to coming back to some favorite after many years and being disappointed; the other common (and more enjoyable) experience is to find that the book or movie or whatever really is as good as I remember. This is different. It’s not what I remember, but it’s still good. Has that ever happened to you?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I totally had that experience with Kung Fu movies. I watched some as a child, in the 70s, and then again as a stoner in the 90s. Now, as a straight and responsible *cough* member of adult society *coughcough - 'scuse me, something caught in my throat...*, I've watched some selected movies again, and each time I returned to them, they were not what I remembered, but they were still good enjoyable.


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