Northern Comfort

ca·​thar·​sis | \ kə-ˈthär-səs 

a: purification or purgation of the emotions (such as pity and fear) primarily through art

ba purification or purgation that brings about spiritual renewal or release from tension

Northern Exposure was an American television show that reached the pinnacle of intelligent and emotional TV making, yet instead of paving the way for others to follow, marked an end to cathartic shows on the small screen.

Catharsis and Comfort

The Show ran from 1990-1995, with a total of 6 seasons and 110 episodes. It featured a “fish out of water” arc story of a New York physician forced to work contractually in a remote, Alaskan town called Cicely. Nevertheless, the show managed to abandon this trope quickly and utilize the introduction of the small Alaskan town in order to focus more on the stories of its residents.

The audience was gradually introduced to a group of townsfolk, whose most common characteristic, I argue, was their lack of cynicism. This featured boldly in opposition to the New York doctor who was suddenly stranded in their midst. While on the one hand, the communal attitude of openness and simplicity allowed the physician to acclimate to his new way of living, it had also made viewers let down their own guards and allowed them to become immersed in the show’s overall wholesomeness. It had made watching the show a sarcasm-free experience. “Northern Exposure” created a space in time where dilemmas and queries where resolved in a mature, often enlightening way.

The show prominently featured episodes dealing with topics untouched by most TV shows, such as life and death, philosophy, man’s place in nature, anthropology, astronomy, art, and was not afraid to display knowledge in most of these. An overall quest for knowledge hovered mightily above many episodes. It was dispersed between the characters in direct relation to their personality. The local radio DJ would often cite, as explanations for human activity, an illuminating passage from Freud, Jung or other theoretical classics. The waitress could just as easily surprise customers by dishing out a valuable lesson from her life experience. It was a place where people were depicted as kind and willing to lend an ear, a hand, and some sound advice.

The main reason why I consider it comforting was that the show’s creators treated its characters, and its audience, as adults. The storylines presented far reaching quandaries and made viewers cope with their effects in a satisfying way. It expected people to be able to know right from wrong and accept a difficult solution to a problem if it turned out to be the correct course of action. It revealed characters as searchers, trying to figure out their place in the world:

And in it lies its comforting and cathartic effect, in my opinion. Northern Exposure was like an adult who tells you the truth, and does not coddle you with an answer you’d like to hear. It chose to dive into the complexities of troublesome and hard situations and emerge awakened by truth reached through experience. Catharsis, that purified feeling of emotions being released pleasantly and washed from the body, took place regularly in Northern Exposure episodes.

I have recently been rewatching the show with my wife after first seeing it around its original release date. The impact of just how good it is made me puzzle over why have no other show followed in its footsteps. The creators of “Northern Exposure”, Joshua Brand and John Falsey, were veteran television creators, who are responsible for shows like “St. Elsewhere” and “I’ll fly Away”. I would like to consider “Northern Exposure” as one of the last shows interested in offering its viewers a feeling of catharsis. My interest is in why haven’t shows since then displayed an interest in a cathartic experience and why, as it seems to me, they have in fact become increasingly more sarcastic and hollow.

Where’s my Catharsis?

Something has happened to American TV programming during the mid-90’s. The advent of the sit-com became undeniable. With the success of shows like “Seinfeld”, which emerged in 1989, the networks picked up on a goldmine in the form of 20 minute episode comedy that is easy to create and is filmed mostly on a studio set. Creators of shows, in turn, picked up on the simple formula of a jab-jab-punch type of script, with jokes interchanging every several seconds for a quick fix of enjoyment. The appearance of “Friends” in 1994, probably the most successful sitcom, cemented the power of the formula to make money for the networks.

I genuinely think that the need to cram as many quick punches in a short time span soon made writers forgo the idea of creating a narrative that had closure, in favor of more immediate, hard-hitting single lines. This in turn led to the gradual infiltration and takeover of screen time by one of the easiest forms of comedy, and an enemy of comfort – sarcasm.

Sarcasm is defined as: “a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or to give pain”, and as often using “ironic language that is usually directed against an individual.” The easiest comedy is brought about by simply pretending to say one thing but meaning the other – the definition of irony. The second easiest thing is using this device directly at someone, to make them the end of the joke for not understanding the true meaning behind the lie. Here’s a couple of lines from the pilot episode of “Seinfeld” which aired in 1989:

WAITRESS: Mister Seinfeld. [she pours coffee in his cup] Mister Costanza. [she wants to pour coffee, but George stops her]

GEORGE: Are, are you sure this is decaf? Where’s the orange indicator?

