"It's like brother Nietzsche said: being human is a complicated gig, so give that dark night of the soul a hug and howl the eternal yes."
— Chris in the Morning
The exception to the Too Good to Last rule. Every once in a great while, a show that seems to fit the profile actually makes it. Case in point: Northern Exposure. (Intelligent, well-written show, with a subtle blend of comedy and drama, beloved by a devoted fanbase and critics.) It came on in its first season as a Midseason Replacement, and had only a handful of episodes. It wasn't picked up for the fall, but was held back as a mid-season replacement again, so its second season also had just a handful of episodes. Which would seem just right for the chopping block — but it went on to have four full seasons after that.
Joel Fleischman is a young doctor from New York City, fresh from med school, who is contractually obliged to practice medicine in the small town of Cicely, Alaska as part of a financial aid package from the state. As Fleischman dreams of escaping Cicely, the locals all seem to be escaping from the rest of the world.
Quirky locals include:
Maurice Minnifield, a millionaire former astronaut who wants to turn his 15,000 acres of nearby land into an attractive vacation spot on the "new Alaskan Riviera."
Maggie O'Connell, a bush pilot from a rich family who has a love-hate relationship with Fleischman.
Holling Vincoeur, the town barkeep and one of its oldest residents.
Ruth-Anne Miller, a kindly older woman who runs the town's general store.
The show holds a similarity to Twin Peaks, with its use of extensive dream imagery, fantasy elements, and symbolism to explore its characters, and was one of the most successful "stealth fantasy" shows (in that most fans of the show would never admit that it was a fantasy show) in network television history. It lasted a single season after Rob Morrow left the show, and Fleischman was Suspiciously Similar Substituted by Paul Provenza's character Phil Capra.
This TV show provides examples of:
Ability Over Appearance: Shelly was written to be Native-American but Caucasian Cynthia Geary ended up getting the part.
Absentee Actor: Starts to happen a lot more from the third season onward, especially when an episode breaks the usual Two Lines, No Waiting structure and focuses on a single story, perhaps even taking the action out of Cicely in the process.
Season 3's "Three Amigos" is the first episode in which neither Joel nor Maggie appear. The focus is entirely on Holling and Maurice's friendship, with some of the other main characters only appearing at the beginning and end of the episode.
On the flipside, Joel and Maggie are the only main characters to appear in Season 4's "Grosse Point, 48230".
All Just a Dream: Seems to happen at least Once per Episode. Sometimes it's the entire episode. Usually the audience can see it coming and know that it's being Played for Laughs, but there's still something interesting about the character(s) having the dream to be gleaned from it.
Amusing Injuries: In the episode "Old Tree", Joel seems to get spontaneously injured every time Maggie tries to do something nice for him.
Apocalypse How: Ed has a dream about the residents of the town suffering from horrible mutations because they weren't environmentally conscious enough to prevent the ozone layer from breaking down.
Asian Babymama: Maurice has one who pays him a visit in "Seoul Mates". Enough time has passed since the Korean War that she's now a baby grand-mama.
Author Avatar: In-universe, Ed is working on a screenplay called "The Shaman". It becomes pretty clear that the titular character is based on his own life in the episode "Balls", where Lester Haines agrees to finance the film but wants to change the ending, because he doesn't find it believable that the main character gets the girl in the end. This happens while Ed is dating Lester's daughter Heather, which Lester implies will never work out in real life.
Breaking the Fourth Wall: Fleischman obliterates the fourth wall in "War and Peace". When Maurice is involved in a duel with his rival, he stops them and says" Look, we play to a very sophisticated television audience. They know Maurice isn't going to kill Nikolai and they definitely know Nikolai isn't going to kill Maurice." Maggie then calls him out for stepping out of character and then everyone complains that it's too cold when Marilyn suggests they just move on to the next scene.
Brooklyn Rage: Joel. (He's technically from Queens, but close enough.) This comes out whenever anyone, knowingly or inadvertently, makes his life difficult. In an episode where he starts to worry that he's losing his "New York edge", what ends up curing his homesickness is a heated argument with a repairman who Joel thinks is ripping him off.
