Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
In 1867, U.S. Secretary Of State William Seward negotiated the purchase of the Alaskan territory from Russia in a deal that was initially dubbed “Seward’s Folly,” until the gold rushes of the 1890s showed that the land might yield some financial benefit. In 1912, Alaska was officially declared a U.S. territory; in 1959, a state. And then no one in this country cared about Alaska again until Northern Exposure debuted on CBS on July 12th, 1990.
Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. If nothing else, Alaska had been the setting for TV shows before, such as The Alaskans on ABC in 1959 and 1960 (starring Roger Moore as slick-talking prospector Silky Harris), the similar but harder-edged Klondike on NBC in 1960 and ’61 (with writing and direction by a young Sam Peckinpah), and the quickly cancelled half-hour adventure series Kodiak on ABC in 1974 (featuring Clint Walker as a state trooper chasing bad guys with the help of his Eskimo sidekick). But all of those shows were about rugged frontiersman and men of action. Northern Exposure was a light, quirky comedy-drama about ordinary people in an extraordinary place.
When the episode “Thanksgiving” aired on November 23, 1992, Northern Exposure was in its heyday: critically acclaimed, award-winning, and so popular with the TV-viewing public that the behind-the-scenes contract disputes of star Rob Morrow were major entertainment news. The show had debuted in the year of the midseason phenomenon: In 1990, The Simpsons’ first half-season arrived, along with a four-episode summer tryout for Seinfeld and the stunning first eight installments of Twin Peaks. All of those shows had become surprise hits in the months before Northern Exposure began its own eight-episode summer run. (Northern Exposure even gently parodied Twin Peaks in one of those early outings as a way of distinguishing its small-town eccentrics from David Lynch and Mark Frost’s.)
The shortened first season went so well that Northern Exposure came back for a second abbreviated run in the spring of ’91 and then began its first full season in the fall of that year. It finished the ’91-’92 season as a Top 15 show, and won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. (Though if Northern Exposure were on the air today, it would probably be submitted as a comedy.) Co-creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey pitched Northern Exposure to CBS as an offbeat medical drama, like their previous award-winner St. Elsewhere, and they weren’t being completely disingenuous. The series was about a doctor, Joel Fleishman, played by Morrow as a fussy New Yorker suffering through a med-school-related contract that required him to spend four years in Cicely, Alaska. But what made Northern Exposure exceptional then and now was the way it defied genre. This wasn’t strictly a drama or a comedy, and it definitely wasn’t “a doctor show.” It was more a welcoming place to visit for an hour a week… at least until the behind-the-scenes turmoil began to sour what was on the screen.
Some of that turmoil is evident in “Thanksgiving.” When Northern Exposure became a big success, Morrow started angling to renegotiate his contract, and the producers responded by introducing a new character: Mike Monroe, a sickly attorney played by Anthony Edwards. When Morrow re-signed, he tried to say all the right things to the press, noting that his demands had helped raise the pay for the whole cast, and saying that he was eager to welcome a new character into the mix because, “It breaks the monotony.” But the message to fans was clear: Morrow wasn’t any happier on Northern Exposure than his character was in Alaska.
In “Thanksgiving,” credited writer David Assael and the rest of the show’s producing and writing team have some fun with the story behind the story, concocting a scenario in which Dr. Fleishman finds out that his original four-year contract to work in Cicely—negotiated as payment for his tuition—has been extended to five years due to the changing rate of inflation. And so Joel spends the holidays moping around the town in a Rob Morrow-esque manner.
Joel actually begins the episode in good spirits, walking through the autumnal landscape with combative local pilot Maggie O’Connell (played by Janine Turner) while ruminating on the narcotic pleasures of tryptophan in turkey dinners and how he loves Thanksgiving because “there’s no theological strings attached.”
Joel’s mood begins to turn when he leaves Maggie and immediately gets pelted by a tomato, splattering red goo all over his jacket and Perry Ellis shirt.
When he gets to his office in the old Northwest Mining Company building, Joel’s receptionist, Marilyn Whirlwind (played by Elaine Miles), explains that around Thanksgiving, the Native Americans throw tomatoes at the white folks because, “Tomatoes look like blood but they don’t hurt.” It’s the same reason that the whole town is festooned with skeletons and “death’s-head pumpkins.” For the American Indians who make up a large portion of Cicely’s population, Thanksgiving is about the systematic slaughter of their people and their culture, so they “celebrate” in their own way, while the white people play their part as the willing victims of vegetable assault.
