Producing Northern Exposure
This appendix will offer some of what I have learned about the process of producing a television series. I'll begin with a fuller reflection on the producers' training ground, MTM, the company that for some fifteen years created the best television shows. Whereas Street Time was produced by people who started as documentary-makers, Northern Exposure was the work of producers and writers who had learned their craft at MTM Enterprises.
MTM: Cultural Seedbed for Northern Exposure
The acronym MTM refers to the initials of Mary Tyler Moore, the actress whose then-husband, Grant Tinker, formed MTM to produce The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970.
A major change was going on in the network television industry, which was in the business of delivering programs to viewers and - especially - in the business of delivering viewers to advertisers. Success had been measured in terms of simple "ratings" (the percentage of viewers watching a particular show), which determined the revenue that a network could generate from that show. In 1970, however, a different interpretation came to prevail: that it was not the sheer numbers but the quality of the viewers that should count to advertisers. A show might claim the largest total number of viewers, yet appeal primarily to children and elderly adults living in rural areas. What would matter henceforth were the demographics of the audience. Adult viewers with a high disposable income who live in cities are more valuable to advertisers than a larger but more heterogeneous audience. Hence CBS decided to replace its "hayseed" shows, such as The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres with more relevant "now" shows.
Enter Mary Tyler Moore, whose new sitcom was about a thirty-year-old single journalist, Mary Richards, living in Minneapolis. She spent her time, not with a traditional family, but at work with an ensemble of colleagues and at home with close friends. The show was bold, but not shocking, in addressing controversial social issues. The Mary Tyler Moore Show spawned a whole variety of spinoffs, all retaining a style sufficiently distinctive to allow one to designate MTM as a subculture within the television industry.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and MTM productions in general, developed character comedy, a qualitative leap that explains why the company was soon recognized as a leader. There were other high quality shows produced at the same time - especially Norman Lear's All in The Family and Maude - yet they were more simplistic than the MTM productions. As Jane Feuer has pointed out, All in the Family retained its insult-ridden, joke-machine apparatus, and Maude had only one important dilemma each week, which was resolved at Maude's expense, leaving the characters uni-dimensional and static. In comparison, MTM's Rhoda had scenes of "warmedy"- comedy mixed with empathetic audience identification. The MTM characters fused laughter with sympathy, retaining our empathy, whereas we laughed condescendingly at Archie or Maude because they were self-deluded.
After starting with only one show, MTM expanded greatly, initially by creating "spin-off" sitcoms. By 1983 the company had 300 full-time employees. Its emphasis had shifted from half-hour comedies to one-hour dramas that typically drew more attention to the interesting characters than to the plot.
If films are a "director's medium," television is a producer's medium. At MTM, producers and writers were the same people, so the writing was taken as the main criterion of quality. Not one word could be changed during production without obtaining prior approval. A writer/producer might create new shows at MTM itself or, as an alumnus, move into a different company.
Northern Exposure was not an MTM production, but it is an offshoot of that family tree - the Paltrow branch. Bruce Paltrow's drama, The White Shadow (1978-81) was a drama about a Los Angeles ghetto basketball team with a white coach. One of the writers during the first season was John Falsey, who was soon to be half of a writing team that lasted thirteen years, yielding Northern Exposure.
Falsey met Joshua Brand on an airplane at a time when Brand was down on his luck. He was able to bring Brand onto the writing staff of The White Shadow. The two men worked with Paltrow on almost every subsequent episode of the three-season-long show.
When The White Shadow ended in 1981, Paltrow was already working on a new series, St. Elsewhere. He was the executive producer. Falsey and Brand became the creators; they wrote the pilot and all except one episode of the first season.
The writers worked in a two-story building, formerly the home of Republic Pictures, on the CBS lot in Studio City. St. Elsewhere occupied the first floor, while Hill Street Blues was upstairs. The writers usually lunched together and the two shows kept a friendly rivalry going on. St. Elsewhere always had four stories: a universal-themed story, a personal story about one character, a medical story, and a humorous story. Often there were thematic relationships among them. Later Falsey and Brand would use the same principle of thematic similarity among the three stories that typically constituted an episode of Northern Exposure.
By the end of that first season everyone expected St. Elsewhere to be cancelled, yet NBC renewed it after all because of its demographics. The show appealed to a young, affluent, educated audience and became the fourth-best-selling show in advertiser price per commercial. However, Falsey and Brand had not been getting along well with Bruce Paltrow and they were dismissed.