WAITRESS: It’s missing, I have to do it in my head: decaf left, regular right, decaf left, regular right…it’s very challenging work. [ironically]

The parenthetical directing remark which reads ‘ironically’ is in the original script. Easy laugh, doesn’t leave the audience with much, doesn’t offer any wisdom.

Whereas “Seinfeld” could still be gauged as attempting to form plots with satisfying resolutions, newer shows that arrived mid-90’s, such as “Friends”, “The Drew Carey Show”, and “Everybody Loves Raymond” grew heavily reliant on sarcasm as the oil for their joke-every-6-seconds engine. Ironic and sarcastic humor became second nature to most sitcoms, with the question becoming not if, but how much of it would serve as the comedic element of a show.

With sarcasm taking much of the airtime, the plots dwindled. Characters with seeming mutual love or respect for one another showed animosity, or simply displayed their affection by form of jabs. The relatability of characters crashed and many of them became flat and unrealistic for the sake of the joke. Sitcoms, in other words, were cartoons acted by real people. They were caricatures of life, with most dramatic plot lines only there as a way to roll the comedic ball a bit further. The laugh-track was not invented in the 90’s yet it symbolizes in essence what most 90’s hit shows aspired to get, an automatic and fleeting amusement.

I recall watching the “Drew Carey Show” as a kid and becoming enraged by its antiheroic take, taking over most of the show’s plotlines by the second season. With its protagonist displayed as nice but unfortunate, the show celebrated him getting jabbed at the expense of making every other character appear utterly vicious. The need for quick comedic punches has made the act of ribbing the only solid element of the show. Moreover, it made the watching experience an act of dismissal, since you had to abandon any feelings towards characters in order to enjoy what was happening on screen.

Yet, the difference between Northern Exposure and most sitcoms is not simply a difference between comedy and drama. ‘Northern’ featured many comedic moments, and indeed many sitcoms, mostly depicting families, featured plotlines that had dramatic elements. The main difference was the pace in which comedic and dramatic elements were allowed to unfold on the screen. While Northern Exposure drove both its dramatic and comedic prowess from a plot which unfolded neatly over 45 minutes, most sitcoms would stuff as many jokes as possible into their allotted 20 minutes. This time constraint would cause them, I claim, to decline any attempt of dealing with more profound issues, and indeed of offering any resolution to any real-world questions that viewers might have. The short time frame itself was enough to make a drama appear sped-up almost, like an old 18 frames per second movie, which would cause it to look comedic.

The sitcom was so confined in form that various shows looked molded like stencils of one another, with very little straying from conventions. In turn, this had led to extreme laziness among writers, who could learn the tricks of the trade and manufacture a show with little to no experience. I would like to suggest that the laziness with which sitcom writers occupied the screen lent itself to the scripting of many dramas to come. The common element was the lack of catharsis. The sarcasm of 90s sitcoms bled into more genres, mostly dramas, with the first ones emerging on networks like HBO and The FX Channel. Successful shows like “OZ” or “Nip/Tuck”, which straddled both sides of the early 2000’s displayed characters which offered no redemptive qualities, and no search for resolution. They were in some respects, cynical shows, which depicted many opportunities for catharsis, yet denied it systemically as a novel plot device. The sarcasm which was brought about by lazy sitcom writing has become a mode of dramatic portrayal.

There are several other reasons besides laziness, which have led to a hollowing out of the human element from TV shows. Culturally, the US has moved towards a more capitalist view of humanity, with the internet giving an extra boost to the idea of people as commodities. A growing alienation which is strongly felt today, was familiar territory in the early 90’s as well. Because of their scope, I chose not to focus on these elements, but mainly on the changing form which the sitcom has introduced into TV. A form that has all but done away with closure, with life lessons, and with catharsis.

Enters David Chase

David Chase is a formidable figure in American Television making. He has produced many TV shows, starting in the 1980’s with the detective drama “The Rockford Files”. He is best known as the creator of the successful “The Sopranos”. In the early 90’s Chase has produced Brand and Falsey’s “I’ll fly Away”, and following the fourth season of “Northern Exposure”, was called by the network to produce that as well. In actuality, Brand and Falsey have by then left the show, casting doubts on its remainder on the air for long.

