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Series / Northern Exposure

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"It's like brother Nietzsche said: being human is a complicated gig, so give that dark knight of the soul a hug and howl the eternal yes."
Chris in the Morning

Northern Exposure was a Dramedy that ran on CBS from 1990 to 1995. It is a relatively rare American example of the "Northern"—a more usually Canadian frontier drama akin to The Western, but set in the modern-day Arctic (well, sub-Arctic).

Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) 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.

The town's quirky residents include:

  • Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin), 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 (Janine Turner), a bush pilot from a rich family who has a love-hate relationship with Fleischman.
  • Holling Vincoeur (John Cullum), the town barkeep and one of its oldest residents.
  • Shelly Tambo (Cynthia Geary), Holling's ditzy, barely-legal lover.
  • Marilyn Whirlwind (Elaine Miles), the utterly laconic, native Alaskan receptionist who is the perfect foil to all Fleischman's Woody Allen-esque whining.
  • Chris "in the Morning" Stevens (John Corbett), the philosophic DJ (and former JD) at the local radio station.
  • Ed Chigliak (Darren E. Burrows), a native Alaskan with an affable lack of tact and an Encyclopaedic Knowledge of film.
  • Ruth-Anne Miller (Peg Phillips), 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. In its sixth and final season, Rob Morrow left the show and his character Joel Fleischman was Suspiciously Similar Substituted by Paul Provenza's character Phil Capra.

In late 2018, it was announced that a revival of the series was being mounted by CBS, with Morrow returning to star as Fleischman, but the project continues to be hit with various delays and setbacks, including the 2019 death of series co-creator John Falsey.

This TV show provides examples of:

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  • Adam and/or Eve: When Dr. Fleischman discovers that Adam's wife is called Eve, he cannot resist taunting them about this. When their first baby is born, he asks them whether or not they called him Cain or Abel.
  • Addictive Foreign Soap Opera: In the first episode of the second season, Shelly receives a satellite dish from her husband and becomes addicted to a telenovela, which is both Played for Laughs and used to help set up her realization that she has become disconnected from reality and the things she cares about.
  • Adult Adoptee: Maurice considers adopting Chris, his radio station's DJ, as heir to his business interests.
  • All Bikers Are Hell's Angels: Played for Laughs. Ruth-Anne briefly takes up with some bikers who turn out to have normal, mundane lives.
  • All Gays Love Theatre: Referenced in the first episode, when Maurice tells Joel about his love of musicals — "But I'm no fruit if that's what you're thinkin'".
  • 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.
  • Alter Kocker: Transplant Joel mentions them back in his "old country" of Queens, NY from time to time.
    • In one episode, he finds the local indians using what he knows as Yiddish words, which turns out to be due to memories of a Jewish explorer. One mentions hearing a television show using "aldakaka, that's one of our words". When Joel confirms it Jewishness, he asks "Does it mean 'wise and venerable one'?" Well... yes".
  • Amusing Injuries: In the episode "Old Tree", Joel seems to get spontaneously injured every time Maggie tries to do something nice for him.
  • And Show It to You: Adam threatens to rip Maurice's heart out and show it to him while the two are Volleying Insults over a disagreement regarding the town's newspaper.
  • 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.
  • Artistic License – 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.
    • The "ironclad" contract that requires Joel to practice medicine for four/five years in Cicily, Alaska, or face 15 years in prison would be unenforceable in real life. This would constitute involuntary servitude under the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In actuality, the doctor could only be subject to civil suit for damages, as well as possible revocation of his medical license. Personal services contracts are also notoriously difficult to enforce.
  • 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.
  • Back to School: Holling in "Learning Curve".
  • Bears Are Bad News: Holling was once mauled by a bear (whom he named Jesse) while hunting. While recovering, he claimed to have a nightmare where he was pursued by all the animals he had hunted in the past. The experience changed Holling: while he had sworn vengeance against Jesse (to the point where Jesse had become his personal Moby-Dick), he vowed never to hunt any animal other than Jesse except with a camera.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Joel and Maggie actually come to blows once.
