ca·thar·sis | \ kə-ˈthär-səs
a: purification or purgation of the emotions (such as pity and fear) primarily through art
b: a 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.