In 1990 Brand and Falsey created an eight-episode series, Northern Exposure, as a CBS summer filler. The critics and audiences loved it and demanded more, so six months later the team reassembled, produced another eight episodes, and indeed kept going for a total of 110 episodes. Brand and Falsey suddenly became the top producing team in television, and they transmitted the MTM subculture to a new generation of writers.
If one considers only the wide range of topics that have been addressed by MTM alumni, it may not seem apparent that their shows have any similarities worth calling a "subculture." But they do. For one thing, they are character-driven, emphasizing the personalities of interesting, complex individuals- most often an ensemble of colleagues in a workplace. Each episode ordinarily has three or four subplots running through it, some extending into a subsequent episode, some not.
PRODUCING NORTHERN EXPOSURE
The CBC television critic John Leonard called Northern Exposure "the best of the best television in the past 10 years." John Cody, a professor in San Francisco, wrote that its episodes
"consistently exhilarate us, the viewers, by honoring our capacity to delight in, to relish the play of intelligence and psychological nuances. Each drama served a wonderful 10-course gourmet banquet for our starved imaginations: magic, myth, ritual philosophy, religious wisdom, folklore, fantasy, and living sparks from the moral dialectics of diverse characters."
I participate in a community of 400 people who still are discussing Northern Exposure on-line every day, ten years after it ended. If Cody discovered his own starved condition by coming upon Northern Exposure's feast, others discovered their own yearnings for a forgotten place that had never existed. Fans describe their love of Northern Exposure as one of the most meaningful experiences in their own biographies. To see it for the first time, they say, is to know Proust's surprise upon biting into a petit madeleine and being overwhelmed by longing and remembrance.
A few other series have emulated certain aspects of Northern Exposure, but none with much success. What made it possible to create such a remarkable show? Unfortunately, the people who are best qualified to answer that question are as mystified as the rest of us. We are on our own in this search.
I was not able to watch Northern Exposure being shot at all, as I did Street Time. However, I was able to interview one of the creators, three of the writers, two of the stars, and five of the producers- some of them on numerous occasions, sometimes face-to-face. Because these people usually were not frank about sensitive memories, I will not always attribute them explicitly. I understand their tact.
The pilot episode of Northern Exposure was broadcast in the summer of 1990 and the final episode in the spring of 1995. Joshua Brand and John Falsey created the series for Universal Studios, under contract with CBS. While the main writing and production work went on in Los Angeles, the show was actually shot outside Seattle, partly on a sound stage in nearby Redmond, and partly on location in a distant small town called Roslyn. The interior sets were in Redmond, but a good deal was filmed in Roslyn's streets and spectacular mountainous environs. It used to be a mining town but modern life had passed it by, and had become a place of vacant lots overgrown with weeds, rusty trucks, and seedy old shops decorated with moose antlers.
In the story, the town is not in Washington State at all, but instead is Cicely, Alaska, population 836, a long bus ride away from Anchorage. About half of the local people are Indians and, like all the other townspeople, they are tolerant, innocent, and credulous. If their town looks like something from an older era, their culture is even more remote from modernity. In Cicely there is no competitiveness, no poverty, no glamour, and little materialism or technology.
Into this unsophisticated community arrives the protagonist of our story, Dr. Joel Fleischman. You can make of him what you will, but the writers evidently thought of his five-year sojourn in Cicely in terms of Joseph Campbell's myth of a hero's journey into a strange and magical land. By surmounting great challenges, the legendary hero (Ulysses is one example) wins new powers to take back home at the end of his adventure.
Northern Exposure's Characters and their Actors
Joel Fleischman and the Actor Rob Morrow. This newcomer to Cicely is a 28-year-old physician from New York City. His medical education was paid by the state of Alaska, in return for which he must serve five years in whatever post the state assigns to him - in this case, Cicely. (He had been cheated out of a promised position in Anchorage.) Joel is engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Elaine, who has remained in New York, studying law.
Though he is an excellent, committed physician, Joel thinks of himself as an indentured slave, treating superstitious people who present only boring medical problems. He volubly expresses his many complaints, lamenting the financial opportunities he is missing in Alaska.
Our assignment, then, is to care about this imperfect protagonist. We can foresee that his moral and spiritual education will be unlike any in our own lives, and by living through it vicariously with him, we will both liberate and discipline our own hearts. If this guy can grow, perhaps we can too.
