Northern Exposure, “Seoul Mates”
The A.V. Club loves the holiday season, and we also love opening small doors in paintings of Santa Claus and pulling out stale chocolate the manufacturer couldn’t sell four years ago, then eating it and pretending we’re having a good time. We’ve found a way to combine those things with our love of television, and we’re hoping you’ll join us every day through December 25 to open one of our virtual doors and find out which holiday special or holiday-themed episode we’re covering that day. We’ve got the usual suspects, some of the worst specials, and some surprises for you, and we’re hoping you’ll join us every day to get in the holiday spirit.
“A long time ago, the raven looked down from the sky and saw that the people of the world were living in darkness. The ball of light was kept hidden by a selfish old chief. So the raven turned himself into a spruce needle and floated on the river where the chief’s daughter came for water. She drank the spruce needle. She became pregnant and gave birth to a boy, who was the raven in disguise. The boy cried and cried until the chief gave him the ball of light to play with. As soon as the raven had the light, the raven turned back into himself. The raven carried the light into the sky. From then on, we no longer lived in darkness.” —Native American creation myth, as synopsized in “Seoul Mates”, episode 25 of Northern Exposure
Northern Exposure first appeared as a summer replacement show in July 1990, three months after the première of Twin Peaks, and it would be a while before the show was allowed to stop playing Joe Frazier to Twin Peaks’ Muhammad Ali. A lot of people’s reactions to Northern Exposure seemed to be based on their reactions to the big son of a bitch in the room who was posing for magazine covers and eating up everybody else’s oxygen. The shows weren’t very much alike, except for being set in small towns that were off the beaten track and populated by offbeat characters with their own arcane interests and eccentric local customs. That was enough to persuade a number of viewers, many of whom worked as TV critics, that the differences between them were telling.
Critics who thought that Twin Peaks had turned the shape of American television completely around overnight tended to view Northern Exposure as a much softer show, if not a counter-revolutionary agent. Other critics, who thought that Peaks was flimsy and hyped, made a case for Exposure as being what Quality TV really ought to be: conventional, sure, but also literate, progressive-minded, and well-meaning, where a mixture of stage veterans, familiar character actors, up-and-comers, local pickups, and the smirky guy from the Dentyne commercial (“Time to walk the daw-awg!”) could come together and grapple with their problems in an amusingly neurotic but basically enlightened way.
I loved both these shows, and for me, the key difference between them came down to this: I found it a fascinating experience to watch Twin Peaks, even after it went off the rails, but I wanted to live in Northern Exposure. The show took a while to hit its full stride, and its death throes weren’t much less ugly than Twin Peaks’, but during its glory days in the early ’90s, it was as smart, funny, emotionally rich, and unpredictable as anything on the air that didn’t star a race of yellow-skinned cartoon people.
In many ways, the show and I might have been made for each other. I spent most of the first 17 years of my life in Walthall County, Mississippi, a place that other people in Mississippi regard as the sticks. The library was long on Harlequin romances and government pamphlets about how to best maintain a good relationship with your rototiller, and the only movie theater in town had closed down before we moved there and left the poster advertising its last attraction in the protective glass case on the exterior wall; I guess nobody bought the building, because for years afterward, I’d sit in the backseat of my mother’s car as we drove past, and I’d be amazed that M*A*S*H was still playing. I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there and get some cultural stimulation, and when I finally evaded the Rovers and swam out past the breakers and made it to shore on the other side, I was a pig in shit. But I’d never really feel at home any place that was very different from the quiet, isolated sort of place where I’d always feel bored and miserable.