Chase admitted in later years to disliking “Northern Exposure”. He had moved production closer south, and was there to handle the demands for a pay raise by the lead actor Rob Morrow, who already sought to leave the show for a carrier in movies. The resulting 5th and 6th seasons of ‘Northern’ – the show’s last – saw a significant deterioration of strength, with several episodes undermining previous plots and character traits. By the 6th season, Morrow has appeared only in half of the episodes, and his character was replaced by another physician, signaling the nearing end.

What David Chase lost was apparent in his hit “The Sopranos”. That show seemed the exact opposite of “Northern Exposure”. With its single, anti-hero lead and the celebration of mafia family culture, “The Sopranos” was themed mostly by greed and a sort of vapid motivation otherwise. With not much to identify with, the trials and tribulations of the head of the New Jersey Mafia family offered no emotional release, no catharsis for its viewers. Despite its many depictions of death and violence, “The Sopranos” taught its viewers close to nothing about mortality. Without empathy there can be no cathartic release. The success of “The Sopranos” signified a new direction in TV shows, with viewers proving they would gladly follow a plot and hero that did not offer them any emphatic experience.

The Catharsis Scale

Nowadays, most successful TV shows are more similar to “The Sopranos” than to “Northern Exposure”. I would argue that this is due to a kind of writing habit that is also apparent in many of today’s movies. A laziness in writing that is the result of a new form of consuming visual entertainment, that is binge-watching.

Yet what I find striking is that this habit forms, by way of copying and imitating, a new culture. People are more inclined to speak and behave in the manner displayed in the shows that they repeatedly watch. I claim that the sitcom, in its heyday at least, has engendered a type of conversing that requires throwing in punch lines every so often. The desire to occupy time with jokes is rooted in the automatic pace of the sitcom, resolving in an almost unconscious desire to hear a laugh track in real life.

As art imitates life, it nevertheless creates a frame for viewing life as well. What I have identified is a lack of release in television shows where there once was one. This change might indicate a growing pessimism, and indeed a sarcasm with which it has been replaced. Hit shows such as “Game of Thrones” offer an incredibly low ratio of catharsis versus a feeling of defilement, of dirtying of the mind.

It seems that popular media is now often at a race to disappoint, to dirty the mind, to offer the most unsettling and discomforting input. It denies us, the viewers, of comfort and instead relishes on creating more cynical and immediate sensations, such as frustration, rage and patronizing. Things which are the exact opposite of catharsis. I believe that the reason for this is quite simply laziness. It is easier to show the broken and the disbanded elements in everything, since they are readily available in isolated forms. A news outlet might relish in 24 hour coverage of mishaps appearing around the world, just like talking about a problem is much easier than offering a solution. With the internet turning the media into a personalized and incredibly simple to produce, narratives of indecision, of weakness and of denial are bound to emerge nowadays more than ever. Yet it is the thought out story, which picks up the pieces of reality to offer a helpful understanding of life, which feels more amiss now than before. A sense of release, of Catharsis, is what we are awaiting.

Sounds Good: How Units of Speech Command our Subconscious

I’m watching this lovely lecture by American Social Psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt, about “The Three Terrible Ideas Weakening Gen Z and Damaging Universities and Democracies“.[1] At the 27:35 minute mark he discusses the idea of ‘Anti-Fragility’, suggested by essayist Nassim Taleb, which states that exposure to potentially harmful things can actually build resilience and strength for those exact things in the future. 

As an example, Haidt recounts a now somewhat known experiment held by international scientists that surveyed nut allergies worldwide. The study revealed how in Israel, because of early exposure to a highly popular local nut-based snack, peanut allergies are drastically lower in comparison to other countries in the world. Being an Israeli, and a person interested in words, I was waiting to see if a theory of mine would become evident in Haidt’s next choice of words. And sure enough, it was – as Haidt continued to dignify the snack by uttering its name, “Bamba”.

Now, nothing in the lecture itself or in Haidt’s premise necessitated saying the name of the snack. “Bamba” is not a name familiar to most people who listened to the lecture, and doubtful whether they would search for it in stores as the immunity builder of choice for their own children. Nevertheless, there it was; that name, “Bamba”, hanging in the air.