And he has plenty going for him. He's smart and, despite his petulance, self-pity, and disdain for small towns, when he encounters people who have problems, he responds compassionately. He is faithful to his fiancée Elaine. He is good-looking, sometimes funny, and already spiritually alert, according to his upbringing as a liberal Jew. Basically honest, he rarely deceives himself and is able to recognize his own (abundant) shortcomings. It is easy to empathize with Joel.
The actor Rob Morrow had much in common with the character he played. As a native New Yorker, he found himself in Seattle separated from his old life and previous relationships. Although he had dropped out of high school to pursue an acting career, he had caught up in other ways. He is intelligent, articulate, insightful, polite, and well informed. I have never seen him appear as demanding as Joel often was, but he rubbed producers the wrong way when he was in Northern Exposure. For one thing, he demanded a pay raise. It is not unusual for actors to re-negotiate their contracts when their show becomes popular, and Morrow did so. The other actors were pleased by this, for when his pay increased, theirs did too. Still, Morrow readily acknowledges now that he had been young at the time and had often handled disputes less skillfully than he would today.
Pay was not his only issue. As he returned to Seattle for more and more seasons, he felt frustrated for reasons that the audience shared. Despite our confidence in Joel and our resonance to his spiritual openness and motivation, we could not see growth taking place. Despite the lessons implicit in wise and inspiring story lines, he kept making the same kinds of mistakes. We viewers were learning and growing from the experience, so why wasn't he?
Rob Morrow, also becoming disappointed, was struggling against Joshua Brand, insisting that Joel be allowed to develop. But Northern Exposure, like all other shows (except, more recently, Street Time), presented the final script to the actors, who had only to speak the words they were given. Changes were rarely approved.
After producing 66 episodes, Joshua Brand resigned from the show and David Chase became executive director. His sensibilities were entirely different from Brand's, though the change was not immediately apparent to viewers, for the main writers stayed on. Nevertheless, even after Chase took charge, Joel's spiritual development remained somehow retarded, perturbing Morrow until eventually he asked to be released from his contract.
Having grudgingly granted that release, the producers had to find a way to write him out of the story within about eight episodes. At that point, they did allow Joel to undergo a rapid character shift through a startling epiphany in which he acquired an entirely different personality, leaving Cicely to become a mystical recluse far up the river.
Northern Exposure is the only television show that has ever attempted to portray a rational Western person's spiritual enlightenment in terms of Eastern philosophy. Although I have more than a passing interest in Buddhism, I found this plot a jarring turn of events, since no motivations or insights had been developed beforehand that led him plausibly in the direction of a transcendent worldview. Nevertheless, Rob Morrow himself was gratified by the change. To him, it was Joel's way of winning the "boon" for triumphantly completing the "hero's journey." I asked him whether Joel's ascetic period of self-discovery was his idea, since I knew of his interest in Asian philosophy. He said that he did not choose the story line, but that he had been pushing it in that direction and eventually the producers acquiesced. He said,
"I think that it made sense that they saw who I am, and they took from that. If an actor is any good, he's bringing a bunch of himself to it. So in that regard, I think I significantly affected it. I was so grateful for my last eight shows, when I went `up river.'"
Rob's last episode was number 102. After eight more episodes the series was cancelled. Whether or not Joel learned everything he needed to learn during his mystical retreat (and I discuss this in Chapter 9), the audience could not follow him where he would go after leaving the show. And, since Joel's journey was our own vicarious journey, his departure brought the downfall of the series.
There are, of course, several ways of growing, not all of which depend primarily on introspection or meditation. When Joel first came to Cicely, I expected that his growth would occur, not by withdrawing from society, but precisely by developing his relationships with the amazing personalities among whom he was to spend five years. We need to meet those people now, as well as the actors who played them.
Maggie O'Connell and the Actress Janine Turner. Maggie was a bush pilot who could also fix plumbing, deliver mail, repair roofs, hunt deer, manage real estate, and put men in their place. As a beautiful rich girl reacting against her overly conventional family, she had originally accompanied a boyfriend to Alaska, but he had died - the first of five boyfriends to die there, convincing her and the other Cicelians that she was cursed. Nevertheless, she stayed on, sure that Alaska was where she belonged.
As every avid pilot must be, she was a born sensation-seeker who loved surprises and risk, and handled dangerous challenges competently. Since Joel had none of those traits, she despised and criticized him, yet became aware, sooner than he, of their mutual attraction.
