Northern Exposure: The Complete Third Season (DVD)

I want to ride that moose.

Once upon a time, CBS network executives made an unprecedented announcement. A handful of its highest-rated weekly shows were renewed for not one, but two full seasons. A two-year guarantee gave the creators, actors, and crew some form of job security, and allowed the writers and directors to take risks knowing that the axe of cancellation was not about to drop. One such series was Northern Exposure. At the start of its third year, it had risen from summer replacement obscurity to full-blown Emmy nominated hit status. The future was now an open canvas for creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey, and they ran with it.

Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow, Quiz Show) continues his misadventures in the smallest of small towns, Cicely, Alaska. The state of Alaska paid for his medical education, and to return the favor, he must act as the town’s doctor for four years. This brings him into contact, and occasional conflict, with pilot/landlord/Renaissance woman Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner, Cliffhanger). Also along for the ride are local business entrepreneur Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin, Solo), aspiring filmmaker Ed Chigliak (Darren E. Burrows, Cry-Baby), retired hunter and bar owner Holling Vincoeur (John Cullum, 1776), his ditzy young wife Shelly (Cynthia Geary, 8 Seconds), philosophizing disc jockey Chris Stevens (John Corbett, Tombstone), and many others.

During Joel’s third year in town, he’s kidnapped by the mysterious woodsman chef Adam (Adam Arkin, Chicago Hope), wrestles with a ghost in his cabin, gives hunting a misguided try, and survives visits from both his ex-fiancée and his long-lost identical twin. Elsewhere in town, Chris has prophetic dreams about Africa, Holling and Maurice set off into the woods to bury an old friend, Shelly learns she never officially divorced her ex-husband, Ed’s first film debuts, and Maggie learns to communicate with trees.

You never know what will happen in Cicely. This is the year of the flung piano, the frozen Frenchman, the origami-themed wedding, the Sigmund Freud cameo, the Japanese tourists, and the baby on a doorstep. And it all concludes with a trip back to the year 1909, with a look at how the town got its name.

Thomas More introduced the word “utopia” to the general public in his 1516 book, Libellus de optimo republicae statu, deque nova insula Utopia. The word is still with us today, offering a mental image of an ideal society. In this fictional place, there is no money, no government, and no laws or lawyers. The utopian society is a communal one, where all people are genuine equals. It is also an intellectual place, with advances in science and philosophical thinking. Since then, other writers and thinkers have developed their own utopian ideals. These often include the abolishment of money, thereby ridding the world of greed and crime. Others see utopia as the formation of world peace, where violence and weapons are set aside for rational solutions to conflicts. But what does utopia look like? Just what is the day-to-day life of the people there? Many artists and writers have imagined utopia as a pastoral place, with Greek palaces and everyone wearing long, flowing white robes. But on television in the 1990s, utopia was a very different place. It was the Paris of the North, the Alaskan Rivera. It was Cicely.

How, exactly, is a nondescript small town in the middle of nowhere a utopia? After all, this place has a main street made up of about 10 dingy-looking buildings. Everyone drives beat-up pickup trucks. The winters are unfriendly at best, and bears roam the woods just outside town. Joel, a die-hard New Yorker, sees his life here as a type of imprisonment. He longs for taxicabs, skyscrapers, and Central Park. The ongoing “joke” of the series, then, is how Joel doesn’t realize just how good he has it in Cicely. That’s because his neighbors, who are sometimes strange and sometimes mundane, are living the modern-day utopian ideal.

Take Ed, an orphaned 20-something who makes a living doing various odd jobs around town. The thought that he could become a successful filmmaker is ludicrous, but his pen pals are Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg. An entire episode is devoted to Chris’s animal magnetism with women, and how it has both positives and negatives. Maurice is a blowhard, but even he softens his heart a little and puts his prejudices aside when confronted with his past on Christmas. Holling and Shelly have an unconventional romance to say the least, and yet despite their many differences, they remain devoted to each other. Just like More’s Utopia, conflicts and crises in Cicely are resolved in thoughtful and rational ways, which makes for interesting and sometimes enlightening writing. This means there are no big dramatic moments; no bursts of screaming or tears. Instead, creators employ a more subtle approach, concluding plotlines with just a few words, or some subtle imagery backed by a key piece of music.

