There are many medical dramas and comedies typical of American television, and it is important to understand how Northern Exposure (1990-1995) created by Joshua Brand and John Falsey influenced the development of not only these genres but also dramedy.
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Northern Exposure is a dramedy that is defined as a TV show with the elements of dramas and comedies where the development of a character is present, the inner conflict is discussed, and the plot includes many comedic elements (Hilmes 112; McGregor et al. 32; Mittell 8-12).
Thesis statement: Northern Exposure significantly contributed to the development of medical comedies and dramas, including dramedies, typical of American television while demonstrating specific ethnographic aspects, cultural and ethical issues that became actively discussed in other medical TV shows.
Ethnographic Elements in Northern Exposure and Identity Issue
The setting of a small town in Alaska allowed for drawing the audience’s attention to aboriginal health and rural medicine problems. Dr. Joel Fleischman, the main protagonist, faced the necessity of practicing in Cicely, Alaska, where he experienced cross-cultural conflicts, patients’ mistrust, and choice of traditional ineffective healing (Comelles and Brigidi 22-26). The reference to Fleischman and his relationships with patients allowed for concentrating on specific problems that people in Alaska face while supporting their health.
Northern Exposure is important to demonstrate problems different ethnic groups face because of their background. Fleischman interacts with diverse patients, their reactions to medical assistance are different, and conflicts are frequent (Hansen 144). Diversity based on ethnographic components attracts the audience as they recognize themselves in patients.
Depicted ethnographic elements accentuated the question of identity important for Americans and attracted the audience to following dramatic and comedic episodes in the characters’ life.
The Value of Accentuating Ethnicity and Ethnographic Aspects in Medical Dramas
Northern Exposure was among the first TV shows that demonstrated the life of rural general practitioners in contrast to urban professionals. The practice of rural general practitioners was later demonstrated in Everwood (2002-2006) (Comelles and Brigidi 26; Hansen 141).
Viewers consider watching TV shows that represent situations identified with familiar settings as interesting. Northern Exposure focused on an ethical problem of using alternative medicine that was later developed in other American medical shows.
This TV show includes many episodes that demonstrated how different populations treat specific diseases, and this pattern is later observed in other shows, including House M.D. (Comelles and Brigidi 22). Demonstration of using alternative medicine typical of Native Americans allowed viewers to identify themselves with the depicted practices and observe solutions to some issues.
In Northern Exposure, the ethnicity factor is emphasized from different perspectives, and the focus on ethnographic elements became typical of many other medical dramas.
The Depiction of Cultural Issues in Northern Exposure
Northern Exposure was also focused on cultural visions of health. Ed Chigliak is presented in the TV show as a reputable shaman who helps people treat their diseases explaining them in opposition to Fleischman’s views (Hirt et al. 238-239; Kendal and Diug 37).
Cultural questions depicted in Northern Exposure were related to the issues of healing among others. Cultural views of Native peoples are depicted almost in each episode.
In one of the episodes, Rick observes an owl that predicts the fall of the satellite that caused Rick’s death (“Northern Exposure – Season 1”). Cultural views of Native Americans are embedded into the plot because they view owls as harbingers of death.
The audience views the depicted problems, diseases, proposed treatments, and habits and traditions through the perspective of their cultural construction.
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The Role of Northern Exposure in Affecting the Representation of Cultural Aspects in Other Shows
Northern Exposure demonstrated how cultural stereotypes could influence medical professionals’ practice. When Fleischman started his practice in Cicely, he could not provide effective assistance because of his prejudice and stereotypes, and this aspect is reflected in Hart of Dixie (2011-2015) (Comelles and Brigidi 27).
The theme of cross-cultural misunderstandings and the path to mutual understanding and support is represented in many medical dramedies following the example of Northern Exposure. This TV show also presented the example of how the protagonists culturally identified themselves.
Fleischman and his friends are inclined to discuss the culture of New Yorkers as a specific socio-cultural phenomenon, and this pattern is also depicted in Hart of Dixie (Hansen 144). Northern Exposure became the first medical dramedy to focus on cultural issues and emphasize differences in cultural identities. Northern Exposure significantly affected the representation of various cultural aspects in all other medical dramas and comedies.
Ethical Issues and Their Depiction in Northern Exposure
Northern Exposure discussed such ethical issues as teenagers’ pregnancy, the absence of assistance, and personal relationships between physicians and patients. The authors discussed the problem of love between Holling and young Shelly, who had a significant age difference, and Shelly’s pregnancy (“Northern Exposure – Season 1”).