  • Berserk Button: Never, ever insinuate that one of Maurice's heroes might have been a homosexual. Especially when you're broadcasting live on his radio station.
  • Bookends: The final sequence in the series finale shows a moose wandering around town at night, in similar fashion to the show's opening credits.
  • Brainless Beauty: Shelly, but she's revealed to have Hidden Depths.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall:
    • Fleischman obliterates the fourth wall in "War and Peace". When Maurice and Nikolai are about to duel to the death, Joel steps between 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, Ruth-Anne suggests going to a previous draft of the script, everyone complains that it's too cold, and then Marilyn suggests they just move on to the next scene.
    • Also happens in the dream sequence in "Russian Flu": after Holling mentions condom use, Joel remarks that they're risking "turning this dream sequence into a public service announcement".
  • Broken Aesop: In "Learning Curve", Maggie locks horns with a woman with opinions about what women should and shouldn't do that could only be called incredibly sexist (not to mention hypocritical, since she's a former Air Force pilot but believes women shouldn't be pilots because they lack emotional stability). At one point, the other woman calls Maggie out as a Straw Feminist, for assuming all women agree with her point of view. That would have made for a good Aesop, but the episode doesn't leave it there. It goes on to have Maggie see the error of her ways and agree to disagree — really not a good lesson to teach anyone when you're talking about sexist beliefs that belong on the scrap heap of history.
  • 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.
  • But You Were There, and You, and You: One of this show's many All Just a Dream episodes ends with this. It's a pretty obvious spoof of The Wizard of Oz, right down to the placement of the characters at the dreamer's bedside and window.
  • 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.
  • Canada, Eh?: "Northern Hospitality."
  • Can't Live with Them, Can't Live without Them: Adam and Eve.
  • Cartwright Curse: "The O'Connell Curse."
  • Catapult Nightmare: In "All Is Vanity," Holling becomes convinced fiancée Shelly prefers circumcised men and schedules an appointment with Dr Fleischman. He soon has second thoughts.
  • Church of Saint Genericus: The only church depicted, which seems to be attended by just about everyone in Cicely, is some sort of community church presided over by Chris, after a mail-order ordination by "The First Church of Truth and Beauty". It is doubtful whether he even has a coherent theology.
  • Circumcision Angst: Holling in the Very Special Episode above.
  • The City vs. the Country: The basic premise.
  • Clumsy Copyright Censorship: The first season was released to DVD with all of its music intact, but it wound up retailing for $60 due to the cost of licensing. As a result, Universal chose to replace much of the music in the remaining seasons with generic muzak to keep the costs down.
  • Comforting the Widow: Inverted in "The Three Amigos": Maurice and Holling arrive at their friend's cabin to take his body for burial, and his widow starts hitting on them.
  • Commuting on a Bus: Joel commutes on a boat for about a third of Season 6.
  • 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.
  • Dating What Daddy Hates: Ed falls victim to this in a Season 6 episode.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Joel and Maggie do this with each other all the time, but whenever Adam's around, he's skilled enough at it to make anyone else's attempts at snark look like child's play.
  • "Dear John" Letter: Joel gets one of these in season 2's premiere "Goodbye to All That".
  • December–December Romance: Ruth-Anne and Walt.
  • The Dentist Episode: In "Jaws of Life", a traveling dentist makes his routine visit to Cicely, and the townsfolk go out of their way to avoid him as much as possible.
  • Destination Defenestration: Maurice does this to Chris within mere minutes of the audience being introduced to the latter.
  • The Devil Is a Loser: In one episode, the town is visited by Satan, who is a dumpy and unimpressive man more interested in small acts of betrayal than diabolical evil. He ultimately fails to corrupt the citizens of Cicely even slightly.
  • Disability as an Excuse for Jerkassery: The blind repairman who fixes Holling's piano in "Duets".