The reason why Haidt was suddenly compelled to say the product’s name, I would argue, is found is the power of certain phonetic sounds. These sounds cast such a spell over us that we subconsciously crave them, both hearing them and also uttering them ourselves. And in today’s market-like atmosphere, many of the beings filling up the public space – from the products we buy to the politicians that we elect – are there because we subconsciously prefer the way their name sounds to us. That is, we subconsciously feel that we either like or dislike certain things based solely on their names, which is predicated on the impacts that their sound imprint upon us.

The Power of Plosives

The Bilabial plosives, the consonants “p” “b” and “m”, are some of the earliest sounds that we make as babies. They are in our first mumbles and words, like “mamma”, “baba” etc. And indeed, the inspiration for the name “Bamba” was the combination of sounds that babies make when they first make sounds. Bilabial plosives are created by pressing both lips together and releasing air. I have found that people everywhere are drawn to utter “p”, “b” and “m” consonants and to repeat them as much as possible. Jonathan Haidt’s example is just one of many. Another prominent example is the recurring of the word “baby” in pop songs.

[source: fastcompany.com]

The word “baby” – itself loaded with bilabial plosives – is one of the most popular words in western culture, particularly in pop and rock songs. In this chart, recurring words were counted from “every song on Billboard’s Year-End Hot 100 list since 1960”. The word “baby” repeatedly comes up in many similar word-recurrence-in-songs-projects as suspiciously popular, usually coming right after the most fundamental building blocks of the vocabulary, such as “I”, “You”, “The” and the likes. So are we obsessed with our children and like to sing about them? Obviously not. “Baby” has become synonymous with “loved one” and a term of affection for its being a perfect bilabial-plosive word.

Saying “b” and “p” repeatedly makes us mimic a certain facial expression. It requires us to pucker up, much like kissing a loved one, or even sucking. And why not – we are mammals and one of the first expressions our mouths take part in is the sucking of milk for the sake of feeding. Could it be that bilabial plosives are reminding us of their preceding function, of nourishing and being close to warmth and affection?

This would explain the recurrence of “b” and “p” sounds in words and name assigned both to loved ones and to food. At the top of this list of “60 romantic names for your sweetheart” we can see such terms as “Pookie”, “Pumpkin”, “Lamb Chop”, “Muffin”, “Precious”,  “Baby Doll”, “Sweetie Pie”, “Smootchie”, etc. It’s noticeable how terms for food intertwine here with the loving tags of endearment. The choice to assign bilabial consonant to words that signify things we love is not accidental, but was ingrained in our minds by cultural repetition as well as by our linking them to pleasurable gestures of eating, drinking and kissing. So “baby”, much like “Bamba” got to be this popular not just on by virtue of its content, or its taste, but also because saying it feels good. We will see how advertisers have learned this trick quite early on, and from them it had spread to other aspects of the public sphere, dictating much of our attitudes toward people and not just products or pop songs.

Nothing wrong with Diphthong

Before venturing to see how the bilabial plosives – the “p”, “b” and “m” – rule our psyches, it would be beneficial to look at another more subtle set of sounds that sway our opinion. These are the diphthongs, or “double-sounds”. Whereas the bilabial plosives are consonants, Diphthongs are the appearance of two vowel sounds within the same syllable. The word “no” has us sounding both an “O” sound and a “u” sound consecutively. The words “make” has a diphthong of the sound “A” and “I” consecutively.  The reason that diphthongs are important, I would argue, is that they can create the impression of something exciting and even astonishing taking place. They are repeatedly used in advertising to create the sense of awe, making us unconsciously succumb to them as indeed carrying such meaning.

A disclaimer is needed here – I work in marketing, writing on weekdays for a local internet website where much of job involves copywriting for products. The work process allows me to test various phrases and word choices for their attractiveness and rates of motivating people to actual purchases (what is known as Click Through Rate – or CTR). After a year and a half of this I have come up with an idea of some words that appeal to people everlastingly. I am obviously not the first to notice this, as much of the advertising industry is aware of the power of phrases and words for increasing sales. David Ogilvy, who was known as the “father of advertising” has famously come up with a list of 20 most influential words that have the power to convert readers and listeners and get them on board buying a product. It was in my own copywriting and surveying some of the classic “great words” on such advertising lists, that I have noticed the recurrence of diphthongs. Here is Ogilvy’s list of words:

Ogilvy’s 20 most influential words. [source: slideshare.net]

Many of the words on this list contain diphthongs. Their effect, I believe, is causing us to open our mouths for longer periods of time in order to express the doubly voweled syllable. This creates an expression of amazement, which has us mimicking the sense that the words want to convey – like “wow”, “amazing” and “sensational”, which all have diphthongs.  Such words can be used, and at times are used, to manipulate and sway our opinions.  So while bilabial plosives are endearing and create intimacy, diphthongs are a source for astounding, creating the “wow” factor.

