Northern Exposure was probably one of the first shows I watched that wasn’t about talking cars, Mohawk wearing veterans, or guys running around in starships fighting aliens. Back in 1990, it signified that somewhere inside my geek-boy body I was growing up. Though the first season debuted with only eight episodes, I was hooked.
For those of you not lucky enough to tune in back in the early 90’s, “Northern Exposure” was the first in a wave of quirky sixty minute character dramas, walking a fine line between serious and funny. It follows primarily the character of Joel Fleischman (until Rob Morrow left the show to pursue a career that didn’t happen in the last season and was replaced by some hack with a pointy nose) a very Jewish doctor from New York forced to set up his practice in extremely rural Alaska against his will. The town he finds himself imprisoned in is Cicely, population two-hundred or so people and one theme song lovin moose.
At first Joel (Rob Morrow) seems like a thinly sketched caricature of Woody Allen. A cliché Jewish New Yorker, he’s a whiny city boy who can’t seem to live without bagels, let alone his girlfriend back home. As the show develops, even over just the first eight episodes of Season One on this DVD set, we get the impression that Joel, despite his denials is actually starting to like Cicely and its cast of eccentric characters. They certainly aren’t keen to see him go and local industrialist and former astronaut Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin) has his contract locked up tight enough to keep that from happening.
Joel quickly grows as a character, developing depth and humanism that lift him out of the cookie cutter Woody Allen mode into a more sympathetic fish out of water. As the show progresses, just in the eight episodes of season one, the other characters of the town are given more room to breathe, with episodes focusing on things like aging mountain man and bar owner Holling Vincoer’s (John Cullum) relationship with his child bride Shelley (Cynthia Geary) and his rivalry with his best friend Maurice whom he stole her from. It seems like everybody in town gets a fair shake, with the show exploring Maurice’s desire to have a son to carry on the Minnifield legacy, local DJ Chris Stevens’ (John Corbett) figures out he misses having a father figure and finds out he has a brother (who weirdly enough is black), local Indian boy and do-it-all weirdo Ed (Darren E. Burrows) discovers a love of filmmaking and helps save the life of his shaman uncle, and even Joel’s secretary (Elaine Miles) gets a long look, giving us a window into her native Indian roots. But the show always comes back to Joel. The ability to wind so many deep and important stories in so satisfactorily and in such a relatively short period of time while staying true the show’s capricious nature is really what made “Northern Exposure” great. Every episode, no matter how many stories may be swirling around in it, does a great job of keeping Joel the focus while still breathing full and uniquely “Northern Exposure” life into all the other dozens of ensemble characters running around him.
Later on in the series, the show would come to be most defined by Joel’s tense and sometimes explosive rivalry with local pilot Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner). That’s still there in these first eight episodes, but somehow they don’t seem to have it right yet. It’s forced, unnatural, and often seems like a bad parody of “Moonlighting”, clashing with the town’s otherwise streamlined interplay of oddballs. It’s only here that “Northern Exposure” doesn’t hit its stride right off the bat and Season One falters just a bit whenever Joel and Maggie get shoehorned into a scene together.
Overall though, “Northern Exposure” is a rarity: A great show that manages to be pretty good right out of the gate. “Northern Exposure even remains fresh after more than a decade of other shows ripping it off. The quirkiness isn’t just a gimmick, “Northern Exposure” is the real deal.
Some of you are no doubt disappointed that this thing only contains eight episodes. The price (around $40 - $50 dollars most of the places I checked) is a bit steep when you consider this. Maybe it would have been better had they packaged Season One and Season Two together, or perhaps the sting would have been less had “Northern Exposure – The Complete First Season” included a few more comprehensive extras. If you’ve only got eight shows to throw at me, it’s probably a good idea if you include a little more icing on the cake. They didn’t.
The first thing you’ll notice is the set’s packaging, a rather cool little zip up parka which wraps around a traditional DVD case. It’s just a thinly disguised artifice, but one that made me chuckle. Others might not. Inside you’ll find two discs, both of them flippers. Again, some folks don’t like flippers, but personally I think for BIG television DVD sets, they can be pretty useful. However, this isn’t a big DVD set and these particular flippers are confusing. I had a miserable time trying to figure out which side of the DVD was which. I popped it in, assuming that if I wanted to play SIDE 1 I should have the words SIDE 1 facing up. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a flipper, but the last one I had worked that way. Not so. The side you want to play has to face down. A good ten minutes of trying to figure out why SIDE 1 didn’t start with the premiere episode was wasted before a light bulb finally clicked on in my admittedly dimly lit head.
Once you get the right side playing, the disc is plenty bland. The menus are nothing special, even if the cursor is the outline of a moose. They’re well organized and easy to use, just uninspired. Most of the discs have very few extras to organize, so I guess it wasn’t worth the bother.
None of them feature any kind of commentary or real information about the show, it’s origins, or the making of it. Most of the discs have just a lousy collection of raw footage, mildly amusing flubs, and unimportant deleted scenes. Maybe a really rabid fan of the series might go crazy for these, but for someone like me who merely likes the show, they put me right to sleep. They threw in some other raw film which they dub “Mock Movie Footage” and is actually just the same 2 scenes played over and over and over again from angle after angle after angle. The “Video Documentary Footage” you’ll see so proudly advertised is again, mostly just footage from the episodes you just watched, showed from a different perspective.
The show is clear and well presented, but I still felt like I was a bit short changed. Eight episodes isn’t much of a season and a few lousy deleted scenes don’t do much to make up for it. As with any television season DVD though, what matters is the show. It’s here and ultimately that’s all that matters. For fans of “Northern Exposure” or those who feel like checking it out for the first time, it’s worth a buy. This is all you’re going to get.