“… A place. A radiant, many-layered, slightly magical place, as achingly real and yet just out-of-reach as a dream you start to forget as soon as you wake up. A place set off in glorious isolation from the rest of the world, but urgently alive with its own rules. its own memories, its own secrets. “
That’s how Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic Ron Powers describes the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska as depicted in the TV series Northern Exposure. It describes it perfectly.
A few days ago I wrote a post about a breathtaking scene from Northern Exposure. Afterwards I realised there’s so much more to tell about this show.
In the last few weeks I’ve been going to Cicely on my TV screen every night. I’m working my way through the entire 6 seasons of this unique show that spanned from 1990 to 1995.
Back then, when I first watched it in my 20’s, I was enchanted. I loved the show, but I don’t think I fully appreciated it. I didn’t analyse it then as I do now in my 40’s. Now I’m loving it with my head too – the depth of the themes, the layers of the stories, the fusion of the characters. Now I appreciate the genius.
Why do I love it so much? It was eclectic, yet tender. It was intelligent, yet funny. It pondered death, yet celebrated life. It was bizarre and profound and vibrant all at once. At any time a moose could walk across the road, an ill wind could blow, a dream sequence could start, or a carnival could walk into town. One of the most memorable scenes for me is this one, a symbolic flinging of a piano.
But the true reason I love this show is because of that town. That utopian community. A town where everyone is free to be themselves, who come together like family, and who share the meaningful details of existence. The characters genuinely warm to each other. They live and let live. It makes all of us looking into their world feel like we are accepted too. Nomads and eccentric folk from all over the planet have a place to belong! We belong!
It stood apart from other shows at the time because it was filmed away from Hollywood, in the blissfully isolated town of Roslyn, Washington. Alaska it was not, but surprisingly this snowy coal mining town in the Washington forest made it so believable.
About 16 years ago I visited Roslyn. It was a spontaneous and brief visit. I was young and not thinking of how much I needed to savour the once-in-a-lifetime experience. (I was a guest of someone – which limited time and opportunity). If I go back again – and I secretly wish I could – I would explore it for days. I would take so many more photos. So many more. But I am grateful that I got a taste of it. I treasure these handful of photos so much. (If you’re a fan you’ll recognise a few of these landmarks).
In my nightly viewing I’m up to season 5. I’m starting to feel the ache of the end. The sixth and final season was a controversial one, as the show dwindled gracefully to strange finish. And yet the final episode – from memory – revived the old magic again.
The final scene is unforgettably bittersweet. The townspeople go about their celebration of life. Closing up shops, slow-dancing in their living rooms, saying good-night, pulling down shades. All as the heart-stirring voice of Iris De Ment sings ‘Our Town’. Never could there be a more perfect song for a more perfect ending to a more perfect show of television.
“But I can see the sun’s settin’ fast,
And just like they say, nothing good ever lasts.
Well go on, I gotta kiss you goodbye,
But I’ll hold to my lover,
‘Cause my heart’s ’bout to die.
Go on now and say goodbye to my town, to my town.
I can see the sun has gone down on my town, on my town,
And just like the song, nothing as good as Northern Exposure ever lasts. That’s the beauty of it. It stands as a magical moment in time. It’s up to us to imagine how life goes on.
Beyond the Northern Exposure fantasy, life goes on for us too. Sometimes life can be busy, mundane or painful but we can still delight in the idyll. Sometimes we need a fantasy to remind us how to live. To slow down. To celebrate the details. To ponder the meaning. To value friendships. To find a place to belong.
* All other images belong to me.