Northern Exposure came to American network television on July 12, 1990 for eight episodes as a summer replacement series. CBS aired seven additional episodes in the spring of 1991, and then settled into the regular 20-plus episode full network schedule in the fall of 1991 for what would be its third season. To begin, we have the “Pilot” episode, written by series creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey.
The first scene of Northern Exposure opens with Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) talking, talking, talking to his seat mate on a flight to Anchorage, Alaska. Joel is waxing enthusiastic about his impending stay in Anchorage, which, he explains will be service repaid in contractual exchange for the state of Alaska paying his Columbia University medical school tuition of $125,000. From these first words, the audience learns that Joel is earnest, hardworking, self-concerned, and fundamentally a New Yorker. All of this, particularly Joel’s New York identity, persists throughout the show and comes around in full at the end of Joel’s journey. From beginning to end, it sets the show’s grand theme for all of its characters: You are who you are, and you have to find your place, wherever you are.
Joel has a lot to learn on this topic in the meantime, and his forced “make the best of it” attitude (“Do you know how many Chinese restaurants there are in Anchorage? There’s five!”) doesn’t exactly set him on the path to success when he learns, upon arrival in Anchorage, that he is not needed in that more modern city, but that the “city” of Cicely, Alaska, described now and later as situated along “the Alaskan Riviera,” could use his services. The urbane Dr. Joel Fleischman’s journey truly commences on a bus ride from Anchorage to Cicely, with a local nodding off to sleep on his shoulder.
Joel is deposited on a stretch of road in a manner that resembles a more deciduous bus stop out of North by Northwest; i.e., in the middle of nowhere. He sits atop his luggage with his golf clubs at his side, he reads his New York Times, and he waits with uncharacteristic patience to be eventually retrieved by Ed (Darren E. Burrows), a young Native American whose penchant for gab rivals Joel’s, although Ed’s topics of choice run the gamut from musical styles through movie directors, the latter of which we later learn is his long-standing career aspiration. For now, Ed is tasked with delivering the new doctor to Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin), town patron and developer.
Driving a pickup truck, Ed shares his knowledge of music, television, and film while driving Joel partway out of the middle of nowhere. Abruptly, he puts the truck in park in the middle of the road, disappears into the woods telling Joel he’s going home, and leaves Joel to drive the remainder of the rural way to Maurice Minnifield’s house, which Joel finds by noticing the lone mailbox marked “Minnifield” at the end of a long stretch of dirt road.
Maurice Minnifield is many things: a former astronaut, an advocate for Alaska, a developer, and a patron of the town. He can be welcoming, threatening, helpful, and bigoted. In his sprawling home, he has guns, guitars, animal skins, and a wagon mounted on the walls. Maurice’s request for a Jewish doctor to serve the town is Joel’s reason for being in Cicely. His well-meant but perhaps not well-considered advertisement for the town when selling Joel on its charms and potential is, “We’ve got natural resources; we’ve got land, we’ve got wildlife; just waiting to be fondled. And now Joel, now, we’ve got you.” This could be the beginning of a horror story or a comedy. Fortunately, it’s funny. Maurice drives Joel into the town, which Joel doesn’t recognize as the thriving metropolis Maurice sees in his visions of the future.
Maurice’s commercial aspirations begin the tension and balance between Maurice and the other townspeople, the balance between progress and the natural world that will recur. For now, Maurice shows Joel the dilapidated building that will be his office, which Maurice assures Joel will be improved by a fresh coat of paint and a couple of heads on the wall. Joel, who really wants a bagel from Zabar’s, is unconvinced as he blows a cloud of dust off what exists of his “office” furniture. Joel then sees a still, quiet woman standing in the shadows. He asks, “Who are you?” She replies, “Marilyn. I’m here for the job.” Marilyn (Elaine Miles) (who gets the job by simply showing up) will seldom say more than this at one stretch for the proceeding six seasons. She is as taciturn and still as Joel is loquacious and fidgety.
Joel runs, really runs, to The Brick, the local bar, to use the pay phone to call his fiancé, Elaine, who is a third-year law student at NYU, pleading with her to comb his contract to find a legal way to get out of his contractual obligation to the state of Alaska. (Spoiler: This doesn’t work. Joel is in it for the long haul.). While awaiting her review (Elaine has to study for finals first), Joel reencounters Ed, who asks Joel another popular music question. Joel also meets bar proprietor Holling Vincoeur (John Cullum), who, Joel learns through Ed, has a short-term but intense feud brewing with Maurice over waitress Shelley Tambo (Cynthia Geary), a 19-year-old winner of the Miss Northwest Passage contest whom Maurice brought to Cicely, but who fell in love with Holling.