  • Discussed Trope: Ed's collection of films about Germans are always about Those Wacky Nazis, specifically Josef Mengele, and he even asks what it's like to always be the bad guys.
  • Dream Intro: Used in several episodes. One in particular starts inside Joel's sex dream where he's Robert Palmer singing "Simply Irresistible." There's a Sexy Discretion Shot fading to the opening credits when things turn steamy.
  • Dream Sequence: The entire show was made of these.
    • In "What I Did for Love" Maggie repeatedly dreams she's playing Cluedo with Joel, who, in the dream, will die in a plane crash on his way back to New York.
    • And Vision Quest for (naturally) Ed.
    • In "Aurora Borealis," Chris and Bernard have the same dream at the same time.
  • Drop-In Character: Ed. He doesn't seem to believe in knocking, and will already be in the room before the person he came to visit (frequently Joel) will even notice him.
    • Joel's house seems to be a magnet for these kinds of characters. Particularly in the middle of the night.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Rick became a victim of "The O'Connell Curse" when he got a satellite dropped on him.
  • Due to the Dead: The reason for Maurice and Holling's wilderness excursion in "Three Amigos". It doesn't quite go as planned.
    • Chris also struggles with this when a friend's remains are mailed to him in "Heroes".
  • Dumb Blonde: Shelly seems to exist at the three-way intersection between this trope, Valley Girl, and Trailer Trash. At other times she demonstrates Hidden Depths.
  • Easy Amnesia: In the episode after Joel and Maggie have sex, Maggie seems to genuinely not remember what happened.
  • Eccentric Townsfolk: One of the chief reasons that Cicily is such a Quirky Town is all of its eccentric residents.
  • Endless Daytime: One episode takes place during the Midnight Sun. People go a little crazy. Er.
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: Some engine problems cause Joel's car to erupt into flames while he's driving it down Main Street. While waiting for the town's fire department to show up, the truck explodes.
  • Fake Guest Star: Moultrie Patten as Walt Kupfer. He appeared in nearly every episode in the last couple seasons.
  • The Farmer and the Viper: In the episode "Gotta Sing", Shelly performs a jazzy version of Al Wilson's "The Snake" while warning Maggie that you cannot and should not expect upleasant, mean people to not be unpleasant and mean.
  • Fish out of Water: A central premise of the show is that Joel is a big-city Jew surrounded by small-town eccentrics and Native Americans.
  • 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.
  • Founder of the Kingdom: The town of Cicely celebrates a Founder's Day in honor of its founders Cicely and Gwendolyn.
  • Freudian Excuse: Holling has daddy issues with his entire paternal lineage.
  • From New York to Nowhere
  • 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.
  • Given Name Reveal: Regular guy Holling Vancouer reveals that his family name is actually du Vincouer, and that he's descended from French royalty - but every male in his family is a Jerkass, so he changed it to try to get away from that, which is also why he's decided not to have any offspring.
  • Going Native: Joel in season 6.
    • 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.
  • Hates Everyone Equally: Adam, up to and including his own wife.
  • 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.
  • Hide Your Lesbians: In-universe example — Maurice tells Joel that, whatever he may have heard, the two women who founded the town were just good friends.
  • Hijacked by Jesus: An interesting variation, where the residents of Cicily combine Christmas traditions with the local tribe's "Raven Festival", based on the story of Raven and the Sun-Holder's Daughter. While this is a traditional Raven story among some tribes and the depiction in the show is fairly accurate, it does make Raven seem like a Crystal Dragon Jesus. In one of the few points where Marilyn Whirlwind spoke more than a few words at a time, she told the story to Joel:
    "A long time ago, the Raven looked down from the sky and saw that the people of the world were living in darkness. The ball of light was kept hidden by a selfish old chief. So the Raven turned itself into a spruce needle and floated on the river where the chief's daughter came for water. She drank the spruce needle. She became pregnant and gave birth to a boy which was the Raven in disguise. The baby cried and cried until the chief gave him the ball of light to play with. As soon as he had the light, the Raven turned back into himself and carried the light into the sky. From then on, we no longer lived in darkness."
