What We Like About Stories

According to Dolf Zillmann, our liking or disliking of characters is determined by our empathy for them -- which, in turn, is determined by the morality of their behavior. While no doubt immoral behavior would indeed turn viewers against the Cicelians, in fact they rarely do anything that can be considered immoral. We like or dislike them, I think, primarily for the appropriateness or inappropriateness of their feelings. My assumption can be tested empiricially, as I tried to do by conducting a small survey. I belong to an e-mail list devoted to discussing Northern Exposure and was able to query the other participants by giving them a list of 418 story-lines that constituted the first 93 episodes (omitting the infamous sixth season). Grouping the stories into batches of eight episodes, I asked fans to choose their two favorite and two least-favorite story-lines from each batch, and I tabulated their responses. I was able to single out the two least-favorite stories and the four top favorites from the list of 418. Then I asked the participants to rate the emotional intelligence displayed in these extremely popular and unpopular stories.[1]

The two least-favorite stories both involved Maurice Minnifield, a character whose EQ, even on a good day, is noticeably below average. Ordinarily we can empathize with the other Cicelians in their non-judgmental acceptance of Maurice, but in both of these episodes his insensitivity is too annoying to win smiles from even the kindest Superego II. In "Kodiak Moment" his brother dies and, conscious of his own mortality, he longs for a son and heir. He decides to adopt Chris, who, despite certain misgivings, briefly goes along with the proposal. The results are predictably embarrassing; Maurice treats him as a kid who needs to be re-educated into the "superior" Minnifield lifestyle. The experiment is a humiliating fiasco that makes every viewer cringe.

The other least-favorite story, in "Only You," involves Holling as a photographer who takes a portrait shot of his friend Maurice. The photo outrages Maurice, who calls it intentionally unflattering. The thin-skinned Holling feels wounded and goes to ask Joel's opinion. Of the three men, only Joel displays normal emotional intelligence about this trivial matter, and he is unable to restore the equanimity of either Holling or the vain, belligerent Maurice. The whole story is unpleasant to witness.

The most obvious conclusion we can draw from these two unpopular stories is that viewers dislike stories that display low emotional intelligence. However, we cannot take that conclusion at face value, for there are exceptions to it, as we learn by comparing the four stories that are most often chosen as favorites.

Two of the most popular story-lines involve characters whose EQ is extraordinarily low. "Adam" (played by Adam Arkin) was a wild, paranoid Vietnam veteran who hated people and lived in the forest outside Cicely. When Joel's truck broke down on a night-time house call, Adam came down the mountainside, silently led him to his cabin, and cooked a superb dinner for him -- threatening, the whole time, to kill him because "you're a person and I don't like people!"

In another favorite episode, Adam appeared at Joel's cabin and kidnapped him, forcing him to come and treat his wife, "Eve" (played by Valerie Mahaffy), who proved to be the world's champion hypochondriac. The couple immediately resumed their domestic dispute at the top of their lungs, until Adam stormed out. To keep Joel around as a source of continuous medical care, Eve conked him with a frying pan and chained him, hand and foot. When Adam returned, Joel took charge as a "marriage counsellor" and gave his verdict: they must divorce. This decision prompted them to reconcile. They sawed Joel's chains apart and asked him to leave.

These two popular episodes clearly disprove any simplistic assumption that we dislike characters of low EQ. We adore Adam and Eve, despite their outrageously inappropriate feelings. The explanation for this is obvious: Unlike Maurice Minnifield, these two wild people are hilariously funny. Emotional stupidity is an ugly thing to see -- unless it is funny, in which case it can be wonderfully entertaining. Unfortunately, nobody can give a foolproof formula for fun. Possibly the writers expected us to be amused by Maurice as an arrogant adoptive parent or by Maurice as the disgruntled subject of an unflattering photograph. This was not the case. However, we can say that humor, if it does succeed, will indeed counteract the displeasure we feel upon witnessing emotional inappropriateness.

On the other hand, the other two most popular story lines show high, not low, emotional intelligence. In one, "Midnight Sun," our grouchy friend Joel was experiencing unaccustomed euphoria because of the 24 hours of sunlight each day. Not only did he pursue Maggie libidinously without his usual ambivalence, but he also became Cicely's basketball coach. His exuberance was boundless -- until, from lack of sleep, he collapsed into a coma and missed the big game altogether. Northern Exposure fans love Joel under all circumstances, and they especially enjoy the rare occasions when he is happy and having fun.

Finally, there is a beautiful episode called "First Snow," which reveals a delicate and touching kind of emotional intelligence. Joel was treating an old woman, Nedra Larkin, who unexpectedly informed him that she was dying. He could find nothing seriously wrong with her, but he took her concerns seriously and kept seeking a rational diagnosis, refusing to acknowledge that she was just "winding down," as she put it. But of course, she did die -- and he felt that he had failed as her physician. But Ruth-Anne challenged him: "Do you reproach yourself when the leaves fall off the trees? Nedra died well, Joel."

Maggie was at home that evening when Joel came by. She said she had heard about Nedra. He nodded solemnly and tried out her new armchair, which fit him comfortably. Together they watched Maggie's new goldfish swimming around and around until, though the window, they saw the first snowflakes of the season. This was the evening when Cicelians always gathered in the street to wish each other "Bon Hiver" -- Good Winter.

When Maggie and Joel arrived outside the KBHR broadcasting booth, Chris had finished reading a poem about snowflakes and was broadcasting a lovely record. He joined the crowd, exuberantly hugging Ruth-Anne, Maggie, and Joel. Everyone came out from the Brick onto the sidewalk, where children were playing under the falling white sparkles.

Maggie touched Joel's smiling face gently, saying, "Bon Hiver, Fleischman." He held her hand against his cheek a long time. Then they strolled arm and arm amidst the townspeople, the music, and the snowflakes.

Bon Hiver, Cicely.


[1] Responses to the second questionnaire were insufficient, and therefore I had to appraise the characters' emotional intelligence myself. You can, however, judge my appraisals after watching those episodes yourself.