This is the extent that we get of the Holling-Shelley-Maurice love triangle story in the Pilot, but the stage is set to learn more, as Joel learns more, in future episodes. Neither Holling nor Maurice are spring chickens (Holling is in his sixties), but the Holling-Shelley relationship is somehow not creepy, but rather one of the show’s endearing connections among people of disparate ages. Shelley is more of an object of discussion in the pilot, but we later learn about Holling and Shelley’s surprisingly committed relationship, and Shelley develops her own unique character aside from her role in Maurice and Holling’s broken friendship. Unlike Maurice, Holling is cordial and welcoming without ulterior motive and, though he has one foot in the domestic world in town, more a part of the wild than Maurice’s commercial view of the future.
Casting an immediate presence is Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner), a very former debutante with tomboy underpinnings from upper echelon Grosse Pointe Michigan, who found her way to Alaska with a boyfriend that was writing a book about mountain climbing and found her better self as a bush pilot and real estate investor. Joel mistakes Maggie for a hooker rather than as his new landlord, an unpropitious first meeting that sets that stage for the zings and barbs that characterize the surface of their halting relationship for the first years of their story. Maggie is self-sufficiently independent and secretly vulnerable.
She chops wood, runs her own air taxi (and later builds her own plane), and goes deer hunting. She also has a string of dead boyfriends, including the one that she followed to Alaska, who died taking a nap on a glacier. She seems compatible on the surface to her current boyfriend, Rick (Grant Goodeve), who is suitably rugged, but, like Joel with his fiancé Elaine, Rick is what Maggie found when going for a compatible surface persona. Besides, we the audience shouldn’t become too attached to Rick, given Maggie’s eyebrow-raising history with male mortality.
Maggie shows Joel to the cabin she will rent to him, ostensibly for the next four years, shows him how to light a fire with the wood he will have to learn to chop, and warns him about the giant rat in a garbage bag in his living room. The next morning, after sleeping in fear with his golf club, listening to animal noises, Joel sees the extent of the nature surrounding his rural abode, and in a fit of panic, runs seven miles into town. He stops at the general store, where he meets Ruth-Anne (Peg Phillips), the clear-headed proprietor of the town store, who sells Joel a bottle of water and beef jerky after answering his request for a bagel with “What’s a bagel?”
Joel then goes to his new office, now featuring electricity, where Marilyn quietly knits at her desk as patients sit in a row, awaiting their first visits with the new doctor. Joel reluctantly agrees to see these people, counting them off in the order. This manner of organizing appointments continues past the first episode. In the future, an unknown patient is referred to throughout the episode as “number 7.” Here, “number 6,” waiting quietly, was shot by his wife, while “number 2” brings with her a pet beaver who hasn’t gnawed any wood lately because his teeth hurt.
Much of the beginnings of Northern Exposure revolve around how Joel reacts to the people of Cicely and what they make of him. It is partially his upbringing and partially his temperament and attitude that make him sour to his fish-out-of-water status. However, Joel merits a moment of understanding from time to time. After graduating from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and completing his residency at Beth Zion Hospital, starting his career by spending four years in a town whose challenging medical conditions include inspecting a pet beaver’s teeth might seem a letdown.
Joel does develop an interest in the stories of the town, and even at the end of the pilot, joins the town celebration of the moment, one of many to follow. This is a town with a festival and feast for all season and occasions. This time, it’s the Ninth Annual Arrowhead County Summer Wonderland Festival. The final scene of the festival really doesn’t resolve anything in the story, but the pilot of Northern Exposure is not so much a plot as a predicament. The real story of the pilot episode is the introduction of Joel Fleischman to the town of Cicely, Alaska and its eccentric, individualistic characters. It ends pleasantly, leaving the inkling that we might like to see more of these people and their town. It’s just such a good-natured show.
During the show’s run, a regular remark was “the town is a character.” That idea has some merit, although some of the emphasis on the location is appropriated from Twin Peaks, which started its run earlier in 1990 and had already infused the woods with spirit (malevolent, in its case) by the time Northern Exposure came into being. In contrast and in retrospect, the town of Cicely is a benevolent canvas for the personalities and stories of its characters. The cast of characters in the town is essential to the spirit and the acclaim of the show, but a major reason the pilot, and subsequently the series, really works is that Rob Morrow is completely committed to his character. The good, the bad, the appealing, the unappealing, the infuriating, the endearing: he plays all of this from the start. Joel Fleischman isn’t necessarily a perspective character for the audience’s experience; it’s not his view of being in Cicely that we are meant to hold. He is, however, the protagonist and the antagonist in the story, at various times, and it is his plight and evolution that we follow.
Future episodes tell parts of the stories of the supporting characters and their passages into Alaska, but the pilot sets the stage for Joel’s story to be the primary narrative and the most transformative character journey.
Are you a fan of Northern Exposure? Let us know.