Monday, August 14, 2006

Northern Exposure and the idea of the non-judgmental community

Did you miss me?

To date, the most substantive things I've written are a number of pilots, conceived for two TV show ideas I had, both set in small towns. One was sort of a mythological place, where battles of good and evil were fought on a small scale. The other was sort of a quirky place. The first was something that sustained me through high school and college, written when I knew I wanted to be a TV writer but had no real idea how to go about doing that. The second was written when I began to get serious, began to think about having spec pilots (pilots written as examples of writing ability), began to think about filming something independently.

The second, of course, is much better (if any of you want to look at a recent draft, let me know). It's got a real nice feel to it, the sort of thing you haven't seen before.

Except, people kept saying, "Hey! It's like Northern Exposure meets ..." Then they would say the name of another show that was completely different from Northern Exposure. I got everything from The Sopranos to Queer as Folk to Buffy. None of these examples really make sense, but what I think they were trying to say was that it was a slightly more serious Northern Exposure.

All of which was interesting, because when I commenced to writing this script, I had never seen an episode of Northern Exposure.

But now I have. And I'm surprised both by how influential the show was, even on someone who had never seen it, and by how very different the show is from anything else on (or anything I've written).

Northern Exposure, briefly, is about an uptight Jewish doctor who ends up in the Alaskan wilderness, in a small town that's both a backwater and a weird paradise, a place where anyone can be what they want to be without fear of reprisal. In other words, it was a small town unlike any other small town on Earth.

All in all, this isn't such a big deal. There's never been a realistic small town show, probably because a realistic small town show would be utterly boring. No town is as blissful as Mayberry, as caring as Everwood, as soapy as Peyton Place or as quirky as Stars Hollow. Any town like that would be self-destructive. Small towns rely on a series of polite lies to remain functional, but drama relies on blowing those polite lies up. However, without the polite lie, you don't have much of a small town.

And so on.

I think it's safe to say that of all the small towns in the history of television, however, there's never been a less realistic town than Cicely, Alaska. Cicely is a shared dream, an idea of how we would like our Earth to exist, if we had our druthers. But it can't possibly be reality because it erases too much of human history, too much of who we are and what we hold dear. To build a completely "non-judgmental universe" (which the creators were fond of calling the show) would require eliminating prejudice, nations, maybe even religion (though NoEx is a deeply religious show). In short, Cicely is John Lennon's Imagine writ large, a fairy tale.

No wonder the show was anathema to conservative Christians when it was on!

But Cicely is a dream I want to believe in. So did a lot of people, I guess, considering how big of a hit it became. As discussed in these pages before, the writer is god of his or her own universe, and these writers chose to create this perfect, non-judgmental place.

That idea has reverberated through television -- Buffy was about ditching your own family and finding one that suited you better and loved you more (in many cases); Everwood and Gilmore Girls feature the small town as a paradise; Lost features a situation where passing judgment on your fellow man becomes almost impossible because you don't know if what your fellow man is saying about himself is true or not (a true tabula rasa).

Cicely, so far as I can tell, is the first example of this idea of a non-judgmental paradise in the history of television (or, at least, the first successful one). And it doesn't get the credit for that that it deserves. And the DEGREE to which it embraced that philosophy has never been replicated.

There's a lot more I like about the show that I don't see on TV today. The writing is incredibly delicate, slowly unraveling until you see just how perfectly constructed it is. The acting is wonderfully naive and open, the actors willing to play in this new, unfettered world. The use of music is eclectic to a fault, more so than any series I can think of (it's no small wonder that the music supervisor on this show went on to The Sopranos, another show that uses music well). And I love how the crew and cast let scenes be quiet, only a backdrop of nature noises serving as a soundtrack.

But mostly, I love how open and loving the show is. It's been like crawling under a warm blanket with a lover while a storm rages outside, like waking up in the morning to discover, suddenly, that you're not alone.


Adam Chamberlain said...

You touch on so much of what made Northern Exposure a very special show here. It's a myriad of things, as you say -- location, writing, characters, acting -- with the notion of the non-judgmental community at its heart.

The writing continues to impress me on re-viewing, often weaving multiple stories around a central theme and never tripping into melodrama -- which some of the other shows you mention here did at times -- but above all for its intelligence and philosophy.

Unrealistic, yes, a fact I had underlined on a nevertheless memorable visit to Roslyn WA, which doubled as Cicely AK. Roslyn was at that time a somewhat depressed town, especially for the fact I went there some years after the show had wrapped, and it only offered me the illusion of its on-screen nirvana when I stepped out onto a deserted main street in the early hours of a misty morning.

I often return to the show now and for a host of reasons, but not least for the sense of comfort you describe here, as well as its ideal of how life could and perhaps should be. And I still find it as reliable and nurturing as an old friend.

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