Northern Exposure through the red state/blue state lens

January 31, 2022

Here’s a game I play whenever I watch a television show or movie: First, can you clearly identify the political affiliations of the characters? Second, does identifying their politics have any bearing on the meaning of the show?

I thought about this a lot in recent months while I went through the complete series of Northern Exposure, which I believe sits in a rarely-occupied space in American drama: it depicts politically-conservative Americans sympathetically, gives them complex and nuanced lives, and was critically-acclaimed.

Not everyone in Cicely, Alaska, matches up to what the early-1990s political context or our present political context would consider a conservative — most notably Maggie, who describes herself as a feminist and is clearly written to embody mainstream idealistic liberalism (contra the actress who played her, Janine Turner). But almost everyone else is written as a flavor of libertarian or Republican or political indifference.

Maurice would definitely be MAGA if he survived to 2016; he was a bigoted asshole in 1990, and most invested in the notion of his personal superiority to others. Part of what makes the show great, though, is that even though everyone in town sees Maurice as an asshole, and some are openly hostile to his plans for further developing the town, they are also generous with him to a degree that isn’t explained by fear that he’ll use his wealth against them, time and again offering their friendship.

But more interestingly, the show manages to humanize him without softening how much of an asshole he is. He’s an asshole to Ron and Eric, the gay couple who run the bed and breakfast whom he considers deviants. He’s an asshole to his Korean son because he doesn’t understand his son’s form of masculinity. He’s an asshole to Holling, who was his best friend for decades. And by the end of the show, he’s still that asshole, but we know he wants to love and be loved, especially when it comes to Barbara. We know he’s capable of deep hurt, as when he and Holling haul their friend Bill’s body to the wilderness for burial. And, sometimes, we know he’s capable of accepting help, as when he hands out his prized orchids in order that they might live after his furnace blows out.

Placing other denizens of and visitors to Cicely on the political spectrum isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s not because they don’t explain what they believe. Ruth Anne and Chris explicitly talk about their small-government positions while they’re on town council in a later episode, and they’re also fiercely independent people who have visceral reactions to other people telling them what to do. Holling is a small business owner and an avid outdoorsman who, similarly, made his way to Alaska from Quebec in order to be his own man and be left alone by authorities. Shelly is a classic white Republican woman who is mostly indifferent to politics, but would totally vote along with Holling. Ed and Marilyn are Democratic-adjacent in that they’re younger, people of color, and view the world through a more collective lens than individualist. But Marilyn is so locally-focused she likely doesn’t identify with either national political party, and though Ed interacts with and admires popular cosmopolitan filmmakers, his arc on the show is coming to realize that, at heart, he’s so attached to Cicely that he’ll probably stay and that’s okay. Even Ron and Eric, who moved from California to Alaska, don’t map to obvious political ideologies: they’re small business owners and military veterans who tell Maurice he’s less of a man for accepting that his son wished to marry a woman related to a North Korean military figure.

Finally, there’s Joel, the doctor from New York who starts out as the protagonist, but over the course of the series becomes a “first among equals” member of the ensemble. Perhaps in service of pitting him against Maggie, Joel is a self-described Republican from the Upper West Side, and he’s proud of going against the cultural tide and not becoming just another left-leaning Jewish Democrat like almost everyone else he knew growing up (contra the actor who played him, Rob Morrow).

Northern Exposure is a very good show, at times brilliant, in part precisely because all of these people confound Joel, the audience surrogate, in every way, at every turn, and yet they are all lovable in their own ways — even Maurice. Joel feels lost not just because he is physically and culturally as far away from home as he can be, but because the people of Cicely have confounding value systems: At once, they are individualists, insist upon the superiority of living in a tightly-knit town, welcoming of outsiders, resistant to change, accepting of tribal factionalism, staunch capitalists (the show portrays communists as naive fools), and fully dependent upon each other.

None of this is necessarily contradictory, and I tend to think it does a good job reflecting how most Americans live their political beliefs and conceive of their politics. To use Maurice as an example again, because he’s probably the most extremely Republican guy in the show, his political beliefs are straightforwardly despicable and harmful, the show makes him a gruff, angry, and often bewildered pre-boomer, and at the same time he’s capable of great kindness. He goes about his day harboring these beliefs and acting upon them, and everyone just kind of includes it in the overall calculation of whether it’s worth it to stay in his orbit.

All that’s to say that Northern Exposure presents itself as a show about quirky people in a quirky town far from where the vast majority of its audience lives, and so it’s tempting for that audience to other the characters, just like Joel does. However, the little magic trick the show turns — when it’s at its best — is bringing Joel along such that, gradually, he realizes his reasons for disliking all these people and this town were bullshit. Of course he was always destined to return to New York, but, tautologically, he thinks he loves New York and hates Cicely because he is a New Yorker. By the end, he gives himself permission to love Alaska — and Maggie — for what and who they are, and asks the same of Maggie, which puts him in a space where he can feel right about going home. Ultimately, he sends Maggie a postcard which says “New York is a state of mind”, which I take to be a sort of apology, that he now knows he could have been fully himself in Cicely without all the angst.

Therefore, the characters’ political beliefs are a core part of the show’s storytelling. Joel and the audience have to learn that these characters are mostly conservative or libertarian, and to get the most out of the art the show had to challenge its liberal big-city audience to love these characters, too — which strong ratings and multiple Emmy nominations attest they did.

I wrote above I think this is rare. Consider some other relatively recent movies and shows with political valence:

+ Brooklyn 99 is one that I enjoyed watching so long as I didn’t think too hard about the main characters’ career choices. It was explicitly about imagining a group of “good liberal cops” who fully embraced mainstream liberal ideas about diversity and acceptance, but it stumbled almost every time it went to a “very special moment” of sincerity because, until the final season, it didn’t really give its main characters strong challenges to their belief that the NYPD could be a force for good. It’s hard for me to watch today without thinking about how much more fruitful those themes might be had it taken place in a different workplace like, say, a post office.

+ I think my buddy Ben is correct that every regular or recurring character in The Simpsons is a potential Trump voter, except Lisa, and I’m pretty sure that’s intentional. Ben’s main argument at the time was that Donald Trump’s appeal as a presidential candidate was much broader than Hillary backers were willing to admit because Trump’s values — being on TV is good and desirable, being a rich person who fucks over other people is the epitome of life — are shared by far more Americans than said Hillary backers realized, as demonstrated by how Springfield was loaded with potential MAGA types.

+ Friday Night Lights is the other main network show I’ve watched, along with Northern Exposure, to hit my trifecta of depicting politically-conservative Americans sympathetically, giving them complex and nuanced lives, and being critically-acclaimed. It never got good ratings, and may have been better-served on cable, but it turns the same magic trick Northern Exposure does of making elements of rural and semi-rural conservative culture romantic for urban liberals without patronizing, and making the conservative values of its characters central to what makes them sympathetic. (If I may indulge in a little more fanfic, perhaps Tami Taylor would be disgusted by Trump, but the only major character who, surely, wouldn’t be MAGA is Vince.)

+ A few years back, I wrote a piece using Phil Funnie from Doug to try and work through my feelings about MAGA.

+ Chuck Klosterman published a piece on Grantland in 2011 about how Breaking Bad handles morality that I remember at least once every couple weeks. In particular, I can’t stop thinking about his assertion that one’s appreciation for The Wire corresponds with one’s predisposition to agree with David Simon’s political point of view.

(Photo: "Roslyn Cafe" by Dave Sizer. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)