Northern Exposure’s special charm for me was always that it seemed to offer the best of both worlds: a remote corner of the world that was full of tranquility and natural beauty, where people from all walks of life had come to pursue their interest in moviemaking, books, and old records, and shoot the shit about their odd philosophical and sociological beliefs and historical knowledge, all in a spirit that was laid-back, patient, accepting, and endlessly curious. Cicely, Alaska looked like heaven on Earth to me, and I doubt that I was unusual among the show’s diehard fans. CBS was quick to convince itself that the show’s audience kept coming back to chart the progress of the push-pull romance between Joel Fleischman, the fish-out-of-water Jewish doctor we were supposed to identify with, and Maggie O’Connell, the twangy-voiced supermodel who thought she was a bush pilot. But for many people, the star of the show was Cicely. (For the record, Joel’s chronic inability to appreciate the place was a lot less relatable and endearing than the show seemed to think.)
At its heart, Northern Exposure was a fantasy about a group of people who’d come to an implausible place to form a makeshift family. Maybe that’s why there was always a melancholy undertow to the show, as if even the people making it were a little sad that it wasn’t real. Watching it today, it feels more poignant than ever, because the moment when it was a necessary fantasy for some of us hungry small-towners has passed. When the show ended in 1995, the Internet was starting to stir, anticipating a world of online shopping for once hard-to-find items and making it possible to form friendships with people a million miles away who were trying to get their hands on the same cool shit, thus insuring that no small-town kid who had access to an Internet connection and mom’s credit card would ever be that lonely or hungry again.
This kind of fantasy plays to sappier hungers than those that respond to the level of craft and imagination that were once at play in Twin Peaks, but I’d argue that those hungers still deserve to be fed, and feeding them as well as Northern Exposure did is some kind of feat. And being a show about a community that had come to seem like a family you wanted to join, Northern Exposure had an edge on a show like Twin Peaks when it came to certain things, such as getting through December. In December 1990, all the stars of ABC’s big shows were required to appear in promos where they’d gather in a domestic-looking setting and, smiling into the camera, wish the folks at home a merry Christmas. For Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean, Sheryl Lee, Jack Nance, and the Man from Another Place to have clustered around a bowl of eggnog and yelled “Seasons Greetings!” would have amounted to a new low in self-parody—the spell that their show meant to weave simply couldn’t co-exist with that level of heartfelt corn—so the Twin Peaks team contributed a tiny animated short that was reminiscent of those strobe-lit eyeball torture devices in sci-fi movies that hypnotize people into becoming assassins. Northern Exposure was a better vehicle for a Christmas episode, because it was the kind of show where you really wanted to see what these people and their town got up to during the holidays.
At the center of “Seoul Mates” is Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin), the only regular character to whom the show ascribes a capacity for outright bigotry, which comes in handy whenever he needs to demonstrate his inherent nobility by rising above his worst instincts. Maurice’s first line, delivered to Chris (John Corbett), the motormouthed flake and lanky sex god who runs his radio station for him, is “I understand the suicide rate goes up dramatically around Christmastime.” Maurice is in a funk because he thinks he has to get through the holidays as a man without a family. “If you’re alone, you start to feel like an outsider. It’s the nature of a family holiday to make a single man feel disenfranchised. You’re made to feel like a hungry vagrant with your nose pressed up against a window, staring at someone else’s dinner.” (It’s the nature of Maurice himself that he sees nothing strange about generalizing his feelings even when he’s describing them to another single man who clearly doesn’t share them.) Be careful what you wish for: A few minutes later, Maurice is being re-acquainted with a Korean woman he met when he was a teenaged Marine overseas, the son she had by him that he didn’t know about by now, and the man’s son—Maurice’s grandson—who, as the only one of them who speaks English, is along to act as interpreter.
