Northern Exposure: a critical regionalist analysis

Northern Exposure © Universal Television

Northern Exposure (1990-95) ostensibly detailed the trials and tribulations of Joel Fleischman, a doctor of Jewish descent and New York native, forced into servitude in Alaska to repay the state which paid his medical school tuition fees. Sconce (2004), acknowledges these outwardly apparent narrative conventions in the shows existence as both a ‘fish out of water’ and ‘reluctant romance’ story but also suggests that “Northern Exposure was a virtual laboratory for repurposing such television stock plots through its unique architecture” (103). It is my contention that this ‘repurposing’ extends beyond plot and narrative in the context of television and into the realm of regionalist thinking, borne by the series’ ‘unique architecture’; built upon the region of Alaska which it takes as its setting. Whilst architecture in Sconce’s sense refers to the plot and narrative devices employed by the series, the “intensity of emplacement” (Romeyn & Kugelmass, 1996:257) which it exhibits – at odds with most other television – provides justification for positioning the regional setting as a significant part of this architecture, not least because “the region sets the stage for, and explains much of the … dramatic action” (ibid:256). To return to Kenneth Frampton’s initial framing of critical regionalism, he states that “[t]he bulldozing of an irregular topography into a flat site … aspires to a condition of absolute placelessness” (1983:26), Northern Exposure again asserts its definite sense of place through the fact that the characters “are often seen to be influenced by such phenomena as seasonal winds, Northern Lights, midnight sun [and] ice breaking in springtime” (Scodari, n.d.); place is key.

This ‘intensity of emplacement’ is reflected not only in the wider Alaskan setting but also, at a more ‘local’ level, by the fictional town of Cicely around which the action of the series centres. Here is a small town with a clear frontier aesthetic: log cabins and a simple, single track main street, home to both a general store and saloon bar. So, Northern Exposure engages with given versions of region – that of Alaska as the last frontier – but it approaches them reflexively, playing with preconceived ideas of the region and its landscape, and with the generic codes it adopts, fragments and restructures. Within these rearticulated conventions we see the “engineering [of] narratives around … aesthetic and cultural fragments … a kind of ensemble iconography and a highly publicized ritual of aesthetic facility” (Caldwell, 1995:vii). Caldwell likens this aesthetic to performance; evocative of not only Jameson’s (1981) view of narrative as a socially symbolic act, but also of the performative function to which Bhabha (1990a) refers. These symbolic narratives, according to Riffaterre (1990), “may invent scenarios at will for the purpose of conveying truths that transcend specific situations” (Riffaterre, 1990:x). The ‘situations’ which the narratives transcend in this text are ideological, historical and regional.

In order for them to transcend the imposed ‘situation’ of frontier they must, however, also transcend the limitations which Jameson sees in postmodern texts. Jameson (1993) argues persuasively against the ‘nostalgia mode’ which he sees as inherent in postmodern texts. However, the ‘depthlessness’ which he characterises such texts as possessing is incompatible here. Northern Exposure’s recourse to nostalgic readings of regional landscape and culture is vital if we are to uncover the ‘deep structure’ of the text and its representation of region. It relies upon nostalgia as it exists outside the text (and the region it represents) in order for it to reconfigure versions of region inside the text (and, again, the region it represents). Jameson’s distaste for the ‘intertext’ could, for some theorists, incorporate the “intellectual surplus … in Northern Exposure” (Caldwell, 1995), but I would argue, again, against positioning this as merely for “aesthetic effect … the operator of a new connotation of ‘pastness’ and pseudo-historical depth” (Jameson, 1993:76). Yes, a critical regionalist account of cultural products such as Northern Exposure relies, initially, on ‘aesthetic effects’ but in recognising these effects, and their adoption by the text, we are able to further acknowledge the fragmentation and restructuring which then grows from them; challenging the effects of the essentialising pseudo-history of Turner and prelapsarian connotations of Muir. Northern Exposure therefore exists, much in the way Bhabha (1990a) envisions, in the ‘thirdspace’ between essence and practice, object and subject, and the normative and performative mode. For this critical regionalist approach to function effectively the text cannot lack depth as this reading of Northern Exposure will seek to demonstrate. This also typifies the negotiation inherent in critical regionalism: in its emergence as part of postmodern thought, it is important to acknowledge the texts intrinsic postmodern strategies whilst also interposing new ways of thinking into this approach. Jameson, despite my challenging of his designation of the nostalgia mode, does acknowledge its ability “to fashion a progressive strategy out of what are are necessarily the materials of tradition and nostalgia” (Jameson (1994), in Campbell, 2008:49), and it is here that a brief survey of the programmes raison d’etre will begin.