Call Back: These start to pile up as the seasons go by, but the episode "Crime and Punishment" has so many that it's practically a clip show with no clips, as pretty much every major character takes the stand to briefly recap the events of an episode where Chris helped them work their some of their personal issues.
Commedia dell'Arte Troupe: Seen in two episodes where Cicely's history is explored, as well as the premiere of Season 6, where Joel experiences a vision of how his life might have turned out had he stayed in New York City.
Complaining About Rescues They Don't Like: Chris reacts this way when Joel gives him some blood pressure medication intended to help stave off heart disease. Suddenly he's extremely depressed about not knowing what to do with the rest of his life, because he was planning on checking out at 40.
Crazy Cultural Comparison: The Eskimo Indians celebrating Thanksgiving as "The Day of the Dead," where they throw tomatoes at white people.
Inverted in "Rosebud." Leonard looks for white folktales for his work as a healer. The results are... disappointing.
Daddy Issues: Holling has these with his entire paternal lineage.
Foreign Cuss Word: A French chef working for Maurice gets away with "Merde!" when the English equivalent clearly wouldn't have been allowed in an American primetime network show.
Friday Night Death Slot: The "burn off episodes in the summer" variety. The show both started and ended this way, with its first season airing entirely in the summer, and the last few episodes of its final season being held back from May sweeps and aired in June and July, presumably because the ratings dropped precipitously after Rob Morrow's departure.
Genius Ditz: Ed. He appears to catch on a bit slow, especially in social situations, but the man knows his movies, and can easily relate anything he or another character is going through to a plot element from a favorite vintage film.
Getting Crap Past the Radar: For an episode that's surprisingly frank regarding the details of the human reproductive system, "The Bad Seed" still manages to slip one in there when Joel finds some unexpected results in Holling's, um, sample. Holling, taken aback, says "Come again?", to which Joel responds that one sample is enough.
And then there's the episode where Holling and Ruth-Anne go bird-hunting. "Let's go nail some tit!"
An episode in season three where Joel is (much to his own chagrin) adopted by a local tribe foreshadows this.
A Good Name for a Rock Band: Happened in real life when Justin Vernon was home sick with mono, and watching the series on DVD. The scene at the end of "First Snow" where everyone wishes each other "Bon hiver!" inspired his stage name, Bon Iver.
Have I Mentioned I Am Heterosexual Today?: Maurice hits this one pretty hard after selling a home to a pair of men he later realized was a gay couple. He doesn't take kindly to them pointing out that he appreciates several of the same activities as they do (cooking, interior decorating, etc.) When he starts ranting about their "unnatural lifestyle", they think he is just trying to jack the price up.
Chris deals with this in his usual open-minded manner when he finds himself inexplicably sexually attracted to a man who never speaks. The worst part? It happens in the middle of a spiritual retreat at a monastery, and the man in question is one of the monks. Subverted when the monk's hood finally comes off and the character is revealed to be a woman.
Hollywood Atheist: Averted with General Store owner Ruth-Anne Miller, one of the friendliest and most down-to-earth residents of Cicely, who just happens to be an atheist.
Hollywood Law: An episode where Chris is on trial for skipping parole and his lawyer, Mike Monroe, knows he has no real case, seems to head straight into this when they try to make the metaphysical argument that Chris is a different person now. It's subverted when the judge, who has humored their ridiculous argument for several days, still sentences Chris to finishing his prison term, but is lenient enough to stay the sentence for three years, having become someone sympathetic to Chris during her time in Cicely.
Hot Librarian: Maggie becoming mayor of Cicely has this effect on Chris, who is attracted to her authority.
Inspector Javert: Officer Barbara Semanski. Chris name-checks this trope in reference to her at one point. In that very same episode, she arrests Joel for gambling. While off duty. In the middle of a date.
The young, eager health inspector who threatens to shut down Holling's Bar is also a good example.
Insult to Rocks: At one point, Maggie decides that calling Joel a moron would be "an insult to morons".
It's Always Spring: The show does try to demonstrate that it's Alaska and there are true seasons... but filming in Washington a few months ahead of the intended airdate means that it's going to be sunnier and more colorful on Thanksgiving day that any real Alaskan town would probably be. (Autumn in Alaska typically ends in October.)
