In Search Of Northern Exposure: The Greatest Show Ever
Monday, March 14, 2011
As people who are not stupid know, Northern Exposure is the single finest American television show ever produced. Or, to clarify, it is the very best fictional series ever produced. Non-stupid people could argue, for example, that Ken Burns Civil War is similarly excellent.
Some have even credited Northern Exposure with introducing dramedy, the popular mix of drama and comedy that distinguishes many of today’s most popular shows, including House Grey’s Anatomy and Glee. But that’s just stupid, because as Merriam-Webster tells us, the word dramedy was first used in 1978 — fully a dozen years before Northern Exposure was first aired.
On the other hand, series creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey perfected the genre as they invented an entire town’s worth of splendidly eccentric characters and placed them into complex conflict.
Maurice Minnifield, for example: fighter pilot, ex-POW, astronaut, businessman and feckless developer, who is first besotted by teenager Shelly Tambo, Miss Northwest Passage, and who later finds himself in a second, more fruitful pursuit, this time of uberbutch Police Sergeant Barbara Semanski.
There are moments of sublime beauty, too. See, for example, the last two-and-a-half minutes of the episode called “Northern Lights,” which is available on YouTube. How many moments can you recall when TV, that vast wasteland, provided poetry and art without a touch of self-congratulatory smarm?
But enough history. The entire thing is available on DVD, and is also now making the rounds in syndication. You’ll find that time hasn’t withered its genius, and has perhaps been its friend.
Among the show’s primary characters is the town of Cicely, Alaska, which served as foil to Dr. Joel Fleischman’s vainglorious memories of New York City, where he had intended to live out his life. Played by Roslyn, Washington, Cicely is antithesis to the Big Apple: there are no canyon avenues and there is precious little glitz.
Central Park is a forest within an endless city; Cicely is a moment of humanity within an endless wilderness. The casting was perfect.
Now here is the thing: a visit to Roslyn today is just as magical as a visit to Cicely. The whole place is Brigadoon: stepping into town is stepping back 20 years, which conveniently enough is when the TV cameras first arrived in Roslyn. There’s The Brick, and over there the Village Pizza sign glows in the twilight. Dr. Joel Fleischman’s name is still soap-painted on the window of the Northwestern Trading Company.
On the corner, right where you expect it, is the Roslyn Cafe, supposedly so-called because — as Maurice explained in the show’s first episode — the painter “was so high on weed he forgot the apostrophe-S.”
Since the show left town, downtown Roslyn has grown not a whit, in the process perfecting itself as a place to drop out of civilization. To the visitor it provides a perfect weekend of options, including two galleries of rather surprisingly good art, private and public gardens that dazzle with their careless profusion, and a fascinating cemetery partitioned into 19 separate grounds serving every ethnic and social caste imaginable, from Elks Club members to Lithuanians.
The town has managed to achieve a kind of optimal funkiness, by which I mean a perfect stasis between derelict and modern asepsis.
Dogged by Nature
The movie theater provides a perfect example. Marlon Brando from The Wild One looks down with lost eyes from the lapboard northern face of this former morgue, but the mural is peeling, thereby enhancing its appeal.
Sit, please, and have a coffee outside on the flower-and-vine-wreathed deck before the evening show. Pay an extra buck when entering and you can sit in the small balcony in one of the salvaged airplane seats that have been installed. If you have a small dog, leashed, he can accompany you.
In fact dogs are a central part of the character of the town. Expect to be slobbered on when entering Marko’s Place, one of the town’s three pubs, which are all straight out of central casting.
The Brick Tavern’s interior was replaced for scenes in Northern Exposure by a remote set, but that was only to make the filming process simpler. The fictional version has less charm than the one you’ll find upon entering this, the oldest operating tavern in Washington. Among other features it has a running-water spittoon flowing at the feet of those have pulled up stools to the great old glowing beast of a bar.
The Brick serves food, too, including a $7 bleu cheese hamburger that many non-stupid people regard as the finest since the invention of food.
The dining is a little more upscale at the Roslyn Cafe, which serves as the village’s yuppie watering hole, at least in terms of menu choices and decor. There were no yuppies in the Roslyn when my wife and I recently visited, and it’s frankly an unlikely demographic to encounter in Roslyn at any time and at any point.
Beer on Tap
We also stopped by the Roslyn Brewing Company to sample the fresh brew, and there met Peter and Anna Don, a couple from nearby Prosser who were on their way to a high school football game. Peter has set himself to the arduous task of drinking beer in every microbrewery in Washington and was making the requisite stop in Roslyn. I asked him if this was, in fact, the finest beer in recorded history.
Peter declared it excellent, but demurred when asked to declare it the finest ever. “There is no such thing as a bad beer,” was his reasonable response. “And this is good beer. But I like a beer that is a little more hoppy.”
Even today, some 13 years after the show wrapped, many of the travelers arriving in Roslyn are seeking Cicely. Sue Wilson, who works the counter at Ruth Anne’s old shop/post office, says at least three times a week someone will come in as part of a Northern Exposure pilgrimage. “In the summer, at least 10 to 15 times a day,” she said.
