A Little Too Flaky in Alaska





Time Magazine, May 20, 1991
Richard Zoglin
; CBS; Mondays; 10 p.m. EDT

It's a little town up north, out west. Everybody knows everybody else -- and everybody else's business. Remoteness has given the community a touch of spirituality, not to say weirdness. Several residents have a propensity for prophetic dreams, and ghosts have been known to walk down Main Street. So has the occasional moose.

Twin Peaks? No, that was last year's quirky small town that gained a cult following. The latest destination for fans of the outlandish and the In-jokish on TV is the village of Cicely, hard by the Arctic Circle in the state of Alaska. Among the town's 500 inhabitants is one reluctant interloper: Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow), a New York City native who has been forced to move there as the sole doctor in order to fulfill his medical-school scholarship.

Northern Exposure, which debuted last summer and has returned to CBS for a late-season run, is this spring's hottest conversation piece. Fans in big cities from New York to San Francisco are entranced by the backwoods whimsy; so are Sunbelt viewers like Bonnie Mintz, a court clerk from Winter Park, Fla., who started the first Northern Exposure fan club. In Alaska the series has prompted some grumpy newspaper stories (THIS MAN THINKS WE'RE A BUNCH OF PSYCHOTIC RED-NECKS, blared one headline next to a picture of star Morrow), but viewers are warming to it. Says Tom Tatka, an Anchorage attorney who moved to Alaska 20 years ago: "It gives a good sense of this isolated state." For creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey (St. Elsewhere), it's really a state of mind. "We used Alaska more for what it represents than what it is," says Brand. "It is disconnected both physically and mentally from the lower 48, and it has an attractive mystery."

The show's popularity is no mystery. Northern Exposure is less a realistic picture of Alaskan life than a big-city yuppie's romantic small-town fantasy. There is no bigotry or narrow-mindedness in this small town; the residents are all closet highbrows. The townspeople read D.H. Lawrence and quote Voltaire; the local tavern plays Louis Armstrong and Mildred Bailey on the jukebox. For Joel there's a cute, available brunet (Janine Turner) and a philosophical Native American pal (Darren E. Burrows) who is conversant with movies like The Wages of Fear. Gosh, it's not even that cold; the characters may be bundled up in parkas, but we never see their breath. That's what shooting near Seattle will do.

The show has some nice touches. Joel's Jewishness is refreshingly up-front, and it's good to see a few Native Americans on TV for a change. But this domesticated Twin Peaks is too precious by half. In one episode, Joel's friend conjures up an Indian spirit to help locate his father; the town deejay, meanwhile, has his voice stolen by a beautiful girl. One whimsical fantasy per episode, please. The show's patronizing attitude toward small towners is more subtle but just as annoying. One episode makes snide fun of the tavern owner's 19-year-old girlfriend, who gets a satellite dish and becomes addicted to tacky TV fare like Wheel of Fortune and the Home Shopping Network. God forbid somebody in a remote Alaskan town should actually pass the time watching TV. What would Voltaire think?


© Copyright, 2005 • Northern Exposure is Copyright Universal City Studios. All Rights Reserved. • Created 6/5/02 • Updated 1/20/05