THE peculiar population of Cicely, Alaska, is made up of an assortment of oddballs, rednecks, misfits, and lovers. No one really belongs to anyone else, and all the couples are mismatched. It is a community of non sequiturs and therein lies its appeal, the charisma of CBS's popular series "Northern Exposure."
As its first season comes to a close, looking back at the show's excesses and successes reveals a lot about contemporary American culture. The show's sardonic wit, crisp intelligence, and its sense of the absurd entertain and provoke. Taking potshots at the whole of American culture from the frontier-like setting of a remote Alaskan town, the show manages to touch on all the "politically correct" issues (sometimes in an irritatingly superficial manner) and still maintain its quirky realism. Well, most of
Characters speak to one another with a weird formality that is both funny and believable - especially for anyone who has ever lived in a remote Alaskan town. Consequently, there is a good deal of humorous philosophizing among the inhabitants. Who am I and where am I going? are constant questions the characters ask themselves. Individual characters on the show have a hard time getting together, and that problem reflects much of society today, too, as the ability to love seems more elusive than ever.
Here is a place where anyone at all might show up and anything might happen. The impossible is made to seem plausible, slipped neatly among more realistic events. Brothers show up in each other's dreams and wake at the same moment with a vision of the future. A man of 108 years appears out of nowhere and tells the history of the town (tonight's season finale). A bear turns into a man for the love of Maggie, the beautiful bush pilot, and then back into a bear again - a bit of magic realism reminiscent of
Latin American novelists such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
There is a lot of this "plausible-impossible" stuff going around on TV, but none as well developed as in "Northern Exposure."
What is most appealing about the show is that among its assortment of mismatched individuals, a rich, believable sense of community pervades the atmosphere of the town.
Even the young New York doctor (forced to take the job for financial reasons), the one chronic outsider, complainer, and skeptic, really does belong here and does care about the others. Among folks who have nothing in common except the mighty landscape of Alaska, there is a fabulous intimacy so many urbanites long for.
But "Northern Exposure" has its failings, too. A few episodes have been downright silly. In its extravagant need to be hip, its potshots are sometimes ignorantly aimed, and its characters interpret everything around them in basically New Age terms - all of which becomes tiresome.
In the season's final story about the founding of Cicely, two young, cultured women arrive (circa 1905) and remake the miserable town into an artists' utopia. In one sequence, one of the young women does a dreadful imitation of modern dance, Isadora Duncan style. Suddenly the show takes on a missionary seriousness of tone, but New-Age talk takes the place of any moral of the story, and the viewer remains unconverted to the mystical implications of the show.
A viewer might well wonder, Where is all the skepticism and sardonic wit now?