Last Name Basis: Maggie and Joel pretty much always refer to each other as "Fleischman" and "O'Connell". Even after they've slept together.
Moral Guardians: Sort of inverted in the episode "Northern Hospitality". A resident is Driven to Suicide and leaves a note saying that the song "Pencil-Necked Geek" that Chris broadcast on the radio was what convinced him to do it. Chris immediately takes it upon himself to remove anything that could be remotely construed as angry or depressing from his playlist, which leads many of the townspeople to complain that the station is now quite boring, and that the music shouldn't be blamed for the suicide.
Musical Episode: "Old Tree" is like this, but only for "Shelly". It's apparently a side effect of her pregnancy. Holling joins her for a duet near the end of the episode.
The Night That Never Ends: Happens in "Northern Lights", which is sort of the inverse of the Endless Daytime episode mentioned above. Though the sun is still up for about an hour each day, which is true in many locations just north of the Arctic Circle.
Noodle Incident: Maggie's first boyfriend was apparently killed by potato salad.
No Party Like a Donner Party: In "A Cup of Joe", Holling and Ruth-Anne discover that their grandfathers were both prospectors back in the gold rush days, and that one had to resort to eating the other's body when they got snowed in one winter.
Olive Garden: The show attempts to explore Dr. Capra's Italian heritage when he discovers that Cicely has a "Little Italy". He quickly gets swept into a family feud based on a rather trivial offense from years past.
Otaku: Ed. More attractive than most, and less socially awkward, but he still gets into film themes.
Parental Substitute: Maurice is a bit of a domineering father figure in Ed's life, while Ruth-Anne is the gentler mother figure. This leads to Ed being caught in the middle in Season 4 when Ruth-Anne buys her store from Maurice and the two get into a terrible argument about it, both of them trying to manipulate Ed into quitting working for the other.
Promoted to Opening Titles: Elaine Miles (Marilyn) and Peg Phillips (Ruth-Anne) in Season 4. They were mostly satellite characters in the earlier seasons, but somewhere around Season 3 more of the storylines began to center on them.
Teri Polo and Paul Provenza get this treatment later in Season 6, after being credited as guests for several episodes.
Racist Grandpa: Maurice, though he isn't as crotchety about this as many characters who fit the trope. He's reasonably tolerant of minorities, but his speech often reflects a belief that whites are still superior. This is especially troublesome for him when he learns that he has a half-Korean son.
Real-Life Relative: Marilyn's mother is played by Armenia Miles, the real-life mother of Elaine Miles. Interestingly, Elaine never auditioned for the show, but was offered the part when she accompanied her mother to her audition.
Really Gets Around: Rick. After he dies, he tells Maggie in a dream sequence that he's slept with 2,500 women.
Chris gets his fair share as well. Pheremones might have something to do with it.
The Remnant: One of these guys featured in one episode, from when Japan controlled the Aleutian Islands
Repeating so the Audience Can Hear: Often averted when characters are speaking in foreign languages, and characters unfamiliar with the language have to stumble through as best they can, just like the audience does. But played somewhat straight when Marilyn dates a man who only communicates via sign language. It's probably the most dialogue Marilyn has had in any episode up until that point.
Severely Specialized Store: In one episode, Shelly is interested in going to the Mall of America; she mentions that they have a whole store that's just socks.
Share the Male Pain: Chris in the Morning announces over the radio that Holling is considering circumcision. Ed says only, "Ow."
Shout Out: A number of them,such as an episode where Ed finds a ring from Federico Fellini and starts seeing the world in Fellini imagery, and an episode that ends with Holling, Joel and Elaine doing an extended Twin Peaks riff.
In "Kaddish For Uncle Manny", the townsfolk are trying to find other Jews in Alaska. Joel has a dream that these Jews approach him on horseback, like in an old Western. Two of them are named Joel and Ethan Coen.
Shown Their Work: One of the few shows to put consistent effort into a realistic portrayal of Native Americans, specifically Tlingits.
