Gracefully Accepting the End of ‘Northern Exposure’ : Commentary: The show was the aurora borealis of TV--magical, mystical, musical. As it passes from the scene, a viewer reflects on its life-affirming nature.

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It’s difficult to get very upset about the demise of “Northern Exposure,” which has its final original broadcast tonight.

For one thing, the series clearly had run its course. Some people on the show may want to put the blame on CBS, which moved the series from its longtime Monday home to Wednesdays in January. But the stories had lost their sparkle by then, and a lot of viewers were watching out of habit, not love. About 24% of them decided immediately that it wasn’t worth following the show to the new night, and once Rob Morrow’s drawn-out, anticlimactic departure as Dr. Joel Fleishman finally occurred Feb. 8, even more tuned out--including me. Emotionally, the story was over.

More than that, however, the show’s expiration is bearable because loyal fans of the doings in Cicely, Alaska, know very well that death is inevitable--for that message was one of the series’ principal themes.


Never has a weekly series dealt so frequently with mortality.

As early as the third episode in 1990, a minor character died, prompting Joel and Maggie to quarrel over the land he had left them. Only a month later, Maurice was contemplating his fate in the wake of his brother’s death.

In later seasons, Maggie’s boyfriend Rick was killed, Maurice and Holling trekked into the wilderness to bury an old friend, a dead body was found frozen in ice, Holling sought out a star in the night sky in memory of another deceased friend and Chris received a casket in the mail bearing the body of his best friend, who wanted him to concoct a suitable burial. It turned out to be a catapult flight into a stunningly beautiful lake--a fling, Chris told the assembled townspeople, “to places that we can only ponder in the daylight and experience in our dreams.”

If he liked television, this would have been Woody Allen’s favorite series.

Remarkably, there was nothing morbid about these episodes. On the contrary, what was noteworthy was the acceptance with which death was greeted--as something sad, profound, worthy of contemplation, but as certain as the winter snow. When Ed learned in a 1991 episode that Ruth-Anne was turning 75, his birthday gift to her was a grave site. In one of the show’s most inspirational moments, she danced on it.

But then, acceptance was one of “Northern Exposure’s” defining characteristics. It’s what made life in Cicely so charming. Here was a Mayberry for the ‘90s, a fantasy small town to which those of us caught up in the big-city rat race could escape for an hour each week. A place where everyone not only knew each other but also got along, where life was taken slow and savored. No hurly-burly, no freeways, no intractable social problems, no angry rhetoric--in short, as the sign for Roslyn’s Cafe proclaimed, an oasis.

And, quite often, much more. “Sometimes,” Ed once observed with his typical understatement, “weird things happen.” Indeed. In its prime, “Northern Exposure” was the aurora borealis of television--magical, mystical, musical. A place where Joel could be swallowed by a whale--and meet his rabbi inside. Where Chris could hurl a piano through the air and call it art. Where Maggie could dance with a man who may actually have been a bear. Where the radio airwaves brought ruminations about science, philosophy, the nature of humankind, democracy and “The Call of the Wild.” Where the soundtrack in any given week might include (as an episode in 1991 did) Stan Getz, Leon Redbone, Robert Palmer, Patsy Cline, Lindsey Buckingham, Chic Streetman and Bud and Travis. Where a black man and a white man could, literally, be brothers.

It was all quite wonderful--funny and sweet and enchanting. Despite the preoccupation with death, “Northern Exposure” was in fact quite life-affirming in its celebration of community, friendship and nature and its respect for diversity and life’s imponderables.


Now it’s passing away. Yet even as it does so, the show gently reminds us once again, with tonight’s final montage and its last brilliant musical selection (Iris DeMent’s “Your Town”), that life goes on.

Let’s dance.

* “Northern Exposure” airs at 9 tonight on CBS (Channels 2 and 8).