Our Town

If it's not on Santa's route, it should be: Northern Exposure's Cicely, Alaska, is both 'magical' and 'real,' and it's carved out a place in the American imagination

From TV Guide 12/21/91 (Vol 39 No. 51 Issue #2021)

By Ron Powers

The real-life location for Northern Exposure's Cicely, Alaska is Roslyn, Wash.

Some strange spell falls over reviewers when they tackle the wonderfully woolly Northern Exposure on CBS: They always make a reference to Twin Peaks. Oops. Iook at that: I've gone and done it too. keeping the record perfect.

You remember Twin Peaks. right? Small isolated town in the wild north? Lots of redwoods? Antlers on the wall? Daffy people with faclal hair and layered clothes? And you've seen Exposure. right? Small isolated town in the wild north? Lots of redwoods? Antlers ... you get the picture.


The lockstep wisdom seems to be that Exposure is Peaks' younger, smarter, nicer brother. Or that if David Lynch hadn't invented earflap-chic, viewers might not be able to make sense out of the more recent Joshua Brand-John Falsey creation without an interpreter's guide. Or a Native American guide. Or at least an L.L. Bean catalogue.

To all that, I say ... moose-patties! Or, as Holling might say to Shelly after she's watched 13 straight hours of the Home Shopping Channel, enough is e-gol-dang-nough. It is time to do the right thing: Unhitch those sublimely seedy citizens of Cicely, Alaska, from the bogus yoke of Twin Peaks, and celebrate the deeper connections this beguiling series has made with Americans imaginations.

A canine resident takes in some sun on Roslyn's main street.

Surely the show has earned its right to stand apart. Two seasons into its run, Northern Exposure is gaining texture, self-assurance - and devoted followers - almost with each new episode. Two seasons into its run, the late and unlamented Twin Peaks on ABC was headed in the opposite direction, an interesting blind date that had gone sour.

The murky, mood-drenched series had opened to a cascade of welcoming reviews. This was TV's long-awaited union of art and mass-appeal entertainment - remember? The critics were thrilled by Lynch's menagerie of offbeat characters, his avant-garde cinematic techniques (dreamlike pacing; lingering, shadowy camera shots), and most of all, his sense of place. Remember that term, place. Like Laura Palmer's body, we'll meet it again soon.

It didn't take long (although it seemed like forever) before Peaks' cultish cachet started to curdle. Lynch became an absentee director: it showed as the stylish elements turned as stale as day-old cherry pie. Those endearing offbeat characters, got more and more grotesque: they became nothing more than the sum of their eyepatches and the logs they talked to. And, of course, it grew apparent that Lynch neither knew nor gave a damn who killed Laura Palmer, any more than he cared about the flctional town of Twin Peaks, Washington. So much for sense of place. Twin Peaks was not an ongoing tale about anything. It was an ongoing sophisticated smirk. In June 1991 it joined Laura in the sweet hereafter.

By contrast, Northern Exposure crept onto the CBS airwaves almost unnoticed: It was a limited-run summer series. It did not have a designer name attached to its credits: Brand and Falsey had done St. Elsewhere, but that wasn't as hip as Lynch's movie -Blue Velvet.- And flnally, it did not titillate with the seductive whiff of chic evil: There is the occasional corpse on the series, but no sinister presences lurk out there in the pines: no psychotic glow lights the eyes of secondary characters.

So why is it, then. that Northern Exposure increases its exposure long after Twin Peaks peaked?

I think the secret lies in the fact that Brand and Falsey have managed to create, gently and patiently, what David Lynch promised to create, and what for a brief, entrancing interval it seemed that he had created, until the archness and falsity of his vision self-destructed:

... A place. A radient, many-layered, slightly magical place, as achingly real and yet just-out-of-reach as a dream you start to forget as soon as you wake up. A place set off in glorious isolation from the rest of the world, but urgently alive with its own rules. its own memories, its own secrets. and most of all, its own community of characters: flinty, scruffy, silly, often bickersome and self-deluding characters who collide and scheme and get their feelings hurt.

But who ultimately work things out. Who grow from experiences. Who survive. Who prevail. As a communlty.

Think of that town, Cicely. Think of Dr. Joel Fleischman's threadbare office with its porcelain sink: you can almost smell the cold seeping through the cracks. "A few curtains, a couple heads on the wall - you're in business, drawls the ex-astronaut Maurice. (And you can almost hear Rob Morrow as Fleischman, our surrogate outsider, doing one of his shameless Woody Allen riffs on that exchange to his skeptical nemesis/love interest Maggie.)

Think of Chris, the mail-order minister and storefront disc jockey, gazing out the window as he broadcasts the world's dopiest local gossip and quotes from a Great Book or two. Who hasn't ventured inside that jerry-built studio, or wanted to? Think of the neon reds and blues that shimmer through Hollings' disheveled bar like honkey-tonk halos, against the click of billiard balls. as Shelly, tray of beers in hand, pauses to nurse the beginnings of an idea. Think of Morty the moose, ambling along a street as empty of traffic as never a street you've driven down. Who needs Laura Palmer wrapped in plastic? This is life, being lived.

Cicely isn't heaven, and it isn't Disneyland-on-the-tundra, but it isn't hell, either. People die in Cicely. People lose lovers, doubt their sexuality, recognize their courage or confront their cowardice, have their vanities exposed for everyone to see, get their dreams trampled on. Will the world ever recognize shy Ed Chigliak for the cinematic genius he is? Don't count on it. In the end they adjust, figure it out, mourn their losses, pull it together for one more episode. And somehow you want to be transported there, have a seat at the bar, when that next shaggy-dog episode begins.

Near the pole: Northern Exposure's Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) and Maggie O'Connell (Janine Turner).

Twin Peaks? No. Northern Exposure's roots go deeper into American myth and yearning than that. We Americans have always loved to lose ourselves in stories about place - maybe it's because we're so nomadic, so far from home, in our everyday lives.

There's a little Lake Wobegon in the flctional town of Cicely - Garrison Keillor's make-believe one-horse Minnesota burg that gained fame first on public radio. There's a little Fraggle Rock as well -that underground community of manic Muppets that the late Jim Henson and his partners created for HBO back in 1983. Fraggle Rock's colllding, bickersome characters must have touched some universal yearnings indeed: in 1989 became the first American TV series to be broadcast in the Soviet Union.

Travel farther back in television time. You might find traces of Northern Exposure's deep sense of place and community in the oddest of places: The Long Branch Saloon on Gunsmoke. The small south Pacific atoll that was the site of Gilligan's Island. Mayberry, North Carolina, the venue for The Andy Gfiffith Show.

Certainly Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and Sesame Street offered charmed enclaves for children, who are, after all, creatures of the Iocal. (Children are mostly missing fron Northern Exposure and that seems an unfortunate lapse for a series rooted in place - until you recall what TV series generally do to child actors, and then it seems a blessing.) Probably you can think of others.

At any rate, Northern Exposure has found a connection to American imagination that few other TV series have discovered - certainly not Twin Peaks. The connection is older than TV, of course. Perhaps if we're listening closely some lonely Alaskan night to Cicely's prose-spouting DJ, Chris, we might even hear him quote a passage from Of Time and the River, by Thomas Wolfe, who understood the enduring charm of all the Cicelys in our national memory:

"A bracelet of a few, hard lights along the river, a gemlike in candescence, few and hard and bright, and so poignantly lost and lonely in enormous darkness as are all lights in America, sown sparsely on the enormous viewless mantle of night..."

Ron Powers is a Pulitzer Prize-winrung TV critic and is now at work on the authorized biography of Jim Henson.

Created 4/18/02
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