Humor and Moral Issues in Northern Exposure

Throughout most of its run, Northern Exposure was a comedy. Nevertheless, it constituted a genre of its own, for no other shows of its period combined humor, as it did, with tenderness, intellectual reflection, and spirituality. Unlike Seinfeld, for example, it was not ironical; the characters of Cicely did not trivialize experience but revealed their souls and their admirable values. They cared about each other and took serious matters seriously. Unlike Twin Peaks, which also had surrealistic and bizarre plots, Northern Exposure was joyous and funny, and its characters were normal and realistic - the kind of people with whom you and I would gladly keep company. There were no evil people in Cicely and no one seemed to carry a burden of guilt.

Paradoxically, this light-spirited moral environment made Cicely an ideal setting for delightfully exploring ethical dilemmas. Yet the genre called for a uniquely deft touch in balancing the dangerous mixture of humor, morality, and credibility.

In the early chapters of this book I show the importance of positive emotions such as love, joy, and laughter. However, only the most shallow personality attempts to confine its attention entirely to warm feelings and unstressful problems. Most of us dutifully address serious moral dilemmas and looming global disasters with at least a portion of our attention. But the writers and producers who organize heavy cultural programs often prefer to keep such products separate from light entertainment. The audience itself may perhaps prefer that the important problems be presented to them in the overall context of a comedy, but writers often doubt that tragedy can blend easily with levity.

I attribute the brilliance of Northern Exposure to the writers' extraordinary ability to pose interesting ethical questions in a humorous context. Here I want to illustrate how such existential dilemmas were portrayed successfully, giving the audience moments of joy and amusement, yet prompting us to think further on the issues after the show.

Ethical Problems of Lovers

Here I want to discuss the love relationship between The Brick's owner, Holling, and his teenaged lover, Shelly. Shortly after the series began Shelly began to experience morning sickness and other symptoms of pregnancy. When she informed Holling of her condition, he was clearly shocked, but initially responded appropriately by proposing marriage in full view of the Brick's applauding clientele. Chris agreed to perform a hasty church ceremony to which the entire town was invited. However, when the wedding was supposed to start, Holling was nowhere to be found. Only a day later did he return to The Brick to face Shelly's rage. Yet they agreed to try again, and once more the wedding guests assembled at the church. This time Holling was present but could not bring himself to say "I do." He did promise Shelly to take care of her and their child, but begged her not to force him to marry. Ever accommodating, Shelly agreed to call off the wedding - at least if she might keep the gifts.

Clearly we have here a failure of moral nerve on the part of a loving man - a basically honorable man. It is hard to conceive of any plausible excuse for Holling's behavior, but in a conversation with Joel, he revealed the basis for his fear. He was looking to the future and was concerned about out-living his wife. The Vincoeur men, it seems, all live past the age of 100, and none of them ever re-marry after their first wives have died. Holling's fear was that if he married, he would spend many long years alone as a widower. He could not bear the idea.

Of coure, this can be an authentic moral dilemma in some situations. If either lover has reason to expect his spouse to die prematurely, he or she should think seriously before tying the knot. Had it been Shelly who was reluctant to say "I do," we would understand her predicament but would consider it grist for an unimaginative soap opera, not a comedy. The absurdity arises from Holling's age: he could be Shelly's grandfather. Holling's anxiety is so ridiculous that we laugh and let him off the moral hook. The townspeople gathered at The Brick for the reception and Shelly kept the presents.

We would not have laughed if Holling had actually left town permanently, abandoning his responsibilities. The members of the audience were never required to reconsider our notions about a man's obligations to his woman and children. And in fact, it later turned out that Shelly was not really pregnant after all, but had a rare case of "hysterical pregnancy." The writers of this episode made humor and morality cohabit in a warm consensual union.

Another Holling-and-Shelly story also deals with the ethical implications of reproduction. While fishing in a river full of melting ice, Chris found a human body frozen in a floating chunk of glacier. He managed to get it back to Cicely, along with an accompanying journal written in French by one Pierre le Moulin, an aide of Napoleon. The text indicated that the diarist and Napoleon had not been at Waterloo, but rather had come to Alaska at about that time. A skeptical Joel performed some scientific tests on the body's cells and clothing fibers, but could not exclude the possibility that the journal was true. (This is merely one of numerous implausible events that would gradually shake Joel's opinions during his five years in Alaska.) According to Pierre's record, Napoleon had taken up with an enchanting native girl, who was pregnant with his child.

Conversations around The Brick turned to genetics. Someone mentioned the Tellakutans, a French-speaking tribe of short-statured Indians nearby, who claimed to be descendants of Bonaparte. Others speculated that fatherhood would have been a happy surprise for Bonaparte, considering his regret over having to divorce Josephine because of her unfortunate barrenness.

