Friday, December 3, 2010

Countdown: The 10 Greatest TV Seasons of All Time - #9

9. Northern Exposure - Season 4 - Northern Exposure premiered in July of 1990, just 3 months after Twin Peaks turned TV upside-down.  And like that groundbreaking show it found an audience almost immediately to the surprise and delight of the nervous executives who rolled it out with a trial season of just eight episodes.  The pilot of Northern Exposure was fresh, smart, and funny as it introduced our hero Joel Fleischman and the lovable residents of fictional Cicely, Alaska.  The cast and crew were all on the same page from the start and Northern Exposure was one of the best shows on television for five and a half seasons - until Rob Morrow left and the series became merely ordinary.  But up until that point, the show was amazingly consistent.  There were no changes to the principal cast and there were no stretches of bad episodes.  Thus, any of the early seasons of the show could have been named on this list of the best seasons in TV history, but I give the nod to season 4 on the strength of its best episodes.

Key Episodes:

Thanksgiving - I have always felt that as Joel Fleischman goes, so goes Northern Exposure.  In other words, the show is most entertaining when the writers keep Joel in his natural state - miserable and angry.  This episode begins with the transplanted doctor in an uncharacteristic good mood as he anticipates his favorite holiday and then the writers proceed to throw a tomato at him both literally (the Native Americans of Cicely have a Thanksgiving tradition of gleefully chucking symbolic blood at the Caucasians in town) and figuratively (Joel is informed that a fifth year has been added onto his contract, extending his indentured servitude to the state of Alaska).   The subplots of the episode include philosophical DJ Chris missing the Thanksgiving he experienced in prison and Bubble Man Mike slowly beginning to venture outside his hermetically-sealed home - until Maggie touches him and he starts to feel sick again.  Yet, it is Joel's plight and Rob Morrow's performance that brings out the best of Northern Exposure.  It is funny, thought-provoking, and in the end, heartwarming.

Northern Lights -  Here is another episode that delights in destroying Joel's well laid plans.  He is planning on a much-deserved vacation to his home in New York and then to a tropical resort only to be informed that his vacation has been denied by the state.  Enraged, Joel goes on strike and the entire town, in the most pleasant manner possible, turns against him.  Meanwhile, Maurice attempts to drive the town's first homeless man out, and Chris has trouble with his vision for his new art project to commemorate the Aurora Borealis.  It is once again Joel's story that makes this episode shine.  This is the reason that the show could not last without Rob Morrow.  Northern Exposure was always an ensemble show with a superb cast of characters devoid of weak links, but Joel Fleischman was an anchor at the center who provided a necessary balance to the excessive cuteness of the rest of the gang.  In "Northern Lights," he wages a one-man war that leaves him living in a tent out in the cold, and the show reminds us that Joel's loss is always the audience's gain.

The Big Feast - Maurice throws an opulent dinner party to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his corporation and everyone is invited - except for Joel, of course (as I've said, they have to keep him unhappy).  This episode forgoes any dramatic elements and focuses on the human comedy.  Maurice immediately fires his head chef and brings in Adam, played by the inimitable Adam Arkin, Northern Exposure's ace-up-its-sleeve.  I was never clear why Adam and his hilariously hypochondriacal wife Eve did not become regular characters.  Perhaps the writers thought that they would lose their edge if they showed up in every episode.  As it is, the bickering couple is a treat to be savored with every appearance.  Here, Adam takes control of Maurice's dinner with his usual angry perfectionism and Eve helps Shelley recreate the expensive bottle of wine she accidentally shattered. This is all played with a very light touch and is a great example of the quirky human comedy that Northern Exposure did so well.  We the audience are a guest of the party and it is wonderful to pull up a chair and spend time with our good friends.

The List So Far:

10. Twin Peaks - Season 1
9. Northern Exposure - Season 4


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