Elsewhere in Cicely, Chris Stevens, the philosophical ex-con disc jockey played by John Corbett, spins his usual mix of history, poetry, and bonhomie, but gets stuck on what Thanksgiving and the changing seasons means to him personally.
Later at The Brick—the local bar and grill—Chris pushes aside his turkey club and tells his waitress friend Shelly (played by Cynthia Geary) that he’s been feeling “weltschmerz,” missing something but not knowing what. He knows he’s not missing his family or the holiday memories of his youth, because he had a rough upbringing. Only after he walks into the general store run by Ruth-Anne (played by Peg Phillips) and finds some industrial-sized cans of green beans does he realize why he’s feeling blue. The beans remind him of prison. “I’ve been missing the joint,” he says. So he calls up his old warden in West Virginia and talks to some of his old inmate pals—except for the ones who’ve been let out, and except for Yancey, who’s been denied parole and is kind of sullen about it. (Not unlike our Dr. Fleishman, who receives his bad contract news shortly after he gets his shirt ruined.)
The other major plotline of “Thanksgiving” concerns Mike, who moved to Cicely because he’d hoped the cool, clean air would help purge his oversensitive body of all the toxins that cripple him in large cities. Lately, Mike’s been feeling well enough to venture outside his house without his mask or his spacesuit and to ramp up his flirting with Maggie, who comes over to his vacuum-sealed house to help him cook some dishes for the big Thanksgiving feast at The Brick. But then Maggie touches Mike’s hand, and in the days that follow, he starts to feel ill again.
Mike pores over his charts and news reports, trying to pinpoint the cause of his symptoms. Oil spill? Pesticides? He warns Shelly that, “Until whatever this is blows over, you might not want to do so many outdoor activities.” And he tells Maggie that he’s considering moving again, this time to Greenland (though she asks him not to go).
Mike also takes a look at Joel’s contract after Joel walks up to him in his garden, thrusts the documents in Mike’s face, and says, “This is like a bald manipulation of the law! Isn’t it?” But Mike says Joel doesn’t have a case; the contract clearly states that he has to pay back what the state of Alaska spent on him, and what they spent was in 1986 dollars, which were worth more than 1992 dollars. So Joel turns even surlier, snapping at his patients for not following his orders precisely. He has dreams at night that he’s being asked to take over for Sisyphus, rolling a boulder up a hill so that it can roll back down.
He’s also angry at the tomato-throwers, claiming that as a Jew he’s “an innocent bystander” to the mistreatment of the American Indian, and that as a New Yorker, he advocates bad tipping and withholding damage deposits as a healthier way to express hostility. (One local, Dave, tells Joel that it could be worse. “Baseball bats. Bicycle chains.”) Then Marilyn explains to Joel why her people celebrate death at this time of the year, via a folktale about how the pumpkin came to be.
Not every Northern Exposure regular gets their due in this episode. We only briefly see the kindly old owner of The Brick, Holling Vincoeur (played by Broadway legend John Cullum). Barry Corbin’s gruff Maurice Minnifield—the retired astronaut and entrepreneur responsible for landing Joel in Cicely—has one short scene where he asks on behalf of the volunteer fire department what incendiaries will be used in the Day Of The Dead parade. And we get just a taste of Darren E. Burrows’ film buff Ed Chigliak, who shows up just to haul groceries, cheer up Joel, and fling the occasional tomato.
Instead, “Thanksgiving” focuses on three prisoners: the freed Chris, longing to be confined; the confined Joel, begging to be freed; and Mike, a hyper-cautious man who can’t decide if he wants to remain isolated in his fear or risk the contamination of the outside world. One by one, the three men find some solace. Chris reconnects with his sordid past, while Mike dons his spacesuit and walks down off his mountain to watch the parade, side-by-side with Maggie (and her snazzy sport coat).
As for Joel, he walks in the parade, feeling unified with the oppressed. Then he grabs a seat at The Brick, where he complains at length about how badly he’s been treated, all while scarfing down every delicious dish that passes by. In front of Joel, throughout his whole rant, sits a big bowl of Chris’ prison green beans.
Shows like Northern Exposure have never been common TV fare—at least not in the hour-long, semi-dramatic form. Mild domestic woes and offbeat characters are more the province of sitcoms, with only the occasional Northern Exposure or Gilmore Girls pushing at the parameters. In the case of Northern Exposure, Brand and Falsey’s team of writers and craftspeople took advantage of their remote location—shot primarily in Roslyn and Redmond, Washington—and created a show where the characters were often deeply stressed but the audience wasn’t, largely because of where the stories were taking place. “Thanksgiving” is full of little touches that help make the world of this town and its people more three-dimensional, whether it’s Maggie and Shelly planning out a big dinner complete with foods that look Thanksgiving-y, like Italian stuffed shells and Bugles; or the tidbit that Ruth-Anne’s store—decorated from top to bottom with skulls, pumpkins, and tomatoes—is sold out of spot-remover.