  • 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.
  • Hot Librarian: Maggie becoming mayor of Cicely has this effect on Chris, who is attracted to her authority.
  • I Love You Because I Can't Control You: In the episode "Only You", Chris goes through one of his recurring hormone/pheromone surges, which make him almost irresistible to women. When he discovers that the visiting optometrist is completely immune to his pheromones, and doesn't even find him attractive at his baseline level, he becomes fixated on her. As a result, he finds himself impotent while in bed with other women, and his body actually ends the surge earlier than usual.
  • Innocent Blue Eyes: Ed, as part of his total Pretty Boy status.
  • 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.)
  • Kid from the Future: In "Hello, I Love You," Shelly, who is overdue to give birth, meets three young girls who are actually future versions of the daughter she's about to give birth to.
  • Last-Name Basis: Maggie and Joel pretty much always refer to each other as "Fleischman" and "O'Connell". Even after they've slept together.
  • "Last Supper" Steal: Chris experiences this in a dream sequence.
  • Long-Lost Relative: Pretty much everyone in Cicely has a few of these:
    • Chris's half-brother Bernard is one of the series' most notable recurring characters.
    • Maurice has a half-Korean son.
    • Holling has a daughter who was conceived after he was told he was sterile.
    • Ed spends a few episodes looking for his biological father.
    • Joel has a twin brother. No, he doesn't.
  • Lotus-Eater Machine: In one episode, Joel is back in New York, and everyone from Cicely is there. Ed's a hedge fund Wunderkind, and Maurice is just a bellhop.
  • Magic Realism: The show takes place in the real world, but there's something magical about Cicily. Storylines include dream sequences, a flying man, ghosts and Indian spirits, pheromones, and even a visit from Satan.
  • Magical Native American: A good portion of the Magical Realism of the series is due to the influence of the local Native American tribe. Ed becomes a shaman in later seasons and puts this out into the forefront.
  • May–December Romance:
    • Holling and Shelly. Funnily enough, he worries in one episode that he might outlive her. Men in Holling's family have, without exception, lived to get extremely old. It's implied Holling thinks of their relationship as a Mayfly–December Romance.
    • Chris mentions this trope by name in one episode, citing examples of this type of relationship in Hollywood.
    • Shelly's own mother shows up in Cicely with a boyfriend who is barely older than Shelly.
  • Meaningful Name: Holling Vincoeur runs the local bar; his surname is French for wine-heart, although nobody pronounces it very Frenchly.
  • Misplaced Retribution: On Joel's first Thanksgiving in Cicily, he's shocked when local Native Americans throw tomatoes at him as part of their tradition of pelting local whites for the atrocities of their ancestors. Joel is quick to point out that his Jewish ancestors arrived in America well after colonial expansion and were never in any position to exploit Native Americans. Once word spreads in the Native American community, they exclude him from pelting.
  • Mistaken for Gay: This happens to Maurice when he sells a home to a gay couple, due to his of love cooking and showtunes. Leads to a Have I Mentioned I Am Heterosexual Today? scene.
  • 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.
  • Mortality Phobia: Inverted. Chris's father and grandfather both died by the age of 40, so he figures that he will too — so he tends to do risky things, like take out loans and not pay them off. But then Joel diagnoses him with high blood pressure and gives him medication, stating that his father & grandfather probably had it too. Now that Chris is given a chance at a long life, he starts toning down his risky behavior.
  • Mountain Man: Recurring character Walt, a trapper in his mid-60s who becomes a love interest for Ruth-Anne.
  • 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 Narrator: Chris' radio commentary sometimes serves as this.
  • 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.
  • Not-So-Imaginary Friend: Adam, originally.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The health inspector who threatens to shut down Holling's bar. At least he's polite about it.