Northern Exposure © Universal Television

From the pre-credits sequence – which situates the viewer within the narrative of an individual episode – the setting within which the viewer finds themselves is immediately disrupted and moved beyond its territorial, and therefore, ideological, boundaries in the title sequence; with its use of “quasi-Caribbean opening music (Kollin, 2001:167) it destabilises the regional.  Juxtaposed with further generic conventions – wooden side-walks, tribal totems, hunting trophies – the territory which the text occupies is at once defined and redefined by this collision of the local and the global; disrupting the regional by the intersection of something beyond the regions boundaries. The text is immediately deterritorialised and more so as a moose surveys these regional markers before standing in front of a large mural for ‘Roslyn’s Cafe: An Oasis’, complete with camel and palm trees; Cicely is a town which exists locally but looks outward, beyond its own boundaries. Herein, myths are reimagined and strive for Campbell and Moyers’ (1980) call for “mythology that is valid today … that will identify the individual not with his local group but with the planet” (22-23).

Where central character Joel has not chosen to come to this place, others have, and they are representative of the diversity of humanity for whom the frontier had originally proved to be a magnet, but who Turner omitted from his version of the taming of the frontier – women, natives, blacks, homosexuals, other nationalities – Cicely, Alaska is home to residents from Canada, Michigan, Louisiana, New York and beyond, and those Tlingit Indians for whom Alaska is an ancestral home. This diaspora makes visible the problems of regionalism and its representation of regions; the frontier is still here, if only aesthetically, but those who populate it in Northern Exposure “challenge primordial concepts of identity rooted in an idealized past where the race was formed , like … Turner’s frontier” (Campbell, 2008:27). Through this diasporic repopulating of a region reminiscent of the frontier, “identity is reconstructed as dynamic, interlinked and hybrid” (ibid). The characters are outwardly nostalgic, drawn as they are from types we might expect, through prior representations of the frontier in popular culture, to see represented here – the entrepreneurial landowner in the shape of Maurice Minnifield; the tavern owner and the saloon girl ingénue in Holling Vincouer and Shelly Tambo; the outlaw on the run in Chris Stevens; Joel Fleischman “as the eastern tenderfoot … [and] Maggie O’Connell … as the plucky and capable frontier woman” (Kollin, 2001:164); plus an array of Native American characters in traditional and non-traditional roles – but the roles which they inhabit are not bounded by previous incarnations, allowing them to not only reinstate a heteroglossia of multiple ideological positions but also for these positions to enter into dialogue with each other, to acknowledge the challenges to America’s creation myth which their presence presents.

A fuller analysis of this frontier diaspora would reveal all manner of conflicting yet imbricated meanings ascribed to the region, typifying the performative counterpoint to the normative and essentialised cultural incarnations which characterise this version of the region. However, for the purpose of this analysis I wish to focus on the characterisation of a single character and how their presentation is suggestive of a critical renegotiation of regional tropes no longer restricted by traditional representational strategies of the local and how this speaks to “different lived realities” (McCabe, 2006:26).

