Skip to content

The Power of Place: Northern Exposure and South Side

Elizabeth Stice at Front Porch Republic

Photo by Sawyer Bengtson / Unsplash

Millions of Americans spend millions of hours watching entertainment on the small screen. Almost all those shows are set somewhere but also, seemingly, nowhere. What did we ever learn about New York from watching Friends? We know The Office is set in Scranton, but there’s nothing we ever see in the show that couldn’t come from a soundstage. Is there a world outside the hospital walls in Grey’s Anatomy? Once in a while, there is a show in which the setting is a character and the place itself is a major part of the story. Two classics in this realm are Northern Exposure, from CBS in the 1990s, and South Side, which currently has three seasons on HBO Max and, sadly, seemingly no more to come.

Many FPR readers may already be familiar with Northern Exposure. It ran from 1990-1995, the world before HD. Pleated pants were cool. The main character was Joel Fleischman, a Jewish doctor from New York, working in rural Cicely, Alaska, to pay off his medical school loans. Northern Exposure was more than a “fish out of water” story. Fleischman interacted with bush pilots, Indian healers, bartenders, a former astronaut, and a radio DJ, as he learned about himself and his relationships with others. It had a truly ensemble cast with many quirky characters, clever plots, a well-chosen soundtrack, and compelling writing. It was smart and funny and had a well-developed world of its own.

One of the remarkable things about Northern Exposure is the way in which fictional Cicely, Alaska, was shaped into such a real place. Though it was filmed in Roslyn, Washington, Northern Exposure relied on much more than wintry landscape shots of Washington for the sense of the real–though it had those in abundance. Cicely had a history, it had traditions. There were episodes about its past and about some of its annual events, like the Mosquito Festival, the Thanksgiving parade, the running of the bulls, and much more. There was The Brick, where everyone went for dinner, and Ruth-Anne’s store, where everyone went shopping. There were at least a dozen characters who were more than types but had their own backstories and episode plots. We followed along as they held local elections, fought the local malady (glacier dropsy), celebrated weddings and funerals, bowled in a league, and commemorated the town’s oldest tree.

The south side of Chicago is not much like Alaska, or the Pacific Northwest, but South Side captures some of the same spirit as Northern Exposure. So far, South Side has aired from 2019-2023, with three seasons. It was created by the team of Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle, who also act in the show. It is a comedy, definitively set in the south side of Chicago, where it centers around Simon and Kareme and their coworkers at the Rent-To-Own store (who do a lot of repossessions); a pair of police officers, Sergeant Turner and Officer Goodnight, assigned to the community; and various community members such as Alderman Allen Gayle. The show includes a local Civil Rights legend, aspiring musicians, teachers, relatives, and more. It’s likely that fewer FPR readers are familiar with South Side than Northern Exposure and many may not always enjoy it. Fair warning: South Side is a comedy, but it has a lot of profanity, some drug use, semi-frequent vulgarity, and quite a few references to sex. It is funny, but it is not kid friendly.

In South Side, Chicago is really a character in the show. From the opening music to the setting and events, South Side is all about the south side. The characters have favorite local restaurants, streets and districts are referenced, and actual Chicagoans appear–like Chance the Rapper and Jeff Tweedy. Chicago magazine says it is “a Chicago sitcom that feels like Chicago.” There is an episode where Simon learns to step. One episode is a beautiful homage to, and reinterpretation of, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It’s no surprise that the show’s creators are actually from Chicago.

Read the rest