The store features U.S. and world maps with brightly-colored pins placed by visitors to indicate their home, but the maps were recently moved out of reach because they no longer have room for more pins. As Wilson noted, the show aired in 15 different countries, and international visitors are in no short supply.
The Roslyn Museum has an excellent collection of artifacts from Roslyn’s glorious and sometimes tragic mining history, but it too has set aside a corner to recall Northern Exposure. The centerpiece of the exhibit is Maurice’s perfect Augsburg clock, as featured in the show’s “Nothing’s Perfect” episode.
The ornate piece of work was donated to the museum after Mary Andlar, then-president of the Roslyn Museum, asked for it: “It’s an antique, after all,” she said. The producers agreed, and only then did the museum volunteers discover it is just Hollywood artifice, a gleaming Gothic confection of soup cans, nativity figures and hardware store dowels. Its clock face is a spinner from the old Candyland game.
Return to Cicely
Because the folks of Roslyn seemed like smart people, or at least non-stupid, I thought it would be salient to the visit to confirm fully that Northern Exposure is in fact the greatest American TV show ever.
I put the question to Sarah Warner, our waitress at the Pastime Tavern, on whose walls hangs a large full-color smiling photo of the show’s cast. Sarah responded quickly and emphatically: “I’ve never seen the show,” she declared.
Surely she’s a recent arrival to Roslyn?
“Oh no, I grew up here.”
At the Cicely Cafe, where we had a lovely breakfast both days of our visit, we asked our waitress, Jamie Pedersen, for her opinion, suggesting by tone if not in so many words what we expected her answer to be. “I’ve never seen it,” she said.
“Did you know,” I asked, “that you can rent it?”
“Oh, no. I don’t need to do that. I have the whole set on DVD. I’ve just never watched it.”
Carlena Burn, our waitress at The Brick, was a little more responsive when asked if Northern Exposure is in fact the greatest TV show of all time.
Pause. “Of course.”
Pause. “Not really. I like Lost.”
Barista Kelly Hansen, working at the drive-thru window of a local coffee shop, is smarter. “It was a very awesome show,” she said.
Back at the Pastime, Becca Harrison-Knight is pouring soon-to-be Jell-O shots into little paper molds. “It was a pretty damn good show.”
Not bad, Becca, but we can do better. It’s time to meet some tourists, who perchance have less provincial views and better taste.
Craig Johnson has traveled all the way from Green Bay, Wisconsin, to see Roslyn. “At that time,” he says. (Yeah, so’s your football team, I mutter under my breath.)
His brother Keith is even more dismissive. “Next to The Monkees.”
Finally, as I am about to give up, I run into Pat Floyd from Seattle, who as it happens, is a very smart guy. With a little prompting, he delivers: “It is in fact the greatest TV show ever made.”
And then, without prompting: “I mean that.”
Say Hello to Ronald
In addition to the town of Roslyn, this neck of the woods has many attractions, both peopled and un-.
Do not fail to take the five-minute drive to the town of Ronald, home of the Ronald General Store, the single most eccentric and delightful general store since the Big Bang. Here you can find pre-owned glass tumblers, new cookware, glow-in-the-dark masks, ceramic piggy banks, plastic leis, used books, two tennis rackets, an inflated tractor inner tube and lots of wine-in-a-can.
Just beyond Ronald you come to the mystical shores of Lake Cle Elum, a vast reservoir of lovely water in a pocket of the Cascades. Swim, fish, ski and jet ski, all in the company of some of the finest untouched forest in the Northwest. Above there are dancing clouds, and below you will find a bottomless silence.
It all calls to mind the finest bit of dialogue from the greatest TV show ever. We have amateur filmmaker Ed Chigliak to thank for providing us with this last lovely perspective on Cicely . . . and Roslyn.
Dr. Fleischman: “That’s the movies, Ed. Try reality.”
Ed: “No, thanks.”
By Mark St.J. Couhig
From Seattle, Roslyn is pretty much a straight shot, just 80 miles east on I-90. Take the Salmon La Sac/Roslyn exit, turn onto Bullfrog Road and travel 2.8 miles. At the circle, take the second exit onto WA 903 N.
Finding accommodations is a little tricky. Start with a Google search for “accommodations roslyn, wa,” and work your way through the various listings. Or chuck it all and plunk down for the fancy digs at Suncadia in Cle Elum.
About the Author
Mark Couhig has been a writer, editor and publisher for more than 30 years, first in Louisiana, then in New Mexico and now in Washington state. He has always made a point of spending whatever meager funds he has managed to accumulate on shoestring international travel, including a recent trip to Bogota, Colombia.
While there he established a tour company, a project he describes as “a likely vain attempt to just this once catch a ride on a rising market opportunity instead of being crushed by it.” To find out more, see his blog contributions at thisiscolombia.net and photos at toursofcolombia.com. Contact Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Images via the author; Dr. Fleischman’s Office by Ryan Grayson/Flickr]