  • The Oner: a rather memorable one occurs in "Get Real." The scene begins with Joel in his truck; the camera is clamped to the door of the truck looking at Joel through the driver's side window. He offers Enrico Belotti (The Flying Man) a ride into town. When Mr. Belotti declines the offer, Joel drives off, drilling himself in preparation for his internal medicine Board exams as he goes. When he gets to town, there's Mr. Belotti waiting for him by the side of the road, looking like he's been through some vigorous exercise — and Joel realizes that they don't call Mr. Belotti "The Flying Man" for nothing.
  • One-Shot Character: bunches of them. For example:
    • Ranger Burns, who mans the isolated fire watch tower in "Aurora Borealis."
    • Russian visitor Nikolai in "War and Peace."
    • "Get Real" has Enrico Belotti the Flying Man, of course, but also Steve and Adrienne Gould, nuclear scientists turned circus proprietors, and their precocious daughter Nina.
    • The recently-widowed Solvang in "The Three Amigos."
    • Several of the chatacters mentioned in the Long-Lost Relative entry above also qualify.
  • One-Word Title:
    • Pilot.
    • Roots.
    • Cicely.
    • Heroes.
    • Thanksgiving.
    • Revelations.
    • Duets.
    • Homesick.
    • Rosebud.
    • Zarya.
    • Realpolitik.
    • Horns.
    • Balls.
  • 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.
  • Parents for a Day: An off-screen woman leaves her child in Joel's waiting room. The townspeople try to take turns caring for the child, with varying results. At the end of the episode, Marilyn hands the baby back to the mother, who has second thoughts about the abandonment.
  • The Philosopher: Chris frequently waxes philosophic over the airwaves, often name-checking various tropes in the process.
  • Poke the Poodle: Satan visits Cicily and reveals that, with all the atrocities going on in the world, humanity already has big-time evil covered, so he's content to convince good people to make small concessions in their morality.
  • Playing Cyrano: In "War and Peace," Chris ghostwrites Ed's love letters to his crush White Feather.
  • Plot Parallel: Most episodes.
  • Pretty Boy: Ed. And Chris in the Morning, a rare scruffy version of this type.
  • 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.
  • Put on a Bus: Mike Monroe, literally.
  • The Quiet One: Marilyn. Especially in situations where Joel would find it helpful for her to be more verbose.
    • Of special note is her testimony at Chris's trial:
    Marilyn: I like him.
    Mike Monroe: Do you have anything to add?
    Marilyn: (thinks for a bit) No.
    • Also of note is her reaction to finding Joel in his office, after he's been missing for several days and has his wrists shackled:
    Marilyn: Your sterile sponges arrived.
  • Quirky Town: Some are more understated than others, but there is nobody in Cicily that could be considered completely normal. Even "stable" people like Ruth Ann or Holling have their odder moments.
  • Racist Grandpa: Maurice, though he isn't as crotchety about this as many characters who fit the trope. He's reasonably tolerant himself, but his speech often reflects a belief that whites are superior. This is especially troublesome for him when he learns that he has a half-Korean son.
  • 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.
      I'm the teflon kid. Dozens of chicks, nothing sticks.
  • 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.
  • Raised by Natives: Ed.
  • Re-Release Soundtrack: The home release had the soundtrack replaced. Because the show involves a DJ at a radio station playing commercial music appropriate to the situation or character, a lot of the original intent is lost in the home release version.
  • Robinsonade: Joel and Maggie get to do this for an episode after Maggie's plane goes down in the vast Alaskan wilderness.
  • Salt and Pepper: Chris and Bernard, a white guy/black guy pair of half-brothers who are more or less exactly the same person.
  • Sarcasm-Blind: Ed.
    Joel: Just come on in, Ed. Don't bother knocking.
    Ed: Okay.
  • Siege Engines: Chris builds a trebuchet, called the Fling, for an art project. He initially plans to fling a cow; when Ed tells him that Monty Python and the Holy Grail already did it, he instead flings Maggie's fire-damaged piano.
  • 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."
