Finally! Early-’90s CBS series Northern Exposure has long been white whale for TV fans in the streaming era. After years of fans wondering if the show would ever hit the digital age, Amazon Prime Video quietly added all six seasons to its service at the start of 2024.
If you’re unfamiliar with the series, it stars Rob Morrow as Joel Fleischman, a born-and-raised New Yorker and recent medical school graduate who is forced to movie to Cicely, Alaska (pop. 815) as the town doctor in order to fulfill his obligation after Alaska paid for his medical education. There he meets Cicely’s quirky residents, including high-cultured former astronaut Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin) who owns much of the town, local pilot Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner) who has a will-they-or-won’t-they relationship with Joel, local radio DJ Chris Stevens (John Corbett) who does more talking than playing music, doctor’s office receptionist Marilyn (Eliane Miles), aspiring filmmaker Ed Chigliak (Darren E. Burrows), general store owner Ruth-Anne (Peg Phillips) and Holling Vincoeur (John Cullum) who owns the local bar/tavern, The Brick, and his much younger wife, Shelly (Cynthia Geary).
Created by Joshua Brand and John Falsey (St. Elsewhere, I’ll Fly Away), Northern Exposure was a mid-season replacement for CBS in early 1990 and felt like a show that followed the success of Twin Peaks when other networks were looking to cash in on “quirk,” which it has in spades. Northern Exposure was also much friendlier than Twin Peaks, less overtly weird and was an instant hit, standing out from almost everything else on network television at the time. It was funny and heartfelt and surprising and it would be hard to imagine a show like Gilmore Girls existing without Northern Exposure paving the way.
Northern Exposure was also one of the first network shows to include outside-the-mainstream cultural references, especially music (but also film, literature, art and food). One episode guest-starred Adam Ant as a famous rock star, and another included a conversation about German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten. The soundtrack included everything from The Ramones to Hank Williams, Brian Eno, Julee Cruise, Django Reinhardt, Dwight Yoakam, Sinead O’Connor, Vangelis, Talking Heads, The B-52’s, and more.
The first two seasons of Northern Exposure hold up especially well, but the rest of series is still worth watching, at least up until the final season when creators Brand and Falsey left the series and were replaced by David Chase (who would go on to create The Sopranos three years later), and Morrow left too, who was replaced by a new doctor played by comedian Paul Provenza. The magic wasn’t quite there after that point. But until then, Northern Exposure was one of the best, and best-written, most progressive series on television, and is really worth revisiting, or watching for the first time.
One downside, though, is the series’ amazing soundtrack existed before there were clauses for home video, let alone streaming. The mid-2000s DVD replaced many of the songs that were originally in the show with generic temp-track music, but the version on Prime Video seems to have about 80% of the original songs back in there, which is pretty good! The video better than those DVDs as well and after years and years of the show not being available anywhere, it’s good to having in in as good a shape as it is.