In an interview in Louis Chunovic’s The Northern Exposure Book, Brand says of the show, “It’s a little bit like a soufflé when it works. It’s lighter than air and yet it has some substance to it.” Later in Northern Exposure’s run, the ingredients didn’t mix as well. As often happens on long-running series, the writers added new characters rather then developing existing ones, and the tone of the show veered from aggressively whimsical to earnestly soapy. The sense of place remained, but the writers didn’t make use of it as well as they did in the third season, when they dedicated an entire episode to a period recreation of how Cicely was founded (by two art-loving lesbians, as it turns out). They lost sight of what Corbett said to Chunovic: “I think the town is the star of the show. [It’s] like the Brady Bunch’s house… It’s Gilligan’s Island. It’s this place that doesn’t really exist that people really want to exist.” Or, to quote Falsey, “It’s like opening up a window and getting a breath of fresh air.”
Before the recent wave of high-profile Republicans made the name “Alaska” synonymous with “right-wing wonderland,” the state had more of a reputation for Northern Exposure-like inclusiveness. It’s a stretch of land known to attract individualists, often with wildly differing views about politics or religion or conservation, yet co-existing in remote communities where cooperation is vital to everyone’s survival. Northern Exposure is about that version of Alaska, filtered through a quaint small-town Americana that viewers found both enchanting and familiar—either from their own experiences or from a lifetime of watching television. The show took common TV environments—a doctor’s office, a bar, a store, a home in the country—and added breathtaking scenery and characters unlike any other on TV at the time. (Northern Exposure easily had the biggest and most diverse cast of Native Americans of any TV show, and though the writers sometimes leaned on them too much for folksy wisdom, the same could be said of most of the show’s non-Joel characters.) The ’90s were the golden age of the “people hanging out” show, and in some ways Northern Exposure was the classiest of the genre: the scripts were ambitious, the stories had gentle life lessons to impart, and the view was stunning.
That’s why it was hard for fans to have too much sympathy either for Joel Fleishman or Rob Morrow. A little sympathy, sure. We’ve all been stuck in places we’d rather tour than inhabit. But Cicely was such a welcoming spot, full of people who’d been deeply hurt—Maggie with her string of dead boyfriends, Maurice with his unrequited love, the natives with their legacy of being exploited, and so on—but all handled their failures with some measure of aplomb, drawing strength from Cicely itself. The town sure didn’t seem much like a prison.
Besides, as “Thanksgiving” observes, even a real prison can be a home to some. The beauty of this episode is the way it offers such a pragmatic but affirming take on life in all its little triumphs and setbacks. The centerpiece of “Thanksgiving” is one of Chris’ radio monologues, in which he recounts the story of his hoosegow holiday.
Got a message today via some tin cans, and dig this, there wasn’t even any strings hookin’ ’em up. They helped me recall that it was behind bars, amongst 400 cons, that I enjoyed the best Thanksgiving of my life. Me and the other guys, we filed in from the yard, those of us who weren’t in solitary, and got in a big ol’ line outside the dining hall. As we filed through the chow-line, we go to take as big a helping as we wanted, ’cuz I guess even in the calaboose, Warden Viglietta recognized the need for overindulgence on that day of all days. We had plastic plates just brimming with pressed turkey and sweet potatoes and green beans. After a brief interruption when one of the new guys tried to swipe a cleaver from the kitchen, Joey “King” George got up on a chair and he recited a passage from Pilgrim’s Progress. “A man there was, though some did count him mad, the more he cast away, the more he had.” Then man, we just all dug in. Joey King’s punk Junior The Weatherman got a jug of applejack that he’d been fermentin’ since the Fourth Of July, and we passed it along under the table, spikin’ our cider when we were free from watching eyes. I remember that “Dog” Hanson even got a little wacked on the stuff; he stabbed a guy just for pinching his yams. Little Billy Boner tried to get a round of Christmas carols going, even though it was a month early.”
Then Chris ends the story with a line that speaks volumes about the surprising joy that can come from deep sorrow, and how we can find ourselves far from where we meant to be and still know hope. He says, “The mellow sweetness of a pumpkin pie off of a prison spoon is something you will never forget.”
Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.
Next time, on A Very Special Episode… All In The Family, “Gloria Discovers Women’s Lib”