But not all is perfect in Northern Exposure‘s utopia. Maggie goes through the emotional wringer during this season. For about the first third of the episodes, she’s still dealing with the death of her boyfriend Rick the season before. The problem is, we the audience never really had much of a connection with Rick. He was more of a plot point than a person; a roadblock in the ongoing sexual tension between Maggie and Joel. Although it is realistic that Maggie would have such a lengthy grieving process (for a weekly TV series that is), the attention spent on Rick weighs down the early episodes on the set. Viewers will want to move on, and wish Maggie could do so as well. Later, a visit from her mother results in a genuine disaster for Maggie, something no one should ever have to live through. So why is it that the creators insist on weighing the character down with tragedy? Are they hoping to show her vulnerabilities, so it’s easier for audiences to relate to her? Do they wish to turn her into a feminist ideal by showing that she can survive any number of adversities? Either way, her character is all over the map this season. She’s at her best when she’s sparring verbally with Joel, so all this heartbreak she goes through just distracts us from what we like about her.

A utopia is seen by many as a place of equality. But with Northern Exposure, the hard truth is that some episodes are clearly better than others. Now, bear in mind that we’re talking about an exceedingly well-made series here. Any given episode has sparkling dialogue, witty ideas and clever insights. But a handful of episodes are genuine standouts; ones where everyone really brings their best to the table, so that the others don’t seem quite as exciting. This season features the truly surreal identical twins tale “Jules et Joel,” the Jack London-style romp “Three Amigos,” and “The Body in Question,” in which a frozen French corpse elicits various reactions from everyone in town. And the season concludes with “Cicely,” a look back at life in town in the year 1909. This one’s the highlight of the entire series, and quite possibly worth the price of the entire set by itself. This episode, like no other, lays out the mission statement behind the series, and does so by crafting a compelling but still quirky drama.

A utopian society would, of course, produce excellent actors, and the acting in Northern Exposure is solid all around. Joel’s constant dislike of his surroundings could easily make him an unlikable character, but Rob Morrow presents the character’s human side, even when he’s at his most frustrated. There is no question that Joel became a doctor to help others, no matter how self-centered he is in his personal life. Morrow also handles the long speeches given to him by the writers with lighting-fast delivery. The others in the cast play their roles more low-key, as befits the small-town setting. But each has his or her own quirks, making even the smallest appearances memorable. Also worth noting are the numerous guest actors, especially Adam Arkin as the acerbic and unpredictable woodsman chef Adam. Clearly, the writers saved all of their best insults and put-downs for his character.

Video is generally good, but could be better. Occasional softness and some bits of grain are enough to be a slight distraction, but they do not ruin the overall experience. Sound is better, with all the dialogue and eclectic music showing no flaws. This set features three double-sided discs, with deleted scenes for all 23 episodes. Some are just quick reaction shots left off of ends of scenes, but others are very interesting—notably a dream sequence in which Shelly visits the inside of her own womb. The “Unexposed” footage is a selection of outtakes, with the actors forgetting their lines and horsing around on the set. There are also four lost storylines, which are entire subplots cut from episodes. It’s odd that this happens, since each one would have added about 20-30 minutes to its episode. On this disc, though, they’re great to see. It’s like having four bonus mini-episodes.

“Music may differ from televised version.” This is what it says in itty-bitty teeny-tiny letters on the back of the package. Looks like the infamous DVD musical rights issue has made it all the way to our little Alaskan utopia. The series never had a single style of music; instead it used whatever music suited the themes or ideas of the story. This led to all sorts of choices, from classic rock, to country, to opera, to traditional African drumbeats. Now, some songs remain, such as the Aretha Franklin classics used in “Animals ‘R’ Us.” But at other times, the replacements are indeed noticeable. This is most evident in “Get Real,” during the scene when the “flying man” attempts to woo his girl at the circus. What we’re seeing on the screen is light and funny, but also slightly touching and romantic. The original music is gone, and the new music is an overly dramatic, bombastic score that would be more fitting for troops preparing for battle. The right music sets the mood for such a great moment, but this is not the right music. Music rights for TV shows are a complicated matter, but it is one that must be resolved somehow if we are to enjoy our favorites on DVD as they were originally intended. Just think: In a utopian society, with no need for money or lawyers, this problem would not exist.

Let’s talk about the packaging for a moment, shall we? The previous two releases came with cute little parkas, to keep your DVDs warm on a cold Alaskan night. These were very well-made, wrapping snugly around the actual package, but not hindering anyone wanting to get at the disc. But those releases were half-seasons, and therefore had fewer episodes than this one. So, presumably to cut down on costs, producers released this set with no parka. This makes sense, as it keeps the set below the $100 range. Unfortunately, the new packaging attempts the same “look” as the others with a plain green box. If they must break tradition, then why not create some packaging that entices new viewers to discover the series for the first time? As it is now, this is probably the dullest cover art currently on shelves.

It’s a curious take on the concept of the perfect society. It might not look like utopia on the outside, but everyone in Cicely is free to be as quirky and eccentric as they wish. That’s a good place to be.

The Verdict

Universal is given a reprimand for some poor decisions concerning the making of this set. But overall, the good outweighs the bad. Not guilty.

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