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Yesterday's TV, Today's Economy: Northern Exposure


These days, the phrase "small-town Alaskan natives" brings up imagery that's a tad different, thanks to the sudden rise of a certain notorious politician.

A missive from a more benign time, the comic, easy-going TV series Northern Exposure, with its fish-out-of-water story of a fast-talking New York doctor stranded amid kooky small-town Alaskan natives, ran from 1990 to 1995. It was a sweet-natured show for the most part, a mainstream version of David Lynch's surreal, flawed game-changer Twin Peaks, with flourishes of magical realism, and a romantic, left-of-centre view of its cast of characters.

These days, the phrase "small-town Alaskan natives" brings up imagery that's a tad different, thanks to the sudden and divisive rise of a certain notorious female politician.The clichés now associated with Sarah Palin's Alaska – methed-out Wasilla hillbillies, Bible-clutching warriors of God, the last bastion of real Americans, pick whichever set best fits your politics – may bear as loose a connection to reality as the dreamy Native Americans and heart-of-gold eccentrics of the TV show, but any reboot of Northern Exposure might want to attempt to portray just a bit of the complicated modern reality of the state.

Aside from the chilled-out Tea Partiers, a contemporary version of Northern Exposure would have to at least mention the oil industry, a massive part of the state economy that's headed for trouble. The Alaskan oil patch at Prudhoe Bay is responsible for about one-third of the state's economic production, and one-third of its jobs. According to University of Alaska Anchorage economist Scott Goldsmith, in 2006 each individual Alaskan received $13,150 worth of public services and government aid thanks to oil. Some 90% of Alaska's state revenue comes from the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, an 800-mile, $8 billion delivery system that's responsible for around 20% of the country's domestic production. Problem is, the currently accessible oil is drying up.

There are a variety of reasons for this, including a moratorium on off-shore drilling inspired in part by last year's horrendous Gulf of
Mexico spill, and, say an increasing barrage of state-based critics, an oil industry tax created by Palin during her reign as state

As a result, the most vigorous debate in the state at the moment isn't so much about the frequently televised hi-jinks of the Palin clan as it is about whether to attempt to diversify the economy and ameliorate its reliance on crude, or to double-down on further oil exploration, off-shore drilling, and other attempts to find some more black stuff. Without it, Goldsmith warns, Alaska might end up looking like Maine! The horror!

Speaking of Alaska looking like some more southern locale, these days those quirky Native American characters might be less obsessed with films and heartbreak, and more apt to fear global warming. Changing temperatures mean that Inupiat villagers now have to worry about invasive new species showing up in their hunting grounds, traditional animals disappearing, melting sea ice, increased erosion of their island home and a host of other issues.

Tea Party mavericks, die-hard oil addicts and Inupiat hunters trapped on melting ice: Northern Exposure 2011 practically writes itself, but it doesn't sound much like a comedy.
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