  • Shoe Size Angst: One episode had a subplot about Shelly's embarassment over her unusually large feet, brought on by having to buy new shoes. This was apparently inspired by the actor, Cynthia Geary, herself having those feelings.
  • Shout-Out: Chris' radio monolouges are shot through with literary and philosophical references. In addition:
    • Ed finds a ring from Federico Fellini and starts seeing the world in Fellini imagery.
    • "The Russian Flu" ends with Holling, Joel, and Elaine doing an extended Twin Peaks riff.
    • Joel's reaction to the "Dear John" Letter from his fiancee Elaine is straight out of The Graduate.
    • 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.
    • "War and Peace" borrows the singing Russian visitor subplot from Local Hero.
    • "Joel et Jules" ends with an homage to The Wizard of Oz.
    • One of Cicely's lesbian founders is named Rosalyn — after the town in Washington state where the show's exterior scenes were filmed.
  • Shown Their Work: One of the few shows to put consistent effort into a realistic portrayal of Native Americans, specifically Tlingits.
  • The Silent Bob: Marilyn.
    • Enrico Belotti, "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.
  • Some of My Best Friends Are X: Maurice tries to pull this on Bernard when he takes offense at being told, "You don't sound black." Unsurprisingly, it doesn't work too well.
  • Spaghetti and Gondolas: 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.
  • Spirit Advisor: One Who Waits
  • Spiritual Successor: to Local Hero, another Fish out of Water story with magical realist elements where an urban professional played by a Jewish actor is sent to a rural Quirky Town full of Eccentric Townsfolk.
  • The Stoic: Marilyn never betrays emotion.
  • 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 departure 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.
  • Time-Shifted Actor: Tara Subkoff plays 15-year-old version of Maggie in "The Letter".
  • Troll Bridge: in the magical realist sequence in "The Quest," when Fleischman leaves the show.
  • True Art Is Incomprehensible: In-universe, folks often react this way to Chris's various art exhibits. Often Chris himself doesn't even understand what he's building.
  • Tsundere: Maggie is definitely Type 1.
  • Twin Switch: In one episode, Joel Fleischman's twin brother Jules shows up in Cicely. Let's just say he's a bit more laid back than his brother. He gradually persuades his brother to switch places with him for a day, during which Hilarity Ensues on both ends. We've conveniently never heard of him before ( and as it turns out, neither has Joel, because it was All Just a Dream).
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: Aside from the pilot, all episodes had two, three or four plots.
  • Uncanny Valley: In-universe. A wax replica of Maurice has this effect on people, and it starts to become the butt of their jokes until Maurice decides he can't stand it any more.
  • Undignified Death: Rick, Maggie's boyfriend, is killed when a satellite falls from the sky and lands on him. It fuses with his body to the point that it can't be removed so a coffin has to be specially made to allow parts of the satellite to protrude from it. The sight of this causes the guests at his funeral to erupt with laughter while Maggie vainly reminds them that a man is dead.
  • Unfortunate Names: In-universe example: In one episode, Joel is listing strains of flu, and when he says "Russian flu", everyone immediately thinks the Soviets sent the flu across the Bering Strait to them and end of the Cold War was a hoax.
  • Universal-Adaptor Cast: 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.
  • Viking Funeral: Chris uses his trebuchet to give his old friend Tooley a metaphorical Viking funeral — one final Fling for the world's greatest party animal.
  • Visions of Another Self: The residents of 1909 Cicely in the Flashback 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 philosophical 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.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds:
  • Water Source Tampering: Maurice taps into an underground water source and starts bottling and selling the water. Everyone who drinks it begins displaying a number of Gender-Inverted Tropes.
  • 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.
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: All right, it's in Alaska. But fan discussions pointed out that there can not possibly be anywhere in the state with ALL the characteristics which have been indicated in-episode.
  • Wild Wilderness: Alaska!
  • 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".
    • You Do Not Want To Know: Marilyn's response when Joel asks what the tribal flu remedy "Hio Hio Ipsanio" is made of.