Northern Exposure: The Complete First Season (review)

My memories of Northern Exposure are of one of the finest television series I’ve ever seen, and watching its beginnings again, 14 years later, only confirms that assessment. This is the rare series that hit the ground running, with smart, ardent scripts written by writers who knew their characters well right from the start, performed by a cast that was instantly comfortable in those characters’ offbeat skins — and that’s not something that can be said of many series, which can spend their entire debut seasons figuring out who their characters are. There’s only eight episodes here, the entirety of an abbreviated, summer-replacement season that aired in 1990, but it feels fuller and is infinitely more satisfying than 22 episodes of most other shows: touching but never phony or falsely sentimental, quirky but grounded in believable odd real people who seem to live and breathe, humorous in a warmly humanistic way that eschews stereotypes while poking fun at foibles that transcend culture, exploring all the ways in which human beings can and do grow beyond their own self-imposed limitations. The threads of stories that would wend through all five seasons of the series begin here: the homesickness and gradual assimilation of New York doctor Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow, who crams a world of frustration and bitterness into a single moue) in rural Cicely, Alaska; his contentious love/hate relationship with bush pilot Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner, sheer perfection); the creative journeys of would-be filmmaker Ed Chigliak (the delightful Darren E. Burrows) and ex-con/deejay/artist Chris Stevens (John Corbett, who can’t seem to reach this pinnacle again); the genuine, and genuinely unusual, romance between Holling Vincoeur (John Cullum, who’s rarely been better) and the young-enough-to-be-his-granddaughter Shelly Tambo (Cynthia Geary); former astronaut/town father Maurice J. Minnifield (Barry Corbin); Adam, the reclusive gourmet chef (Adam Arkin). There are lots of deleted scenes and outtakes and the like, but honestly, they’re kinda superfluous: these eight episodes are absolutely perfect all by themselves.

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