How Northern Exposure Led Me to Slovenia: an ode to a ‘90s TV show

I was a teenager when I discovered the US TV show: Northern Exposure. Set in (fictional) Cicely, Alaska, I fell in love with the small-town Alaskan lifestyle and landscape it portrayed, along with the bizarre storylines and intriguing characters.

Northern Exposure aired once a week on the UK’s Channel 4, and I would watch it in my bedroom on a small black and white TV. Growing up in a mountain-less village in England, the ‘Alaskan’ scenery (the show was actually filmed in Washington State) was a window into a wild, frontier, mountain land.

There were log cabins, log burners and log chopping aplenty, high peaks, hunting and fishing trips, interesting animals (the opening sequence famously features a moose strolling down the main strip; ostriches, alpacas and bears also pop up), vast forests, bush pilots, alpine lakes, rivers, Native Alaskan mythology, and lots of snowscapes. To me, Cicely looked like heaven and I wanted to live there.

Although I loved the extreme natural beauty depicted in the show, there was much more to my adoration for Northern Exposure than Alaskan wilderness alone. It was Cicely’s inhabitants and their lives that appealed so deeply.

They were quirky, varied, philosophical, unusual, and offbeat. Northern Exposure blended rough, tough, physical frontier life, with intelligence and deep thought. The storylines were playful, sometimes surreal, often humorous, and occasionally mystical or melancholy. This combination created a rare charm and watching Northern Exposure seeded a yearning for me to seek out a Cicely of my own.

I suspect my decision to go and live and work in British Columbia, Canada for a year in my early twenties was in part, inspired by Northern Exposure. That experience then led me to crave more mountain life and put me on a path to go and live and work in a rural, mountain-rich part of Japan for two years. And that experience solidified my desire to attain the mountain/forest lifestyle for good, which I eventually did by moving to Slovenia, after a long stint in Scotland.

Where can you watch Northern Exposure?

Northern Exposure aired from ’90-’95 over 6 seasons. Although the show ended in the mid-90s, my fondness for it didn’t, and in 2006 I bought the DVD box set, rewatching most of the series at that time.

It would do the show a discredit to say it had just a cult following. It was hugely popular in the US and won numerous Emmys and other high profile awards, but amongst the people I know, there were two types when it came to Northern Exposure: those who didn’t watch it (and even confused it with Due South – a show about Canadian Mounties, or Twin Peaks – which remains better known although I have yet to see it), and a much smaller group who absolutely adored it.

It’s a great shame that despite its previous popularity, Northern Exposure has never been available to watch via any streaming service. Apparently, rows over music rights (it featured a lot of great tracks, often played by ‘Chris’ – the philosophical heartthrob and sole DJ of KBHR radio) are the primary reason why it languishes in content purgatory, whilst dozens of other ‘90s shows are delighting nostalgic fans and winning new ones via Netflix, Amazon Prime and other platforms.

As such, three decades on, unless you were a big fan, the show has fallen into obscurity. Aside from going old-school and buying it on disc, there remains no way to (legally) watch Northern Exposure.

Does Northern Exposure hold up today?

Despite having watched hundreds of TV shows over the years, none had the impact that Northern Exposure had on me. For some time, I had been contemplating a rewatch again. But I admit there was some trepidation; I was worried that after 30 years, the show that I had once loved dearly, might not stand up today.

Nevertheless, last week, I dug out my DVD box set and hit play. I’m pleased to say it has stood the test of time very well. The endearing and interesting characters, the odd and intriguing storylines, and all that Alaskan scenery and lifestyle still hold great appeal.

I acknowledge there is nostalgia attached to my affinity for Northern Exposure (even though it had been 15 years since I last watched an episode, and I couldn’t remember much) but it’s clear that the quality of the show has endured.

I wonder if Northern Exposure would gain a new generation of fans if it were to ever hit a major streaming platform? Or would it struggle to compete with the faster-paced, binge-inducing shows that are the norm these days?

Regardless, I’m just happy I bought the DVD box set, because the fate of Northern Exposure shows that streaming services cannot be relied upon to provide everything you want to watch, when you want to watch it. Which is exactly why – for the shows and films I love – I still buy DVDs.

Did I find my own Cicely?

So, did I find my own version of Cicely, here in Slovenia? In many ways – yes I did. Certainly, when it comes to the extremely beautiful natural landscape, I have all the mountains, snowscapes, forests and lakes I could want. I have the friendly bar owners and friendly locals who show me their customs like making schnapps, Slovenian sausages or dormice oil.

And while I may not have moose walking down the streets, I have seen an emu (well – Rhea actually) strolling through central Ljubljana – so Slovenia is up there for quirk.

Any Northern Exposure fans out there? Let us know what you thought of the show in the comments below.

9 comments

  1. Your whole article sums up my love for the show, and I miss it a lot. Around that time I was adjusting to my -to some, obvious – sexuality, and upon realising I had a major crush on Maggie, I accepted my life, stopped worrying about what others would think, and went out and had a great time. It’s my 50th birthday next month so I think a DVD box set treat is due.

  2. Hi Sim – thanks for stopping by – I think the box set is a very worthy gift that you won’t regret! I’d be interested to know what you think of the show when you get round to rewatching it – let me know if it still has the magic for you.

  3. There are two shows I watch once a year: Northern Exposure and Twin Peaks.

  4. Thanks Michal – I think I might start an annual Northern Exposure watch too.

  5. Just discovered, while sorting out and packing stuff pre-move, that I own a 3-tape box set on VHS (but of course nothing now to play them). Never played, as I watched all the episodes as they were broadcast. Another perhaps even more obscure series I used to love was Almost Grown, starring Tim Daly and Eve Gorden. It was also co-created by Northern Exposure creator David Chase, and oozed even more of his subtle poignancy throughout. Alas, it was killed even before the end of the first series.

  6. Never heard of Almost Grown – but might have to give it a try – if I can find it. Good luck with sourcing a VHS player!

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