The representation of this provocative love story was in the context of Alaska and its rules of life that made the audience sympathize with the characters despite the ethical nature of the issue. The characters also resolved such moral issues as the treatment of terminal illnesses.
The characters discussed terminal illnesses, AIDS, cancer, and other diseases that provoke ethical debates (“Northern Exposure – Season 1”). It was important to attract the audience’s attention to these problems and cause their empathy.
Viewers are interested in watching how different ethical dilemmas are resolved; therefore, medical dramas are focused on demonstrating how patients and physicians cope with ethical questions.
The Impact of Northern Exposure on Discussing Ethics in Medical Dramas
As a dramedy, Northern Exposure demonstrated ethical problems in both dramatic and comedic aspects. Fleischman’s approach to coping with ethical problems and crises was often depicted with humor (“Northern Exposure – Season 1”).
This method allowed for imitating physicians’ real-life reactions. The approach used in Northern Exposure to present ethical issues and make the audience empathize and choose morally right solutions was followed in other medical shows.
The protagonists focused on finding ethically right solutions to the most complex problems that they perceived as personal ones, and this approach was later presented in Grey’s Anatomy (Comelles and Brigidi 22-23). The interpretation of ethical dilemmas through the personal perspective of the characters became applied in many TV shows. The impact of Northern Exposure on discussing the questions of morality in dramedies can hardly be overestimated.
Northern Exposure as an Example of a Dramedy
The main protagonists of Northern Exposure were portrayed as persons who overcame certain problems of the past and adapted to their new reality. The main example is the story of Dr. Fleischman and his adaptation to Alaska despite his inner opposition (Armitage; McGregor et al. 32). The authors demonstrated problems typical of any person who moves to an unfamiliar place.
This approach is typical of medical shows, and dramedies in particular, that are focused on representing protagonists’ characters, feelings, and inner conflicts. This idea was imitated in Hart of Dixie (Comelles and Brigidi 22-23). This principle was also adopted for other medical dramedies.
Being concentrated on presenting both dramatic and comedic episodes from the lives of the main characters, Northern Exposure became one of the first popular medical dramedies.
The Development of Elements of Medical Dramedies in Modern American Shows
Northern Exposure demonstrated the evolution of Joel Fleischman as a young physician in terms of his ability to provide patient-oriented care. Fleischman was depicted as an inexperienced practitioner who later became skillful and mature (Hirt et al. 238-239). These elements are key ones for dramedies because the character needs to cope with barriers on his path. This protagonist’s evolution based on overcoming inner conflicts and external barriers were also later depicted in other similar shows.
One of such shows as Grey’s Anatomy that demonstrates the progress of interns (Comelles and Brigidi 22-23). The characters’ evolution in such shows involves a range of comic and dramatic situations.
Northern Exposure demonstrated how to combine humor, lyrical episodes, and the discussion of dramatic issues in the limited context of a medical dramedy making the audience discuss the depicted issues as important to them.
Although Northern Exposure was broadcasted in 1990-1995, the approaches used by the authors for the development of a dramatic plot with culture-specific and comedic elements are actively used in other medical dramedies even today.
This show contributed to the development of comedies and dramas because it was the first one to demonstrate specific ethnographic aspects, as well as cultural and ethical issues, that became used as patterns in other medical TV shows, leading to the creation of the medical dramedy genre.
Armitage, Matt. “Northern Exposure: Welcome to the Alaskan Riviera.” 25 Years Later Site. 2018, Web.
Comelles, Josep M., and Serena Brigidi. “Fictional Encounters and Real Engagements: The Representation of Medical Practice and Institutions in Medical TV Shows.” Actes D’història De La Ciència I De La Tècnica, vol. 7, 2014, pp. 17-34.
Hansen, Anders Høg. “Time Is but the Stream I Go A-Fishing in: Present Pasts in 20 Years of American TV Serial Fiction from Northern Exposure to Mad Men.” Continuum, vol. 27, no. 1, 2013, pp. 141-159.
Hilmes, Michele. Only Connect: A Cultural History of Broadcasting in the United States. 4th ed., Cengage Learning, 2013.
Hirt, C., et al. “Medical Dramas on Television: A Brief Guide for Educators.” Medical Teacher, vol. 35, no. 3, 2013, pp. 237-242.
Kendal, Evie, and Basia Diug, editors. Teaching Medicine and Medical Ethics Using Popular Culture. Springer, 2017.
McGregor, Michael A., et al. Head’s Broadcasting in America: A Survey of Electronic Media. 10th ed., Routledge, 2016.
Mittell, Jason. Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2013.
“Northern Exposure – Season 1.” TV.com, 2018, Web.