In other respects, she was not so insightful. He could see what she never acknowledged: her attempt to sow doubt about him in the mind of his visiting fiancée. (It worked; Elaine married another man.) Unlike Joel, who could acknowledge his errors, Maggie projected the blame for all her troubles onto others - especially men. Some of the funniest stories revealed her doing what she did best: lie to others and delude herself.
Still, we forgave her. Though she was neurotic and defensive, she could be generous, and as the years passed, she softened a bit. One boyfriend survived, leaving her more self-confident than before when he departed from Alaska. Perhaps she was not cursed.
When at last Maggie and Joel became a couple, he never knew how to handle her unpredictable demands, and only in response to them did he go to the wilderness to re-work his whole personality.
Maggie O'Connell was played by Janine Turner, a petite ex-model. I never met her, but in interviews she has acknowledged many similarities between her own personality and that of her character. Like Maggie, she is temperamentally labile, but she claims to have learned courage from playing this bold feminist. Today she lives on a ranch in Texas with her young daughter and sometimes reads stories to children in local libraries. Evidently she differs in her social values from the politically and religiously liberal Maggie, for she is reputed to be a devout Baptist and a fervent supporter of her former governor, George W. Bush.
Maurice Minnifield and the actor Barry Corbin. One of the most prominent and powerful men in Alaska was an ex-astronaut, Maurice Minnifield, who owned 20,000 acres of land, a radio station, and Cicely's small newspaper. Born and bred in Oklahoma, Maurice had flown fighter missions in Korea and was a trained engineer. Like all the other characters, he was full of contradictions. For example, instead of wearing a Stetson hat as a shorthand way of signaling his cowboyish origins, he wore a NASA cap most of the time.
Though of late middle age, Maurice had never married, but lived alone in a splendid log house, spending much of his time in The Brick, the local tavern. An astute businessman of considerable sophistication, he nevertheless was pompous and opinionated, lacking a sense of humor or any spiritual awareness.
Maurice had lived in Cicely many years, enjoying a close friendship with The Brick's owner, Holling Vincoeur. Recently, however, he had been smitten with a teen-aged beauty queen, Shelly Tambo, whom he brought to Cicely, intending to marry her. Instead, she fell for Holling and moved in with him, putting a strain on the men's friendship.
Maurice was played by Barry Corbin, a Texas-born character actor of long experience, especially in Western films. Still cherishing the memory of Northern Exposure as the high point of his career, Mr. Corbin lives today in Fort Worth. I spoke to him there by phone, opining that Northern Exposure had begun as the greatest show ever made, but by the end had become one of the worst. The characters, previously tolerant and generous, had become mean-spirited and nasty toward each other during the last season. I suggested that the downhill slide seemingly began with the departure of Brand and Falsey and the rise of David Chase. He didn't express disagreement with my sour opinions. In fact, he said he had made several trips to California to argue against the direction the scripts were taking. He had even concluded that some kind of sabotage was going on, albeit probably not consciously. As he recalled,
"I said `You're going to get us cancelled.' They said, `No, they can't cancel us. We're the biggest thing on television.' And I said, `Right now. But give it about three weeks.' One of the producers called me after we were cancelled and said `You were right.'
"I was the only person who thought that it was the last episode. It was not written to be the final episode."
Could anything have kept the show alive and wonderful? I asked. Corbin replied in a fatalistic tone,
"Television shows are born to be cancelled. It's not going to live forever unless it's a soap opera. The way they keep those going is to have no consistency. You're never going to have a show that runs for more than six or seven years and maintains the same quality and freshness as in the first two or three years."
When I persisted with the same line of questioning, he reminded me that Northern Exposure had been a fluke.
"Nobody ever believed that the show was going to take off as it did. Even at the height of our popularity, they kept telling me, `It's a marginal show. It's not making any money.' We were successful by accident. I don't think the network ever really was proud of the show. Universal was never behind it completely. It was the public and critics who kept it on air as long as it did. It doesn't fit into any niche. Television is imitative today - all the way from the top network executives down. To improve the quality overall, you'd need to have people with vision in the top offices. There would have to be a complete revamping of the television industry and I don't think that's going to happen."
Holling Vincoeur and the Actor John Cullum. Many scenes took place in a bar, The Brick. The proprietor was a 63-year-old former trapper of French Canadian origin, Holling Vincoeur. Having been mauled by a Grizzly bear many years ago, Holling gave up shooting animals (except on film) and settled in Cicely. Yet he still took expeditions from time to time to bird-watch with his friend, Ruth-Anne Miller.
