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Scott Brinton

Seeking comfort in a cult classic this pandemic year

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In the interior of Washington state, in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, there is a tiny city, population about 900, that I have long wanted to visit — Roslyn.

There are no vacation amenities in this place — it is a seemingly ordinary American city, with a handful of eateries and shops and one hole-in-the-wall radio station along its single weatherworn main street. From 1990 to 1995, however, Roslyn was the stand-in for the fictional Cicely, Alaska, in the CBS cult classic “Northern Exposure,” an Emmy Award-winning series that, to my mind, is the finest comedy-drama ever produced, mixing medicine with literature, history, philosophy, religion, music —oh, so much music — and magic to conjure up an idealized version of small-town America.

Yes, the denizens of this very out-of-the-way place disagree and argue — and argue some more — but despite their differences, whether they be spiritual, political or socio-economic, folks seek to understand one another on a deep, existential level, and in the end, they do.

That’s why, I believe, so many viewers love this show, worship it, really, including my wife and me. We discovered “Northern Exposure” in 1993, when we arrived in the U.S. after I had served for two years in the Peace Corps in Bulgaria, where Katerina was born and raised, and we instantly fell in love with it.

Five years ago, I bought the six-season DVD set of the show for Katerina as an anniversary gift, and we set it aside, thinking we would eventually watch and rewatch the show’s 110 episodes, but we never found the time. Then the coronavirus pandemic struck, and it forced us to slow down. Sequestered at home in the early weeks of the crisis, we started watching the series from its start and found solace in this endearing show, which was best described by one reviewer as “esoteric utopian.”

Each Saturday afternoon, feeling pandemic fatigue, we lounged on the couch after chowing on diner food and watched three or so episodes at a clip until, nine months later, we had viewed six years’ worth of shows. It was an entirely escapist exercise in a year when, it appeared, the country was collapsing around us. It brought us back to a happier time, one of relative stability, before the Oklahoma City bombing (which occurred the year “Northern Exposure” ended), 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Great Recession of 2008-09, Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and now the pandemic.

The show’s main character, Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow), a Queens native and a graduate of Columbia University’s medical school, must spend four years practicing in Alaska because the state paid for his exorbitantly expensive medical education. He thinks he’ll be stationed in Anchorage, the state’s largest city, or its capital, Juneau.

Instead he is sent to Cicely, somewhere in the far northern reaches of Alaska, where paved roads peter out into dense forest and the temperature plummets well below zero in the dead of winter. Fleischman, a citified New Yorker, is appalled, horrified even. In Cicely he must adapt to a decidedly slower rural culture, one that values the natural beauty of the land surrounding the town, and one that places interpersonal relations, rather than economic success, at the forefront of people’s lives.

Through the relationships Fleischman develops with the other central characters, he slowly comes to appreciate the place and its people to the point that, one day, toward the end of the show, he ventures upstream by canoe to live off the land with a Native American tribe, fishing and gathering, before finally returning to New York City.

Among his small circle of friends are the debutante-turned-bush pilot Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner), the philosopher D.J. Chris Stevens (John Corbett), the millionaire retired astronaut Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin), the trapper-turned-barkeep Holling Vincoeur (John Collum) and his live-in girlfriend (and later wife), the former beauty queen-turned-waitress Shelly Marie Tambo (Cynthia Geary), aspiring filmmaker-shaman Ed Chigliak (Darren Burrows), general store owner Ruth-Anne Miller (Peg Phillips) and Fleischman’s quiet and patient receptionist, Marilyn Whirlwind (Elaine Miles). There are a host of minor, but always eccentric, characters who round out the cast.

What defines the show are the relations among the characters, the depth of their thoughts and the intelligence of the dialogue. There is no other show quite like it. Many have compared it to “Twin Peaks,” another ’90s cult classic. Yes and no is my answer to that appraisal. There is a persistent darkness to “Twin Peaks,” which is about the murder of a teenage prom queen. “Northern Exposure,” meanwhile, is one long celebration of life and its many traditions and mysteries.

Sadly, the show isn’t available on a streaming service, only on DVD, but buy it and watch it if you’re seeking a feel-good story that will stimulate your mind and soul.

I’d love to know what show is keeping you going through the pandemic, and why. You can email me at the address below.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.