Maurice would be better emotionally equipped to deal with an extraterrestrial spaceship strafing the town than he is for this. His first thought is to sit his new family down at a table in the Brick and haltingly, through the grandson, establish that they haven’t come all this way to shake him down. He’s delighted to hear that they haven’t—he greets the news with his idea of a conciliatory smile, which makes him look like Ming the Merciless when the dying screams of the people on a planet he’s just atomized strike him as especially amusing—but is simply incapable of fully processing the information that the man he’s offering to sic his lawyers on just wants to meet his father. It doesn’t help when his son stands up at dinner and uses up what English he knows to serenade Maurice with his Vegas-karaoke rendition of “Fly Me To The Moon,” with lyrics awkwardly adapted for the occasion. (“Father, kiss me!”) “Unhelpful” would be an unduly kind word for the intimate scene between Maurice and the Korean woman, whom he can’t remember to save his life, in which he asks her if she’s a different woman who he does remember. Maurice knows that there’s something the matter with the way he’s handling the situation—“I sometimes give the impression that I’m a little insensitive,” he tells his son—but he doesn’t know what to do differently until he seeks counsel from Chris. “All my life, I’ve dreamed of having a son,” he says. “What do I get? A middle-aged Chinaman.” Chris sweetly points out that Maurice’s instinctual revulsion isn’t instinctual at all, but learned behavior. “You can unlearn it, “ he says.
I think of Chris as Northern Exposure’s stab at creating an image of the perfect man, or at least the perfect male summer fling: sensitive, cuddly, articulate, well-read, with a background in hardship and a criminal record that lend rough-hewn glamour to his boy-toy visage but that don’t seem to have left him with any calluses on his personality or the faintest hint of a mean streak. Sitting at the mic, reading from Poe (in keeping with Cicely’s raven-themed holiday trappings) and recounting oddball tales from his childhood in between spinning records, he embodies the omnicultural friendliness of the show and the town. It’s a spirit that approaches Christmas as a cultural entity, with most of the religion drained out of it.
The single loveliest image in the episode is Shelley’s (Cynthia Geary) glowing face, framed by colored lights on the tree behind her, as she’s opening “hand-painted glasses” from “Czechoslovakia,” as it was then still called, adorned with seasonal raven images. Shelley, it turns out, is the one character who’s aching for a more traditional holiday celebration. While everyone else is looking forward to the Raven Pageant, she’s missing her traditional Catholic mass, though not because she doesn’t think she’s getting enough Christ with her Christmas. She misses the music and the rituals. “I love the ravens, Holling,” she tells her husband (John Cullem). “I do. But it just doesn’t feel like an old-fashioned Charlie Brown Christmas.” It’s a funny line, made even funnier—maybe unintentionally so—in this context, because A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of the few TV Christmas shows that goes out of its way to remind viewers what, or rather who, the holiday is supposed to be about.
The subplots involving Joel (Rob Morrow) and Maggie (Janine Turner) aren’t the most scintillating parts of the episode, but their converging storyline is the part that serves up the themes in a nutshell. Joel has decided to break with tradition and get a Christmas tree, a decision that comes after a great deal of thinking out loud about how this symbolic home decoration is a “fun” token of a universal holiday and in no way a betrayal of his Jewish identity. Maggie, meanwhile, has spent the days leading up to Christmas talking everybody’s ear off about how she was dreading having to go home to see her family for Christmas, only to have the wind taken out of her sails when she gets word from her parents that they’ve decided to say to hell with it and light out for St. Thomas. They’re both adrift until Joel surprises Maggie by planting his fully decorated tree outside her lonely house. “It belongs here,” he says.
All these people belong here; that’s the point of the final scene, when the entire cast turns out for the Raven Pageant, with Marilyn narrating the story of the raven’s bringing light to the world. The Raven Pageant itself is a funny thing, in the larger context of the show. It’s one thing for Northern Exposure to treat the biggest Christian holiday as an occasion for shared beauty and fellow feeling that doesn’t exclude non-Christians and nonbelievers, but the show was on shakier ground when it dealt with the spiritual beliefs of the native Alaskans. Sometimes, it made fun of the idea that an urban outfitter like Joel would think there was anything deep and unfamiliar there at all, as in the early episode when Joel, attending what he expected to be an evening of tribal performance rituals, encounters an emcee who behaves like an Alaskan Shecky Greene. The Pageant splits the difference: It feels like a religious occasion, but that’s because of the light reflected in the eyes of the people in the audience, who are blissed out just from being together. It’s so stirring that it’ll make a believer out of you. What it makes you believe may be up to you.
Tomorrow: An old friend gets the whole family together.