The Definitive Ranking of Twin Peaks Rip-Offs, Part 1: Northern Exposure

Like all rational people we here at The Flyover believe Twin Peaks to the single greatest work of art in the history of mankind, not least of which because David Lynch and Mark Frost’s surreal small town murder mystery (due for a Showtime revival in 2016) is set in a vibrant and distinct locale that is not New York or Los Angeles. The series’ influence is apparent in virtually every great show oft-referenced in “Golden Age of Television” think pieces littering the internet, but plenty of others have written about that already. What we’re concerned about here is a sincerer indicator of canonization: imitation. In this series of posts we’ll be examining the many Twin Peaks rip-offs, across all media, that appeared in the groundbreaking show’s wake, eventually to be compiled into one definitive ranking.

Please note that the term “rip-off” is used (for the most part) affectionately, so don’t get your panties (or cherry stem) in a twist. Make your own suggestions or tell us how wrong or right you think we are in the comments if you feel like it.

Northern Exposure

NORTHERN EXPOSURE (CBS TV series, 1990-1995)

It might be unfair to call Northern Exposure a rip-off, but only insofar as it’s unfair to call anything a rip-off. And anyway, they both feature waitress characters named Shelly. Northern Exposure aired its first season in the summer of 1990, airing a couple months after Twin Peaks’ sensational season one finale. They were probably developed around the same time, but the Twin Peaks pilot floated around Hollywood for a long time before it finally aired, so it’s definitely plausible it had an influence on this CBS fish-out-of-water dramedy about a pernickety New York doctor, Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow), who must practice in the quirky Alaska town of Cicely to repay a student loan. Joel is put upon weekly by an eccentric cast of characters, including: millionaire former astronaut Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin); philosophizing disc jockey Chris Stevens (John Corbett), whose clear-eyed interest in spiritualism and metaphysics is not far removed from Agent Cooper’s; a pilot named Maggie (Janine Turner, a noted Tea Partier who recently starred in a commercial for dry eye medication) who believes herself cursed, owing to the random deaths of each and every one of her ex-boyfriends; naïve aspiring filmmaker Ed Chigliak (Darren E. Burrows); quasi-immortal bartender Holling Vincoeur (John Cullum); et al.

The “quirky small town” show is a TV genre in and of itself, probably stretching back as far as The Andy Griffith Show and as far forward as Parks and Recreation, but Northern Exposure’s Peaks rip-offiness is most apparent in its brazen surrealism, with various episodes revolving around unseen Indian spirits, Jungian dream states, reincarnation, nature’s deteriorative effect on the townspeople’s sanity, references to the work of Kafka, the Bigfoot myth, etc. One standout season 2 episode, “War and Peace,” is well known for breaking the fourth wall; before a bizarre Tolstoy-esque duel between patriotic ubermensch Maurice and visiting Russian Nikolai Ivanovich Appollonov can commence, the characters turn to the camera, discuss the implausibility of the script, and move onto the next scene. Another episode, “Jules et Joel,” borrows Twin Peaks’ predilection for doppelgangers with the appearance of Joel’s heretofore-unmentioned evil twin brother, Jules.

However, compared to Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure’s surrealism strikes me as somewhat diffident. The latter episode, for instance, is undercut by a disappointing “it was all a dream” resolution, and the fourth wall breaking in “War and Peace” is more impressive for its unexpectedness than its cleverness.

If the similarities weren’t enough, a first season episode includes this Peaks parody/homage. It’s fun, but also a bit reactionary. Joel and friends stand on-location in view of the falls and the Great Northern (in Snoqualmie, WA, an hour or two from where Exposure was filmed) while a Julee Cruise song plays, making ham-handed references to cherry pie and the log lady, spouting bits of superficial dorm-room-level philosophy. It’s like they (both the characters and producers) don’t really get it, like the show feels threatened by the comparisons. It’s more dismissive than affectionate and so probably played well to aging CBS viewers turned off by what they interpreted as Peaks’ weirdness for weirdness’s sake.

(Note that the Hungarian dialogue is not a surreal Lynchian touch. Rather, this dubbed version was all I could find.)

I do like Northern Exposure, though. It seems mostly forgotten now, probably at least partially because it’s not available to stream anywhere (although it is available on DVD). Though the writing was adventurous, innovative, and occasionally brilliant, the series plays a little quaint to modern eyes because it almost entirely eschews serialization. Joel’s on-again-off-again flirtation with Maggie is for most of the series bizarrely undeveloped; they’ll kiss passionately in one episode, only to act in the next like they’ve barely even met. This did, however, make the show appropriate for syndication, and in the mid-to-late ’90s I’m pretty sure ninety-five percent of A&E’s daytime programming consisted of Northern Exposure reruns.

Bonus points for being filmed not on location in Alaska but at least far outside of the studios of Los Angeles in Roslyn, Washington. I visited Roslyn with my family in 2004. Chris In The Morning’s KBHR studio was still there, looking just like it did in the show (though I thought the Buckner & Garcia Pac-Man Fever album prominently in view was less than fitting), and the modest main street was lined with modest gift shops shilling merchandise licensed from the modest show. We bought some t-shirts in the one that was located in the building that housed Dr. Fleischman’s office. The man ringing us up at the counter where I imagined Marilyn once sat examined the shirts and—as if he had just now been reminded of it, as if the existence of his entire store were not contingent on it—remarked, “Northern Exposure? Oh yeah, that was a cute show.”

TENTATIVE RANKING: Lower Upper Tier

Luke Geddes

Luke Geddes