I’ve never been a big fan of television. Most people I know have at least two, or even three, television sets, but I’ve never lived in a house with more than one. Our television is on the small side, and we don’t even have cable, just a digital antenna and a Netflix subscription. Many days we don’t even bother to turn it on, opting instead to read or talk or listen to music. I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw a television commercial.
In spite of this, there have been shows that I’ve really liked. I think “The Killing,” which appeared on AMC from 2011 to 2013, is one of the best detective shows ever made. I’ve loved almost all the shows that have been part of PBS’s “Masterpiece” series, and I’ve seen every episode of the British comedy-drama “Doc Martin.”
My favorite show of all time, though, is “Northern Exposure.” The winner of seven Emmy Awards and two Golden Globes, among several other awards and accolades, it ran for 110 episodes from 1990 to 1995 on CBS.
I have fond memories of gathering with friends in my college dorm lounge every Monday night, long before the days of streaming or DVRs, to watch “Northern Exposure.” It was a weekly social event, anticipated by everyone and providing a much-needed break to collectively experience the triumphs and tragedies, loves and adventures of the people of Cicely, Alaska. And what remarkable people they were.
Recently, I rewatched the first four seasons of “Northern Exposure” on DVD. I noticed a few tics I hadn’t picked up on when I was younger, like how the acting feels a bit awkward at times in some of the earliest episodes. For the most part, though, I found myself appreciating and enjoying the show even more than I did in college. “Northern Exposure” might be almost 30 years old, but other than some of the clothes the characters wore it hardly seems dated.
The main reason it’s stood the test of time, I think, is the writing. The storylines never fail to speak to our shared human experience. The show’s characters are rich and complex; their joys, sorrows, challenges and goals relatable. The show’s creators, Joshua Brand and the recently deceased John Falsey, who died in January at the age of 67, never shy away from difficult or sensitive subject matter. There are episodes that deal with death, sex, race, homosexuality, religion, aging, infidelity and sexism, and with many of the joys of being alive.
“Northern Exposure’s” cast was racially and culturally diverse before it was cool. The show often portrays Native American characters and various aspects of their culture. Chris Stevens, the DJ on KBHR, Cicely’s radio station, has a half-brother who is African-American. Dr. Joel Fleischman, one of the show’s main characters, is a young Jewish Ivy-Leaguer from New York. Various characters are gay, lesbian, French Canadian, Russian and Korean; young, old, liberal, conservative, rich and poor, with varying levels of income and education. Every one of them has something valuable to offer.
I’ve always been impressed by the characters’ frequent cultural references, which manage to be smart and relevant without ever coming across as elitist. These include lines from some of Walt Whitman’s poems and a full reading of a Shakespeare sonnet. There are references to classic Hollywood films, stories from Greek and Native American mythology, and allusions to Christian, Jewish and Buddhist theology.
“Northern Exposure” provides us with a vision of what we can be when we’re at our best, of what an ideal community could be like, a place where we find ways to value each other’s differences, share ideas, and raise each other up rather than tear each other down.
CBS is currently working with Brand to create a “Northern Exposure” revival that will include some original cast members and be released sometime this year. It’s hard to imagine what a 21st century version of the show will be like, but for the most part I’m optimistic. I hope it will inspire a new generation to create shows of equal caliber. And you can bet that when the show airs, my television will be on.
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