If You Like ‘Virgin River,’ Binge This Small-Town Dramedy Series

The Big Picture

  • Northern Exposure is a small-town dramedy about a doctor who is assigned to a remote Alaskan town as repayment for his medical education.
  • The show features a love-hate relationship between the doctor and a local pilot, and their complicated romance unfolds over several seasons.
  • Both Virgin River and Northern Exposure have unique and interesting supporting characters that add depth and entertainment to the series.

There’s something so endearing about the idea of packing everything up and moving to a small town where life is more straightforward. For most people, that isn’t an option, but luckily, between Hallmark movies and many TV shows, it’s easy to live the dream. One show that has more than succeeded in telling this fish-out-of-water fairy tale is Virgin River, which enters on Nurse Practitioner Melinda “Mel” Monroe (Alexandra Breckenridge) leaving her glamorous life in Los Angeles to move to a remote Northern California town. Everything seems to be in order, but when Mel arrives in town, she realizes nothing is quite as it seems, including the “farmhouse chic” cabin that is anything but. The show’s tried and true formula has worked for many other series, including one with a similar premise. Fans of Virgin River should not miss out on one of the greatest small-town dramedies ever created for the small screen: Northern Exposure.

Northern Exposure TV Show Poster

Northern Exposure

A city doctor is forced to work in the remote Alaskan town of Cicely, where he encounters peculiar locals, including a former NASA astronaut, as he adjusts to small-town life.

Release Date
July 12, 1990

Joshua Brand, John Falsey

Rob Morrow , Janine Turner , Barry Corbin , John Cullum , Darren E. Burrows , John Corbett , Teri Polo , Paul Provenza

Main Genre

Drama , Comedy



What is ‘Northern Exposure’ About?

Like Virgin River, Northern Exposure is about a young medical professional who moves to a small town to practice medicine. Unlike Virgin River, the circumstances that bring Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) to Cicely, Alaska, are not entirely his own. Dr. Fleischman is assigned to the small town of Cicely as the general practitioner as repayment for the state of Alaska funding his medical education. Dr. Fleischman thinks that he will be assigned to the hospital in Anchorage, Alaska, but when it turns out to be over-staffed with new doctors, Fleischman has to relocate to the small town of Cicely. With a contractual obligation to repay the state with four years of medical service, he has little choice in the matter, and rather than face fines and jailtime for abandoning his post, he unhappily accepts his fate.

When he arrives, Dr. Fleischman is greeted by the town’s wealthiest inhabitant, Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin), who owns 15,000 acres of pristine land in the area, along with the radio station and newspaper. Maurice is a retired fighter pilot and astronaut who moved to Cicely in the 1970s. Maurice dreams of turning this small town in Alaska into the “Alaskan Riviera,” and that means bringing in modern amenities, including a town doctor. The pilot episode sees Dr. Fleischman telling his receptionist that there is no job and he will not be there for long. Everyone in town seems to know something that Joel doesn’t; if Maurice wants it to be, it will be. With dreams of making the little town into an attraction, that means keeping the big-city doctor.

Small-town Romance Blooms in ‘Virgin River’ and ‘Northern Exposure’

Maggie and Joel Northern Exposure kiss
Image via CBS

One of the best things about Virgin River is the romance between the big-city girl and the small-town guy. Northern Exposure offers its own take on this in the love-hate relationship between Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner), a local pilot, and Joel. When Joel and Maggie meet, he is insulting and condescending. He mistakes her intentions as flirting and only apologizes for his behavior when she explains that she owns the house where he will be staying. When he realizes his mistake, it’s a bit too late to turn on the charm, so they settle into a complicated relationship of denying their attraction and picking fights.

After many seasons of will-they-won’t-they, Maggie and Joel finally get their turn as a couple. Their happily ever after is more complicated than most due to Maggie’s unique past. Throughout Northern Exposure, it is learned that Maggie’s ex-boyfriends all seem to die in improbable ways. One was hit by lightning while photographing an oil rig for work, another took a wrong turn while driving and drove through a missile test range, and another was hit by a satellite after learning he did not have cancer. Talk about bad luck! In the first episode, she mentions the man for whom she left Grosse Pointe, MI, to come to Alaska, who froze to death after taking a nap on a glacier. Maggie’s lousy luck is referred to as the O’Connell curse, one of the main reasons she and Joel break up.

‘Virgin River’ and ‘Northern Exposure’ Offer a Unique Cast of Characters

The conflict that drives each story forward on television depends on the series’ characters. How the characters interact, and the choices they make, move the narrative forward and fuel character development. The supporting characters often become even bigger fan favorites than the protagonists. Supporting characters are vitally important to the success of any series, and the more interesting they are, the better.

In Virgin River, aside from Mel Monroe, there is Dr. Mullins (Tim Matheson), Mel’s boss, with whom she is constantly at odds over patient care. Coming from a big city, she believes she knows better than the aging doctor. However, his deep-rooted knowledge of the town and its residents proves that not only does he know better, but his legacy knowledge is crucial to providing proper medical care to the town’s residents. Jack Sheridan (Martin Henderson) is the owner of the local bar and the main love interest for Mel throughout the series. Mayor Hope McCrea (Annette O’Toole) is married to Dr. Mullins and is the person who hired Mel, unbeknownst to her husband. All of these characters have unique attributes that either encourage Mel’s assimilation into the small town or conflict with it, making the series highly enjoyable.

The characters in Northern Exposure are pretty unique as well. Aide from Maggie, the cursed bush pilot whose relationships tend to end in untimely death, there’s the larger-than-life millionaire Maurice, who hides his imposing will beneath a facade of geniality. Local bar owner Holling Vincoeur (John Cullum) has stolen Maurice’s much younger girlfriend, Shelly Tambo (Cynthia Geary). Last, but not least, Free-spirited disc jockey Chris Stevens (John Corbett) waxes poetic about life and politics on the local radio station that Maurice owns. His comments about controversial topics get him fired and rehired, many times over, by Maurice, who tends to disagree with his sentiments. The conflicts between Dr. Fleischman and the locals make for some uncomfortable but highly entertaining moments worth watching.

Northern Exposure offers fans of Virgin River a similar fish-out-of-water story. With its cast of crazy characters and compelling will-they-won’t-they love interests, Northern Exposure can’t be beat as far as entertaining dramedies go. With Virgin River still in production and the Season 6 release yet to be determined, Northern Exposure offers instant gratification with all six seasons streaming on Prime Video. So, until Virgin River returns, get all the small-town doctor drama with Northern Exposure.

Northern Exposure is available to watch on Prime Video in the U.S.


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