This historical tidbit appalled Shelly, who had never heard of Josephine before and was shocked to learn that a man might divorce and remarry for the sake of having an heir. She realized that Holling had been declining her sexual advances ever since the town had become preoccupied with the little emperor. She worried that perhaps he was thinking along the same lines as Napoleon, for she still had not conceived since her false pregnancy. She anxiously asked Joel to perform some tests and see if she was really barren.

Joel doubted that Holling had any intention of ditching Shelly if she were barren, but the only way to find out would be to discuss the matter with him privately. When he broached the subject with Holling he was immediately informed that, on the contrary, Holling wanted no heirs. He intended for his family to die out with him, but he had not explained this to Shelly. "The sins of the father are laid upon the children," he said, quoting Shakespeare. "We're all just genes, Joel, This mortal coil is nothing more than a vehicle allowing our gene pool to roam freely from one flower to the next. And the Vincoeur pool is poisoned."

Here we have an interesting moral problem - or actually, two problems. The lesser one has to be Shelly's problem - her preference to keep Holling from knowing that she may be infertile. Presumably she would in fact tell him eventually, if the medical tests showed her to be incapable of conceiving, but her secretiveness at that point was motivated by a fear of being rejected in the manner of poor Josephine.

Holling's moral problem seems more difficult. Though he had no intention of becoming a parent, he had not disclosed that fact to Shelly, though of course it would affect her own future. Most people would consider him ethically obliged to share this information with her. But surely his decision must be based on some kind of belief about the nature of heredity, and we would want to know more about the Vincoeur genetic disorder before deciding whether his plan was well-founded. This is an important moral area; ethicists and scientists are still working through the facts about heredity and their ethical implications. If Holling had a hereditary disease, would it be contraindicated ethically for him to reproduce? Perhaps the answer would depend on technical research findings that Joel could supply. Surely Shelly should be involved, and presumably she and Holling would base their decision on the nature of the genetic disease and the probability that they would pass it on to their offspring. What, then was this terrible disease that the Vincoeurs carry in their genes? Holling confided the truth to Joel in strict confidence.

"I come from royalty. French royalty. A direct link to Louis the Fourteenth. On my father's side. Our original name was `de Vincoeur.' We were bluebloods, Joel, aristocrats of the worst kind... awful human beings, hard-hearted despicable creatures, one and all. Not one ounce of the milk of human kindness between the lot of them - which is why, when I came to Alaska, out of shame and remorse for what my kin had done, I dropped the `duh' from the family name.... Shelly thinks I'm a simple man of simple stock. If she learns I'm aristocratic scum, it would break her heart. Hence mine."

If you are going to laugh, this is your cue to do so. It is absurd to suppose that a woman would be ashamed to bear children who were direct descendants of French royalty. The humor of Holling's strange assumption eliminates all logical grounds for our apprehension about his moral dilemma. We can forget about this whole issue of a "poisoned gene pool."

Well, not quite. To be sure, we can stop worrying about Shelly and Holling. In fact, a day later Shelly confronted Holling and challenged him to go ahead and get it over with if he was going to dump her "for some bimbo with copper plumbing." Instead, he told her the truth about his horrible relatives. Because she still believed herself barren, this news was almost welcome. She reasoned that, since he did not want any heirs, he would not abandon her if she proved to be infertile. She scolded him mildly for not having told her the truth before. But, she added, kissing him, "I guess your telling me now is something. It's a start. C'mere."

This is a mildly amusing scene in which both Shelly and Holling wind up behaving morally and improving the basis for their relationship, The humor reduces their need to come to grips with the ethics of genetics, but it does not eliminate the question as a whole for the audience. We know that biologists are now determining which diseases are transmitted by genes, and the extent to which personality and character traits are transmitted in that same way. As we find out more, there will be new decisions for couples to make about whether to pass their own chromosomes on to their offspring. We have been well entertained by this episode and are no longer feeling apprehensive about the moral issues. However, instead of eliminating them from our attention, the television show has actually stimulated us to think further about them.

The conversation with Holling also set Joel to thinking about the fact that genes live indefinitely through time, whereas the bodies they inhabit are all too mortal. He was feverish that night as he was going to bed, yet he seemed to find some comfort in being the vehicle for the transmission of genes. "Holling had it right," he mused. "We are our genes. I've slept in trees, crossed the Negev, run from Cossacks. It's all me."

And the stage directions of the shooting script continue with these florid instructions: "Joel leans back in bed, flushed with fever and a curious sense of well-being, as if the universe had revealed itself for a moment. His world is whole again. Whole and well."