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Scott Larson

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Baked Alaska

For the past couple of weeks, many conservatives have been exclaiming, thank God for Sarah Palin! Others of us have been saying the same thing but for different reasons. We are just relieved and grateful that someone has finally ended the tedium.

One of the major drawbacks of presidential campaigns that last, well, four years and sometimes longer is that watching the same politicians on television day in and day out can get kind of boring. Even as young and fresh-faced and relatively new on the scene as Barack Obama is, it now seems as though he has been around for decades. And that means, of course, that John McCain seems like he has been around for centuries. That also goes for Joe Biden who, although he is six years younger than McCain, has been in the Congress 10 years longer and in the Senate 14 years longer. Now, I think all three men are genuinely nice guys, but we have been looking at them and listening to them for an awful long time.

Now we have a new face and voice to focus on and, say what you want about the Alaska governor, most of us haven’t had to watch her every night on the TV news for the past two or three years. Of course, since she is a new face, everyone has rushed to “define” her (as I described last week) since, as the old cliché goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and both sides of the political divide have plenty of reason to want to define her on their own terms. (If you have any doubt how important this is, just ask Dan Quayle.) And they have to compete with the media, who consider it their job to define her for the public. Such an opportunity rarely comes along in the constant campaigning for the two highest offices in the land. Palin’s sudden elevation to vice-presidential nominee is like, well, it’s as if, when Barack Obama made that eloquent and inspiring and well-received speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, someone had come on stage and announced, “Oh, and by the way, Barack here is John Kerry’s new running mate.”

What interests me, of course, is how everyone tries to tie her to existing and established media images, like movies and television shows. And, as usual, the late night comedians have been the most adept at this. David Letterman said she was like the subject of an episode of the Jerry Springer show. Jay Leno mentioned that, at a press conference, Palin had introduced her family, including her daughter Juno. (That gag worked particularly well because her daughter’s situation did mirror the popular, Oscar-winning 2007 film and Juno is a homonym for the capital of Alaska.) Conan O’Brien, working a younger and hipper and edgier and later audience, came up with a joke about her daughter involving a hockey double entendre, i.e. that at least one of the hockey mom’s kids was not very good at “protecting the crease.” It got an appreciative laugh, even if it was a little inside baseball, I mean, hockey. Better late night jokes about Palin’s daughter actually zinged other familiar figures. Mentioning the pregnancy, Jay Leno exhorted, “Boy, and you thought John Edwards was in trouble before!” Another quip (sorry, the brain cells that knew which comic said it have since died) went: but it’s all going to be okay; Angelina Jolie has agreed to adopt the baby.

There was one particular pop culture reference I was waiting to hear, and I fairly quickly heard it on Dennis Miller’s frequently delightful talk radio show. That is also the place that I heard a pop culture reference that I hadn’t been expecting. On Friday Dennis had his old Saturday Night Live colleague Dana Carvey as a guest and they were discussing what a gifted mimic like Dana would do with Palin. Dana began reciting some of her best known quotes using the voice of The Church Lady, and while it didn’t exactly sound like Palin (I think her voice sounds more like another SNL veteran, Julia Sweeney), but darned if the bit didn’t work well. Also interesting to hear was that there are churches that actually run old footage of Dana as The Church Lady and present “her” lectures more or less at face value.

But, no, the pop culture reference I had been waiting for came from Dennis’s amiable, slyly subversively entertaining on-air sidekick, who goes by the name of Sal. Sal, as far as I can tell anyway, was the first to come up with the brilliant designation of McCain’s vice-presidential pick as a “trophy veep.” Being fairly negative to Palin (in contrast to the host’s enthusiasm for her and McCain), Sal derided her mayoral experience, pointing out how small her town of Wasilla had been. “It’s like Northern Exposure,” he said, somewhat condescendingly. Bingo.

I wondered how long it would take for someone to invoke the 1990s TV series that may have formed most people’s impressions of the state more than any other factor except maybe those cruise ships that ply the waters off the southeast coastline. And it fit into one of those strange convergences that often punctuate my life. After years since the series went off the air, the Missus and I had had recently begun watching it from the beginning. An Irish satellite channel recently began re-broadcasting the show, starting with the pilot, and on an impulse I told my DVR to start recording it for me. So, even before McCain picked Palin as his running mate, we had been reliving the adventures of the brash, young New York doctor Joel Fleischman forced against his will to operate a practice in Cicely, a town of 800+ residents located somewhere on “the Alaskan Riviera.” Cicely’s population included a mix of natives and blow-ins who co-existed mostly peacefully, largely through tolerance to everyone else’s varying worldviews. Underneath there was always the tension between those who saw the place as a refuge from the world and those who saw it as ripe for development—always with an underlay of New Age-y mysticism adding a feeling of a fairy tale or fable. In addition to its varied cast of characters, the series’ appeal was juiced by an eclectic musical soundtrack and the requisite sexual tension between Dr. Fleischman and the bush pilot Maggie O’Connell. Through six seasons, viewers followed the quirky and quaint activities and travails of Cicely’s inhabitants.

Clearly, Cicely was a mythical place. It was a dream village of what we would like to think life might be like on the modern frontier. Personally, I always thought that Cicely was more about the more interesting corners of western Washington because its spirit seemed to be in sync with numbers of small places that I knew in the region. I should note that I have never set foot in Alaska even once in my life. This despite the fact that people in other parts of the country seem to think that Seattle and Anchorage are as close to each other as Seattle and Portland. Anyway, the idea of Cicely being spiritually part of western Washington is at least defensible. As I have written before, the exteriors were filmed in the Cascades town of Roslyn and the interiors were filmed in a studio near Seattle, less than a couple of miles from where I lived at the time. Many of the actors were locals, and some of the ones brought in from L.A. established homes in the area.

So is the comparison between Wasilla and Cicely fair to Wasilla? Obviously not. A more important question would be, was the comparison fair to Cicely? I think Sal was remembering Northern Exposure mainly as a fish-out-of-water comedy, i.e. an Alaskan version of Green Acres, in which rural characters in places like Hooterville seemed strange and out of touch with the wider world. But Cicely always seemed to be conceived as a place we would all like to move to, precisely because it was so separate from the world we know and are sometimes tired of.

Another pop culture comparison to Palin that I have heard a couple of pundits make was with the Frances McDormand character in the Coen brothers’ 1996 movie Fargo. Pregnant Police Chief Marge Gunderson may have made audiences chuckle and disarmed those about her with her homely and plain-spoken way of dealing with things but, as the pundits point out, in the end she solved the case got her man.

-S.L., 11 September 2008

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