The pilot episode of Northern Exposure introduced us to Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) and his plight of being assigned to practice medicine in the semi-rural outpost town of Cicely, Alaska, fancied by Alaska-enthusiasts and developers as “the Paris of the North.” “Brains, Know-How, and Native Intelligence” introduces us to a major new character in the person of local disc jockey Chris Stevens (John Corbett), furthers Joel’s immersion in Cicelian community life and culture, expounds on the lives and personalities of the town’s characters, and weaves themes among the character stories in a way that gives the town of Cicely a growing sense of place.
“Brains, Know-How, and Native Intelligence” begins with disc jockey Chris Stevens telling the story of his criminal past as an auto thief and prospective burglar. He describes coming across The Complete Works of Walt Whitman in a home he was robbing, and how the discovery of Walt Whitman changed his life. Introducing Chris and his radio program, Chris-in-the-Morning, adds a new dimension to Northern Exposure. He gives poetry readings, as in this episode with Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” reads from children’s books, classic literature, and mythology, quotes a wide array of personages from Einstein to Lincoln to fellow inmates from his time in prison, taking equal wisdom from all, and pontificates on the goings on in the town of Cicely.
Chris quickly becomes part of the plot line in this episode when he ventures into discussing how reading Walt Whitman in prison and learning of Whitman’s homosexuality made Chris reconsider his previous abusive treatment of homosexuals. Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin) is the conservative, masculine owner of the KBHR radio station. He considers Chris’s discussion of Whitman to be an expose´ better suited to San Francisco than to Cicely, Alaska. He physically assaults Chris and fires him. Maurice takes over radio hosting duties, and, in an ironic twist, proceeds to play show tunes ad nauseam. He also talks about his days as an astronaut, telling stories of his fellow astronauts—all actual people except for his character—arguing over what is the best musical.
Joel meets his native medical compliment through Ed (Darren E. Burrows), who startles Joel by sitting quietly in the corner of Joel’s bedroom waiting for Joel to wake up. Ed’s explanation for not knocking is that Indians consider knocking to be rude. Ed’s explanation for how he got into Joel’s cabin is that he used the key, the same key that works on his house and many other homes in Cicely. This, Ed explains, reduces worry over getting locked out. Ed wants Joel to treat his Uncle Anku (Frank Sotonoma Salsedo), a local medicine man that has prostate cancer. Anku treats Joel to dinner, invites him to a sauna, and teaches him that dancing invokes the spirit in healing sickness. What Anku won’t do is allow Joel to evaluate or treat him because he is concerned about maintaining his medicine man image in the face of his patients.
Meanwhile, Joel’s toilet won’t work. Maggie (Janine Turner) fixes it, but decries Joel as a “helplessness junkie.” Then, Joel’s shower won’t work. The other characters suggest that Joel call Maggie; she’s the best plumber in town. Joel wont’ give Maggie that satisfaction after her assault of his character, so he gets a book on plumbing from the local “library,” which is a shelf of books in Ruth-Anne’s (Peg Phillips) general store and attempts to fix the shower himself. Maggie injures her knee, but refuses Joel’s medical help when he mocks her for needing him.
With the exceptions of Ed and Holling (John Cullum), who act as messengers in the stories of other characters, each character has a point of pride to overcome. Anku won’t go to the doctor and shirks Western medical treatments because of his image as a traditional healer and his espousal of the role of the spirit in sickness and wellness. Joel won’t admit to needing Maggie’s help, nor will he step outside his circumscribed sphere of intelligence to try a new activity—plumbing—because of his image as a New York doctor. Maurice is long-coming in admitting that firing Chris from the radio is an extremely bad decision because he wants to maintain his image as a masculine man and town boss.
These characters also learn from each other. Anku learns from Joel that “Pride is a powerful narcotic, but it doesn’t do much for the autoimmune system.” he acquiesces to treatment at a modern western hospital. Joel learns from Anku to think like that thing that he wishes to catch. Anku told Joel about thinking like a salmon to catch a salmon; Joel decides to think like a shower to try to fix his shower, comparing the shower to a blocked artery, something that he knows. Joel shows humility in bringing a treatment to Maggie for her knee, and Maggie says she’ll help him fix his shower. Maurice learns from the town and from Joel that he is not the best fit as an on-air radio personality, and re-hires Chris. Chris hears Maurice talk about keeping our heroes as heroes rather than reducing them to a more human stature. Through Maurice’s one attention-worthy broadcast, Chris realizes that he made Walt Whitman’s human drama primary to Whitman’s art.
Through the quirky, comical, and mundane goings on in the episode, everyone tries to overcome pride and extend forgiveness. There is a lot of forgiveness in Northern Exposure, a lot of acceptance amidst individual differences. This sounds a little too quaint and precious, but all of it comes from radical differences in people whose primary commonality is that they’ve all (with the exception of Joel) come to Alaska to be their fuller selves, dark halves as well as light. Joel may have come to Alaska for that reason, too, but not by his choice.
Yet, Cicely, Alaska is a benign place. Northern Exposure doesn’t wish to be edgy or overly morally complex. When the show later ventures into magical realism, it does so in benevolent spirit. Of the three great 1990s television shows that cast their characters for long portions of time into the woods, it is Northern Exposure that makes the woods a place of quiet revelation. The other shows, Twin Peaks and The X-Files, characterize the woods by malevolence (Twin Peaks) and the good or ill of human choice (The X-Files). In Northern Exposure, place is a state of mind as much as a geographical location with physical attributes, which makes distinguishing place and time difficult. Are all of these characters and ideas of their time, a different cultural era, or are they part of a uniquely removed place?
Ed’s Uncle Anku is a wise medicine man, but he also knows about Columbia University’s medical school as well as their football team. He travels to Anchorage to buy Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner and to see medical specialists. He tells tales of teaching a fellow fisherman how to catch salmon by thinking like a salmon, but this fishing buddy is someone he knew in Chicago. Ancient wisdom and modern pride, popular culture and traditional methods—all are part of modern life in Cicely. Joel dreams of a thoroughly modern Manhattan medical practice, but he is also committed to his patients and figuring out how to heal them. The Northern Exposure pilot introduced Joel Fleischman and Joel’s one-by-one meeting of the supporting characters in the town.
“Brains, Know-How, and Native Intelligence” shows the dualities that each of the characters, now including Joel, brings to life in Cicely.
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