Lately he had been madly in love with the beauty queen who came to live with him above the tavern, where she also worked as a waitress. Despite their 40-year age discrepancy, their love life was an indicator of Holling's enthusiastic robustness - four times a day, on the average.
Holling was played by John Cullum, a prominent Broadway actor and singer whose pronounced Tennessee accent at first seemed incongruous for his francophone character. I never had a chance to interview him.
Shelly Tambo and the Actress Cynthia Geary. Born and bred in a Saskatoon trailer park, Shelly had been popular with the boys in high school and then had traveled with a pro hockey team. Crowned as "Miss Northwest Passage," abd despite her lack of much education, Shelly was warm, innocent, and practical, with good sense beyond her years.
Cynthia Geary, who played Shelly, was a university graduate from Mississippi who had trained as a singer. She worked as a waitress in a Los Angeles Mexican restaurant until her big break. Now she, her real estate developer husband, and their daughter live in Seattle.
Chris Stevens and the Actor John Corbett. The disk jockey for Minnifield's radio station KBHR was a tall, gentle soul named Chris Stevens. Born into a West Virginia family of ne'er-do-wells and criminals, he had gone to prison at the earliest possible age, where he discovered books. Reading his way through the library, he became the most brilliant character one will ever meet in a television show. In Cicely when he was not reading or philosophizing on the radio, he was either building a huge metal sculpture or officiating at a funeral or wedding (He had been ordained by mail order.)
Chris Stevens functioned as the Greek Chorus for Northern Exposure. His on-air commentaries usually pointed to a theme running through all three of the stories that constituted an episode. Chris was more open-minded than anyone else in town. He could always see both sides of every argument. Everyone came to him for counseling.
John Corbett, who played Chris, was indeed from Wheeling, West Virginia, and the writers appropriated many of his other biographical facts as well. He has enjoyed great success since the series ended, especially in Sex and the City, and as the bridegroom in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I did not even ask him for an interview. As one producer described him, Corbett was usually an angel of cooperativeness, but he was unpredictable. For example, he might get a haircut during the shooting of an episode so he would have to wear a wig for the rest of the week. He is reputed to be as easy-going in real life as on the screen, but not nearly as well read as Chris Stevens. That is not surprising; I dodn't know anyone else on earth who is as well read as Chris Stevens.
Ed Chigliak and the Actor Darren Burrows. Ed is a charming 18-year-old half-Indian kid who works part-time as a handyman for Maurice and for Ruth-Anne in the general store. This sweet, smart, naïve and innocent young man longed to find out who his parents were. He had been raised by his tribe after being found, as an infant, abandoned under a tree. On familiar terms with spirits, he often served as Joel's guide to the magical events that seemed so normal to Cicelians. Ed, a future filmmaker, solved every human problem by looking for the right solutions in movie plots. We can learn ethical/emotional criticism from him. Later in the series Ed would receive a "call" to become a shaman.
Darren Burrows is the son of actor Billy Drago, and has a little Cherokee and Apache ancestry. He was a short-order cook in Kansas when he moved to Los Angeles at age sixteen and drifted into acting. Today he lives in Los Angeles with his wife Melissa and their three children.
Marilyn Whirlwind and the Actress Elaine Miles. When Joel arrived at his dilapidated medical office he found an applicant waiting to be hired as his assistant: a silent, rotund Indian woman of about his age. Throughout most of the series Marilyn Whirlwind just sat at her desk in the waiting room, knitting. She expressed her opinions eloquently, but mostly nonverbally.
Marilyn was played by Elaine Miles, a Cayuse and Nez Perce Indian who was born on a reservation in Oregon. When she was invited to try out for Marilyn's role she was 30, still living at home with her parents, and often participating in powwows. She lives in Seattle now with her young son.
Ruth-Anne Miller and the Actress Peg Phillips. The owner of Cicely's general store was a crusty 73-year-old woman, Ruth-Anne Miller. Like all the other members of the ensemble, she spent a lot of time at the Brick, but many of the scenes took place in her store, which also was the post office and lending library.
Ruth-Anne was played by Peg Phillips. Originally her part was not intended to be significant, but when she arrived on the set she had typed up a backstory which she gave to the creators. It was so interesting that they drew upon it in writing subsequent episodes. Peg Phillips had divorced early in life, raised four children by herself, and helped raise her grandchildren. Only after her family was grown did she have the opportunity work as an actress. She died in 2002.