The Silent Bob: Enrico Bellati, the "flying man" who arrives in Cicely with the circus. Communicating only in sign language, he makes Marilyn (who happens to be the object of his affection) seem rather talkative in comparison. He does actually speak to Marilyn in his second appearance, though he still prefers not to do it unless he has something extremely important to say. Oh, and yes, he really can fly.
Slap-Slap-Kiss: You can probably see this coming from a mile away in the episode that begins with Maggie punching Joel in the nose. Despite being dared to hit her back, Joel retaliates in the form of legal action... and it just gets worse from there until a fight at the climax of the episode turns into a literal roll in the hay.
Slice of Life: A defining trait of the series. Most plots arise from the mundane minutiae of life in Cicely than those that are based on obviously massive, life-changing events.
Small Name, Big Ego: Maurice. The man went into space once and now he believes himself to be an American institution. It doesn't help that he seems to own most of the town.
Straw Feminist: Maggie started out as a strong, independent woman, but she degenerated in later seasons into a caricature.
All of the women in the town become this for a day when Maggie decides to defiantly give the boot to Maurice and the men he's hired to dig up some Indian artifacts that were discovered in her front yard.
Suspiciously Similar Substitute: To be fair, Dr. Capra was a very different character and the focus of the show had already widened to the point that no one character was integral to the series.
Interestingly, in Phil's second episode, he and Joel play a round of golf together, which serves to illustrate how much Joel has changed since the beginning of the series while Phil now takes on the Fish out of Water role occupied by Joel earlier in the series.
Later in Season 6, Chris seems to get set up as one of these in the shipping department, since Joel's depature has left Maggie without a love interest and Dr. Capra is, well, married.
A minor example happens in Season 5, when Dave, a recurring character who works at Holling's bar, gets replaced by Eugene without explanation.
Television Geography: Cicely is a little like many places in Alaska, but nowhere in Alaska is like Cicely. Judging by the clues, the town seems to be located just up the Alcan Highway from Springfield.
It was inspired by the real town of Talkeetna, Alaska though, about two hours north of Anchorage. Sadly, the town is now a tourist trap.
A pretty big clue that they were being intentionally cagey with the geography is the repeated references to the nearest town being Sleetmute, which is apparently over 200 miles away by road. In real life, Sleetmute is completely off the road system.
Terra Deforming: Maurice Minnifield sees Alaska as just a huge opportunity for business.
Terrified of Germs: Mike Monroe, introduced in season 4, is so hyper-sensitive to compound chemicals that he can sense them in the atmosphere from hundreds of miles away. When we first meet the character, he lives in a hermetically sealed geodesic dome and never ventures outside. Maggie gradually coaxes him into venturing out a bit more.
Visions of Another Self: The residents of 1909 Cicely in the Flash Back to the town's founding: Maurice becomes the ruthless crime-boss Mace Mobrey; Maggie is the stong-willed missionary Mary O'Keefe; Chris's counterpart is the philisophical gunfighter Kit; and Ed is Ned, the old man telling Joel the story. Joel himself? His counterpart is Franz Kafka!
They revisited this past period in a later episode, only recasting Joel as a personal physician to Lenin and Maggie as a handmaiden to Anastasia. According to the story, Anastasia had agreed to emerge from hiding to meet with Lenin about possibly returning to the Soviet Union.
We Want Our Jerk Back: Joel begs Maggie to go back to being mean to him in an episode where her attempts to be kind inadvertently end up injuring him.
What Happened to the Mouse?: Episodes often end this way - a character will get into some sort of situation which won't really resolve itself, with the narrative resolution coming instead from the character learning something about him/herself or others.
A good example is Maggie playing Nancy Drew in "The Mystery of the Old Curio Shop". The episode never actually tells us what the deal was with the couple running that curio shop.
Welcome Episode: Joel gets an unexpected and confusing welcome to Alaska in the pilot.
Wretched Hive: Sleetmute, judging from the way characters occasionally describe it in comparison to Cicely.
You Didn't Ask: Marilyn has a habit of being as vague as possible when others need information from her. Ask her if she knows why the Wacky Hijinks of the week are taking place in Joel's waiting room, the town, or just in Alaska in general, and she'll probably just respond "Yes".