Outwardly, the character of Ed Chigliak, an orphaned Tlingit Indian, engages with and challenges, on a very basic level, given versions of region; Turner found no place for an aboriginal presence in his normative narrative of America, but television’s performative narrative places his aboriginal presence at the centre of a more progressive version of region. If we consider that Turner’s writing was indicative “of the dominant values, beliefs and values of the time: white, male and imperialist” (Campbell, 2000:9), then we can begin to align it with Bhabha’s work beyond its existence as a challenge to the pedagogy which Turner’s frontier thesis represents. Bhabha’s writings occupy the ground of postcolonial theory, and many of them exist as a challenge to the ‘othering’ that takes place in normative, essentialised versions of nation. The ‘other’ for Turner was the native, erased from the story of America’s westward expansion, subject to the readings of those who colonised their lands. As George (1995), in a survey of American Indian representations in 1990s television and in her own reading of Bhabha, suggests “the subject race … is constructed by the colonizer as somehow ‘abnormal’, needing to be civilized, tamed, taught, reworked, so that ‘normalization’ can somehow occur” (431). Here Northern Exposure disrupts  this relationship between coloniser and colonised; Dr. Fleischman takes the role of the subject race (he even explicitly identifies that the “Jewish are a very tribal people”), it is he who needs to be ‘tamed’ and ‘reworked’, and it is through the Native American characters that much of this process takes place – the neuroses and behaviours of the cosmopolitan character viewed with the curious eye of the natives, in a reversal of the traditional colonial paradigm. This colonial revisionism takes on another dimension when we also recognise that Ed’s relationship with Joel was originally envisaged as an updated version of Robinson Crusoe – the native guide assisting the stranded outsider.

Norther Exposure © Universal Television

Though it is possible to envision this relationship, as George does, as a continuation of previous television incarnations of ‘good Indians’ such as Tonto (The Lone Ranger) and Cochise (Broken Arrow), as a “loyal sidekick working for the white man” (428), a reading of the relationship and critical exchange between the two reveals a far more complex, hybridized, cultural kinship which moves between the specific regional and cultural knowledges of the characters. Here, again, Northern Exposure reconfigures these elements through a “commingling of mythologies and folklore … creat[ing] a vast pool of cultural resources” (Romeyn & Kugelmass, 1996:262), unrestricted by either cosmopolitan or local cultural capital. Ed, through his encyclopaedic knowledge of Hollywood cinema  moves beyond the traditional representation of native characters as inextricably linked to the land, and to a performative oral tradition; with regular references to cinematic intertexts, Ed epitomises the complex cross-cultural encounters that have shaped the population of Cicely, Alaska.  Ed’s world view draws, constantly, upon his knowledge of cinema. This could be viewed as simply offering similarly regional, essentialised perspectives and to be an indicator of the postmodern collapse of high and low culture and the depthlessness this is seen by some to engender. But the variety of these intertexts (‘The Bicycle Thief’ and ‘Wild Strawberries’ on the one hand, ‘Three Men and a Baby’ and ‘Hudson Hawk’ on the other) represent a negotiated ‘popular’ and ‘elite’ taste, and inform Ed’s similarly negotiated understanding of tribal and western medicine. In this sense, the character develops a critical gaze wherein the discourse he constructs is based within the frame of the colonizer. Ed’s mentor in his ongoing training as a shaman, Leonard Quinaghak, notes at one point that cinema represents “the white man’s collective unconscious” and it is this contemporary folklore which continually informs Ed’s understanding of the community he operates in and the role he occupies – that of a Shaman in training. The ‘other’ which his character represents is able to construct “a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation” (Bhabha, 1990b:211) and exist in the thirdspace. This stance typifies the ways in which “storytelling is intricately entangled with memory and history in Northern Exposure” (McCabe, 2006:26): not only the oral tradition of the Tlingit tribes but also the visual culture of the wider U.S. Furthermore, the ways in which it negotiates between these two knowledges – the local (tribal folklore) and the global (cinematic consciousness) – without dismissing the validity of either.

