Gateway Characters (in Hell or Alaska)

Lately the mater familias and I have been watching Northern Exposure, a show I caught only haphazardly during its network run in the early 90s. At the time I much preferred the grittier fantasmagoria of Twin Peaks to the bucolic magical realism of Northern Exposure; as I’ve mellowed (i.e., gotten older), though, I find that Northern Exposure (hereafter referred to as NX) has a charm and depth I completely missed before. But it developed a fatal flaw, one I also recently encountered in the otherwise-brilliant Hellboy 2: The Golden Army.

NX shows us the quirky citizens of Cicely, Alaska through the eyes of Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow), a newly-minted Jewish doctor from New York. He is completely at odds with everything Cicely represents, and isn’t afraid to say so. The show’s effect comes from the clash between Fleischman’s Woody Allen-ish nebbish and the unflappable folks around him, especially tomboy pilot Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner), who verbally gives as good as she gets.

In the final episode of Season 3 (“Cicely”), we learn about the founding of the town itself from a century-old eyewitness (the great Roberts Blossom). It’s a brilliant episode on a number of levels, and ends with Joel alone in the local bar, hearing these voices of the past and taking his first big step toward assimilation. It promised great things for future episodes.

Unfortunately, by the start of Season 4 Rob Morrow ran into difficulties with the show and his role in it. As a result, Joel’s importance was significantly minimized, and the momentum built up during Season 3 was completely lost. Worse, the show itself floundered because without Joel as the pivot, the other characters became a group of people who were merely quirky for the sake of being quirky. Some fans insist the show changed organically from being about Joel’s situation to being about the town itself, but what made the show compelling was the tension between Joel and the residents of Cicely. Without it, the show lost its rudder and the viewer lost his or her guide.

Now we jump to Hellboy. In the original 2004 film, Rupert Evans played Myers, a normal, straight-arrow FBI agent assigned to be the liason between Hellboy and the rest of the world. Myers’ responses to the characters and situations gave the viewer something normal to hang onto amidst the weirdness, in the tradition of many other SF and Fantasy stories (one reason Luke Skywalker was made a simple farmboy). As Myers warmed to Hellboy we did, too, and as he kept faith in Hellboy’s essential goodness, we did as well.

In Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, we have no Myers (he’s been transferred to Antarctica) or, more crucially, no Myers-type figure. Everyone in the story is a monster or creature of some sort (Jeffery Tambor’s Manning is human, but so clearly comic that he can’t take on the gateway role). As before Ron Perlman makes Hellboy into a likable blue-collar schmo, and the other performers bring emotion and heart to their creature-feature characters. But it’s all a little disorienting without a Myers to guide our responses. We’re not immediately sure which monsters should be considered outlandish and which ones commonplace.

There are still many great things in Hellboy 2 and the later seasons of NX. But with the loss or minimizing of these gateway characters, we’ve lost our way into these worlds. I miss Joel, even though he’s technically still around for Seasons 4 and 5, and I hope Myers gets back from Antarctica in time for Hellboy 3.

One Comment on “Gateway Characters (in Hell or Alaska)”

  1. Good take on NX—I have always compared Joel’s performance to Woody Allen.
    I also have to admit I am very smitten w/NX, so finding your review was nice.
    Some reviewers say, “it’s the town stupid”, but like you I feel its Joel’s fish out of water perspective that drives this show.
    I did however fall in love with most of the characters up in Cicely—Like Ruth Anne, Ed, and my favorite Marilyn. Her soft-spoken intuition has even helped rein-in my own talkative nature.
    Refreshingly—NX seemed to camp outside the political fires that seem to separate most Americans—
    Great blog by the way—-love your handle on the English language.
    God Bless

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