After first noticing this, I started discovering the recurrence of these chosen sounds more and more, and to discover their effects in my own copywriting efforts. I found that I have motivated people more than ever before to engage with the content I was creating, and indeed to buy more of my company’s products. It became apparent to me that the subliminal power of sounds is potent and real.

The Study and Manipulation of Sound

The linguistic approach that attempts to speculate and define the effects of different sounds is called “Sound Symbolism”.  Several researchers have given their insights as to how various utterances create certain feelings and thoughts. They often describe these feelings on spectrums, such as “bright to dark”, or “happy to sad”. The underlying idea in Sound Symbolism, that certain sounds carry meaning in and of themselves regardless of the context of the word, is problematic and refutable. Nevertheless, many scholars who promulgated it, such as Otto Jespersen, have made clear achievements in categorizing the way in which we habitually classify similar meanings for words by their similar sound.

In the advertising world, the rise of the Madison Avenue marketers and their research and focus groups led to some discoveries in regards to particular words and sounds that trigger particular responses from listeners. They managed to survey hundreds and thousands of people in order to learn which words were considered “fortunate” or “unfortunate” in terms of their connotations and sounds.[2] Motivated by money and by idea that everything can be monetized, the advertising world soon lent its many conclusions about preferable sounding words to the sphere of politics. The desire to control the public using the right words has turned on the power hungry to believing, and perhaps rightly so, that they could manufacture consent. This is what Vance Packard termed “The Engineered Yes”.

While it comes as no surprise that politicians try their best in utilizing clever slogans and phrases for their own benefits, the impact of sound symbolism on the fate of elections seems to be at play beyond the control of consultants and statesmen. It is still very much rampant, especially in the outcome of recent elections throughout parts of the world. I would argue that the repeated electing of my homeland Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, AKA “Bibi” for his 5th term is paved by the power of his plosive nickname. In Israel, speaking about a particular political party dropped to a minimum in recent years, with most conversations gravitating around this one name. While his political terms are characterized mostly by inaction, the name has been mentioned so much by itself to almost suggest that the person behind the name was in fact responsible for most things happening within the country.   

Around the world, other names can be presented as evidence. Giuseppe Piero Grillo, AKA “Beppe”, the Italian comedian turned politician is another candidate for plosive advancement. And in the US, one needs to look only a little far back to be reminded of another single word president that took the reins much due to his name and not his actions. This fact was spotted by the writers of the John Oliver show “Last Week Tonight”, who recognized the “magical word” that diverted people’s attention from the nature of the man carrying it.

Spot the diphthongs in this slogan. [source: freep.net]

The danger in using and overusing words is the habits which they create. We use language to communicate, and thus assume that is a tool for our expression. Yet more often than we care to think, the language we take part in is already chosen for us. The impact of specific sounds can get us to feel an inner connection. It is easy to shrug off the risks of advertising, since like language, it is also around all the time. Yet we now live in a time of unprecedented sensory stimulation – with information constantly chucked at us from every venue. This causes us to desensitize and to sift through the info at the greatest speeds. We create hasty judgments just to clear up the mental space to allow more information to reach us.

In such a world, where perhaps advertisements have already habituated western man, we often choose what sounds good to us. We see our political candidates as if they were products on a long supermarket shelf of ideas and preferences. We decide to buy into their promises based on a glimpse at their shiny package, their snippets of a few seconds broadcasted on the daily news – their jingle no doubt – and their brand name. If reality becomes commercialized and commodified, it is then a good idea to learn the various manipulations of the marketing world to see how we become duped. Sounds are a key player in habituating our ears to buy into dishonesties and to become consenting. Becoming aware of how susceptible we are to sounds is a good way to reclaim our individuality and realize what we truly believe and think, without the solicitations of sound.


[1] Those ideas are, to restate Haidt: 1. What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; 2. Always trust your feelings; 3. Life is a battle between evil people and good people.

[2]  See Packard, Vance. The Hidden Persuaders, 1957.