The importance of storytelling as a means by which the community can understand itself at a local, national and transnational level can be further demonstrated through an analysis of one particularly celebrated episode – ‘Cicely’. In this show-within-a-show instalment, the origins of the town are enacted and the aesthetic effects that Cicely and her inhabitants evoke are enhanced, allowing for further reflexivity in its recourse to the nostalgic representations of the regional imaginary which it occupies; revelling in a redemptive unmapping and subsequent remapping of the Alaskan landscape. Whilst out driving one night, Joel hits a 108 year old stranger, Ned Svenborg, with his truck and takes him back to his cabin. After Joel bemoans his enforced stay in the cultural wasteland of Cicely, the old man invites the irascible New Yorker to revise his own view of the town by listening to his own story; a story which returns the town to its beginnings and in whose telling the frontier is remythologised. Within the episode, characters from Northern Exposure’s contemporary narrative take on similar historical roles in a story which takes place in 1909 and which reimagines the foundational and ideological (Turnerian) narrative of the frontier immersed as it was in tales of patriarchal, heterosexual forefathers, into a narrative which revolves around a pair of homosexual, feminine foremothers. As Ned’s story unfolds, the modern day characters gradually gather around him, and, as the action cuts from past to present, the slippage between the subjective, essential and historical positions and the objective, performative and contemporary positions of the characters, which Bhabha (1990a) identifies, are made explicit. The masculine metanarrative of conflict and conquest is supplanted by a feminine version which brings liberation and culture. The programme revises generic motifs and conventions as the lesbian couple of Roslyn and Cicely (for whom the town will be named) become the outlaws, the saloon becomes a salon and the bawdiness therein gives way to bohemian café culture. Where Allen’s (1994) suggestion that “…the past is not just accessed, it is hijacked” (339), echoes Jameson’s (1993) scepticism of nostalgia, it is only through the nostalgic representation of the frontier aesthetic that the ‘deep structure’ of the regional imagination can be interrogated and the marginalised voices of its original incarnation perform a more progressive interpretation.

This inversion and reversion of the frontier narrative is tellingly played out in moments of dialogue too: in a reimagining of the ‘ten-paces-and-then-draw’ shoot-out of traditional Western representation of dispute resolution, a character recants the Hegelian dialectic of “thesis, antithesis, synthesis” before taking action. This encapsulates, diegetically, the episodes presentation, fragmentation and rearticulation of the frontier myth, epitomising the “new ways of knowing the past and celebrating the hybrid community” (McCabe, 2006:26), which Northern Exposure returns to at numerous points throughout its 110 episodes.

Critical regionalism, as explored here, offers a variety of tools and techniques to both the analyst and the practitioner. Television, as the medium of this analysis, can offer a site of resistance to received and perceived versions of region and the regional: the analyst does not need to inscribe these techniques upon its texts with the tools of critical regionalism – they can exist within them already. Northern Exposure typifies the discursive mode of address through which television can revise and invert accepted and normative spatial imaginaries. The prominence of ‘local’ characters – in the form of Native Americans in Northern Exposure – personify the negotiation of meanings and understandings of the regional imaginary drawn from beyond their own traditionally inscribed, tribal and cultural boundaries. Recognising what is fragmented and what is therefore restructured within this negotiation is vital too. Hence the importance of a recognition of nostalgic representations of region, these cannot be dismissed, to do so is to return to the ‘placelessness’ which critical regionalism seeks to resist and renders moot the point which Taylor and Upchurch (1996) make in reference to Northern Exposure, that “old myths are re-designed to become more suitable for the twentieth century. Its mythmaking process takes ideas from old myths and juxtaposes them with each other, then synthesises the point of the myth into its own plot” (76). On a wider scale, as Lipsitz (2001) alludes to, “a sense of living in an infinitely renewable present” (41), is what television affords; enabling both text and audience to be involved in this ‘renewing’ of the present in their reading of its spatial imaginaries. Likewise, Alaska, with its dialogically mapped and unmapped, liminal territory, can provide a fruitful site for both critical regionalist practice and analysis.