Review of Northern Exposure: A Cultural History by Michael Samuel

Samuel, M. (2021). Northern Exposure: A Cultural History. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 208 pages, Hardcover, $38.00

Catherine Reagan Palmore-King
Richmond, VA, USA

In his book, Northern Exposure: A Cultural History, Michael Samuel explores the television series Northern Exposure, which aired from 1990 to 1995 and significantly impacted contemporary television. Today the show is considered a cult classic by many fans. Similar to the writing of the show, Samuel’s narrative was innovative in its storytelling style, blending elements of comedy, drama, and magical realism to create a unique reading experience.

Samuel, a film and television studies lecturer at the University of Bristol, starts the book by providing an overview of the show. The series was set in the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska, and followed the adventures of Dr. Joel Fleischman, a New York doctor sent to the town as part of his scholarship agreement. The show focused on Cicely’s eclectic residents, as well as their interactions with Joel, and often dealt with themes of community, friendship, and self-discovery. He explains how Northern Exposure received acclaim for its quirky and unconventional storytelling approach, solid writing style, character development, and stunning cinematography. The show’s success helped pave the way for other innovative and offbeat dramas, such as “Twin Peaks,” which also blended elements of comedy and drama.

The production of the series occurred when television was undergoing significant changes, with a growing number of cable channels and the advent of new technologies that allowed for more diverse and innovative programming. Northern Exposure was part of a wave of new and unconventional dramas that emerged during this time. Samuel seamlessly shares references from the past, comparing these to contemporary television as he explains how the show “not only had a profound influence on the subgenre of the small-town dramedy but also helped pioneer the television subcategory that is ‘quirky television’” (Samuel, 2021, p. 86). While the show had a profound impact during its run, Samuel ascertains that in hindsight, Northern Exposure remains an influential and beloved series, and its cultural impact can still be felt in contemporary television. The show’s innovative approach to storytelling and representation of diversity on-screen set the stage for numerous subsequent unconventional and character-driven dramas that have become popular in recent years.

In terms of its cultural impact, what struck me the most was how Northern Exposure has played a significant role in increasing its representation of diversity on screen, both in terms of its casting and its themes. The author explains how Northern Exposure received praise for this representation of diversity. In point of fact, the show explored the experiences of Native Americans, LGBTQ+ individuals, and other minority characters while dealing with themes of cultural identity and tolerance. Samuel reminds the reader that the show was also known for depicting life in Alaska and exploring the state’s unique cultural and natural landscape in a light not previously portrayed by mainstream media.

For instance, Samuel reintroduces the readers to one of the main characters, Marilyn Whirlwind, a Native American woman who was a critical figure in the town of Cicely and served as a bridge between different cultures. Her character explored themes of cultural identity, tradition, and spirituality and provided a unique perspective on life in Alaska. In addition, the show also featured storylines and characters that highlighted issues related to LGBTQ+ rights, which was relatively rare for its time. For example, Samuel points to one of the main characters, Ron, a gay man whose community accepted and embraced him. In this way, regarding its representation of diversity on screen, Northern Exposure was ahead of its time. It helped to broaden the scope of what many considered an acceptable subject matter for television and paved the way for other programs to explore the experiences of diverse communities and promote tolerance and understanding.

While Samuel clearly falls into the category of a super-fan when it comes to Northern Exposure, he does an excellent job of balancing his admiration with a thoughtful critique. He writes: “While Northern Exposure is pioneering in a myriad of ways—for its depictions of Alaskan Native culture on-screen; for its daring to foreground debates about gender, race, and sex in America; and for its diverse cast (at least more diverse than a lot of series, then and now, occupying the prime-time slot)—one has to acknowledge some of the ways in which the series has aged badly” (Samuel, 2021, pp. 89-90). With the same passion he champions the series, the author also highlights the sexism present in the show as well as other problematic aspects that, when viewed through a modern lens, might cause viewers to cringe. This balance transforms the book from a fan’s love letter into a reflective scholarly piece.

This book will appeal to cult fans of the show along with those who may never have watched it because Samuel’s comedic tone, complemented by his scholarly analysis, provides valuable insight into the cultural impact of Northern Exposure’s on contemporary television. However, due to the many specific episodic references, I suggest acquiring some prior knowledge of the show before committing to a complete read-through. The narrative displays a good balance of action and slower moments that will satisfy super fans and history buffs alike. Clear chapter breaks help keep the reader engaged while providing a structure whereby the book is easy to follow. Samuel’s word choice effectively creates a nostalgic mood as he guides the reader through a reliving of the series with additions of behind-the-scenes knowledge that richly color the retelling of the viewing experience. Through a combination of personal antidotes, critical theory, and sketches, this book celebrates this period of television history in an approachable and poignant way.

Readers can purchase Northern Exposure: A Cultural History directly from Rowman & Littlefield and also from many national and independent booksellers and online retailers.

Author Bio: 

Catherine Reagan Palmore-King, Ed.D., is a graduate of Baylor University’s Learning and Organizational Change doctoral program. Her dissertation explored the role the fine arts play in university students’ development of 21st-century skills. She also received an M.S. in Strategic Design and Management from Parsons School of Design, a B.A. in Theatre Arts from Virginia Tech, and a Women in Leadership certificate from Cornell University. Her research interests include interdisciplinary arts integration, design thinking, and visual culture.

Published online March 2023