"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, check. Subtle blend of comedy and drama, check. Beloved by a devoted fanbase and critics, check.) 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.
The 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.
- Marilyn Whirlwind, the utterly laconic, native Alaskan receptionist who is the perfect foil to all Fleischman's Woody Allenesque whining.
- Chris "in the Morning" Stevens, the philosophic DJ (and former JD) at the local radio station.
- Ed Chigliak, a native Alaskan with an affable lack of tact and an Encyclopaedic Knowledge of film.
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.
- All Bikers Are Hells Angels: Played for Laughs. Ruth-Anne briefly takes up with some bikers who turn out to have normal, mundane lives.
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Joel and Maggie actually came to blows once.
- Bishounen: Ed, just... Ed. And Chris in the Morning, a rare scruffy version of this type.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: "War and Peace" has Marilyn explicitly change the scene.
- California Doubling: Alaska, I mean um, Washington state, sure is beautiful.
- 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, ahem, cleaner-looking men and schedules an appointment with Dr Fleischman. He soon has second thoughts.
- Circumcision Angst: Holling in the Very Special Episode above.
- The City vs. the Country: The basic premise.
- Commedia dell'Arte Troupe
- 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.
- "Dear John" Letter: Joel gets one of these in Season 2's premiere "Goodbye to All That".
- 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 Sequence: The entire show was made of these.
- In "What I Did for Love", Maggie repeatedly dreams she's playing Clue 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.
- 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.
- Eccentric Townsfolk: Yes, Mayberry had these, but this show and Local Hero recreated this trope on television.
- Endless Daytime: One episode takes place during the Midnight Sun. People go a little crazy. Er.
- Fish Out of Water: Rob Morrow played this to the hilt.
- Going Native: Joel in Season 6.
- The Great Politics Mess-Up: Since you can see Russia from their houses, yes, this is mentioned occasionally.
- 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.
- Hollywood Atheist: Averted hard 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.
- Innocent Blue Eyes: Ed, as part of his total Bishounen look.
- Insult to Rocks: At one point, Maggie decides that calling Joel a moron would be "an insult to morons".
- 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.
- Mistaken for Gay: This happens to Maurice when he sells a home to a gay couple, due to his of love cooking and showtunes. A scene follows where he discusses this with Chris, and it is loaded with Have I Mentioned I Am Heterosexual Today?
- Noodle Incident: Maggie's first boyfriend was apparently killed by potato salad.
- Not-So-Imaginary Friend: Adam, originally.
- Magical Native American: Ed in later seasons.
- Magic Realism and the Sci Fi Ghetto: Dream sequences.
- A Man Is Not a Virgin: Ed plays this out and lampshades it later.
- May-December Romance: Holling and Shelly. Funnily enough, he worries in one episode that he might outlive her.
- Meaningful Name: Holling Vincoeur runs the local bar; his surname is French for wine-heart, although nobody pronounces it very Frenchly.
- Misblamed: In-universe example: Joel takes offense to being called "white" in the Thanksgiving episode.
- Otaku: Ed. More attractive than most, and less socially awkward, but he still gets into film themes.
- Plot Parallel: Most episodes.
- The Quiet One: Marilyn. Especially in situations where Joel would find it helpful for her to be more verbose.
- Quirky Town
- 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
- Salt and Pepper: Chris and Bernard, a white guy/black guy pair of half-brothers who are more or less exactly the same person.
- 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.
- Spirit Advisor: One Who Waits
- Straw Feminist: Maggie started out as a strong, independent woman, but she degenerated in later seasons into a caricature.
- 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.
- 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.
- Terra Deforming: Maurice Minnifield sees Alaska as just a huge opportunity for business.
- Troll Bridge: In the magical realist sequence in "The Quest", when Fleischman leaves the show.
- Tsundere: Maggie is definitely Type 1.
- Two Lines, No Waiting: Aside from the pilot, all episodes had two, three or four plots.
- Unfortunate Implications: 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 The Great Politics Mess-Up was a hoax.
- Vitriolic Best Buds: Maurice and Holling, frequently over Shelly.
- 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 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.
- Welcome Episode: Joel gets an unexpected and confusing welcome to Alaska in the pilot.
- Wild Wilderness: Alaska!