Series: Advent Calendar 2016: Holiday TV Episodes
Season 3 Episode 10
Originally broadcast December 16, 1991
Growing up, this was one of my Mom's favorite shows. She had many (if not all) of the episodes recorded on VHS tapes, carefully catalogued and organized by which episodes were her favorite. I didn't really get into the show until college, at which point I was able to come across recordings of my own. I think my Mom found a lot of spiritual guidance from the show. That might seem like a strange thing, until you watch it. I think there's a lot we could all learn from this show.
It's a good departure from Seinfeld, as we now swing back to the "heartwarming" side of things.
What is the show?
Doctor Joel Fleischman had his entire medical education paid for on one condition, that he commit to a multiple year stint in Alaska after he graduated. Thinking he would end up in relatively civilized Anchorage, he agreed to the deal. The show starts with the young doctor being dragged (almost kicking and screaming) to Cicely instead, a remote little town right in the middle of nowhere. Though he tries to fight it, he is forced to fulfill his obligation and practice as the local doctor for the town's colorful inhabitants and surrounding populations of Native peoples. Through the course of the show, he slowly grows accustomed to the place, and learns a thing or two about humility, respect, friendliness, and all that sappy stuff.
Some shows paint a beautiful, fun, exciting world that you can't help but want to be a part of, and I can't really think of any better example than Northern Exposure. It's a perfect "fish out of water" story. An uptight, snobby New York Jew is forced to live in a log cabin in the wilderness and interact with the locals who represent really the antithesis of big city life. The cast of characters is as diverse as it is wonderful (which is to say incredibly so). The joy and wonder of the setting (and its inhabitants) makes the main character all the more interesting. He's portrayed for the most part as a pretty unlikeable person, a square of dull gray to the rest of the show's collage of explosive color. That's quite a choice for the show to make right off the bat but I think it is what makes the show really great.
These shows that depict a very different sort of world need an audience proxy. We, the audience, need an avatar to identify with and connect us to the foreign world. For example, look at Futurama - the main character is an everyman who is from our time, sent into the future. As Fry learns, so do we. Northern Exposure masters what you might call the "anti-proxy." Sure, Dr. Fleischman enables us to discover the world by virtue of the fact that he serves as a clueless character for everybody else to explain things to. However, he isn't our emotional or spiritual stand-in. He's kind of an abrasive jerk, he's completely unreceptive to the culture or wisdom of those around him, and he regularly rejects the olive branches offered by other characters. In this, he becomes this object of our frustration instead of an anchor for our emotional selves. If anything, he's a proxy not for us, but for our whole culture, and as he evolves and breaks down his proverbial walls, we share in the emotional triumph not with him, but with everyone else. It drives us to feel part of the world, not just outsiders.
Even today I think our culture still has some things to learn about breaking down walls.
What is the episode?
The holidays have arrived in Cicely, Alaska. For each of its diverse inhabitants, that means something a little bit different. We get a cross section of the world, getting several different takes on the holidays. It's a very customary episode of Northern Exposure, telling a variety of unique stories. Their plots don't necessarily come together a la Friends, but they connect in a much deeper way. What we have here is an exploration of a theme. Being Christmas, the theme in this particular episode is a pretty special one, indeed.
The titular storyline of the episode revolves around Maurice, the financial head of the small town. He's a loud, militaristic man - a former soldier and astronaut. His time as an astronaut left him wealthy enough to invest heavily in the town. However, it was his time as a soldier that provided the backstory here. He begins the episode sadly bemoaning his lack of family (which is understandable this time of year). His dreams soon come true in a way, as he is approached by a family of Koreans - a young man, his grandmother, and his father - who turns out to be Maurice's son. It seems back in his days in the army, Maurice had an affair with a young Korean woman, and now he is confronted by the consequence of that affair.
Maurice, a traditional, conservative, close-minded person, has a hard time dealing with this sudden family. It leads to some very compelling moments - some fun, some deeply touching - as he learns how to wrap his head around it. He fills that "anti-proxy" role in this episode. It's incredibly moving and feels so beautifully relevant today, watching this representative of the All American man find common ground with a group of Koreans. The local radio DJ and part-time spiritual guide (and the show's pseudo-narrator) explains to Maurice about the idea of the "Other" and how scary someone foreign and different can be. He isn't just giving another character a few insights, he's justifying and legitimizing an entire culture's prejudice and distrust. Just as Maurice is able to let it go only after acknowledging it, perhaps so too can the rest of our society.
The other stories are just as compelling, in their own ways, and each explore this idea of the Other and the self. The very Jewish Dr. Fleischman gets his first Christmas tree, and struggles with his internal monologue and guilt at doing such a non-Jewish gesture. Maggie, local pilot, provides a counterpoint to Maurice's story by dreading having to deal with the stress and difficulty of spending Christmas with her family. Local restauranteur Shelly struggles with her distance from her Catholic upbringing, and her husband Holling (yes, they're married) struggles to give her the Catholic Mass that she misses. Through it all we get that insightful and interesting commentary from Chris (the afore-mentioned radio DJ) that is the trademark of the show and an exploration of an important facet of the local native traditions. They make full use of the 40 minute running time.
The more I think about it, the more I feel like this is the most important episode on my list. Here we have a story about acceptance, not just of the Other, but also a different big "O" - Ourselves. Christmas, the Holidays, December, whatever you want to call it - it is different for all of us. It is special, and difficult, and hopeful, and painful, and exhausting, and awkward, and depressing, and all that sappy stuff to everyone in their own way. There's no better example of the magic and beauty of our uniqueness and diversity than that. Our differences are what unite us all, and perhaps the true meaning of Christmas is to simply accept it all with an open heart.
Christmas is when we tear down our walls.
Where can you watch it?
I suppose it's predictable that the episode I found most important is also the most difficult to find. It isn't available for streaming anywhere (not legally anyway), so your only choice for now is to get the DVD's. You won't regret it, though - it's a great show all around.
It may seem strange that a show about a Jewish dude surrounded by a bunch of Native Americans would actually end up with one of the best lessons about Christmas, but here we are. Really, this episode is the perfect thesis statement to this whole list. There are billions of us on this planet, and there are just as many ways to experience the Holidays. Every single one is important, from the Schweddy Balls to the Airing of Grievances. Let us never lose sight of that.
Now then, let's completely change gears, and take a look at another show that aired in December 1991 . . .