Producers Joshua Brand and John Falsey, who last season gave us the most brazenly idiosyncratic television drama of the year, I’ll Fly Away, have now created a show that looks, at first, like just the opposite: the year’s most brazen rip-off. In Going to Extremes, Brand and Falsey have taken the premise of their most successful show, Northern Exposure — young white urban man transplanted to an arctic, oddball paradise — and moved it to a warmer climate.
In Extremes, Chicago medical student Alex Lauren (Daniel Jenkins) signs up for courses at Croft University on the fictional Caribbean island of Jantique. Upon arriving, he discovers, in Northern Exposurely fashion: a culture much more complex than he’d assumed from its American pop-culture images; a group of local residents who are by turns eccentric, lovable, and prickly; and a fabulous if icy babe (played by Joanna Going), this one with longer hair than Janine Turner’s.
Like Rob Morrow’s Fleischman in Exposure, Extremes‘ Alex is a chatty smart aleck who serves as our guide-we see a hard, poor, yet beautiful rural country through this student’s wide eyes. To be sure, Alex is at once naive and arrogant. In the series’ debut, when his wallet and passport were pickpocketed upon his arrival, he reported the crime and threatened a lackadaisical police captain into action by sneering, ”Hey — remember Grenada.” Again like Fleischman, Alex is Brand and Falsey’s portrait of an Ugly American who will be redeemed by the purity and goodwill of people Not Like Him.
So far, Extremes, which is shot in Jamaica, has done well by its Caribbean characters, but in its early episodes, the series is most concerned with establishing Croft University, its students and faculty. Like another collegial medical drama that Brand and Falsey worked on, St. Elsewhere, sex and comedy are always barging into Extremes. So far, Alex’s most promising roommates are Charlie (Andrew Lauer), a nervous nerd who milks his own goat for its ulcer-soothing milk, and Kim (Camilo Gallardo), the show’s resident mystic, a blond Adonis who practices t’ai chi on the beach and doesn’t takes notes in class — he keeps it all in his head, and gets straight A’s.
The school is headed by the most colorful character of all, its founder, Dr. Henry Croft, played by veteran actor Roy Dotrice (Amadeus) as a cross between George C. Scott and Norman Mailer — a tough bird in Hemingwayesque safari suits who started this school to defy all the ”pansy-assed elitists in the medical establishment.” Dotrice gives a wonderfully flamboyant performance in the midst of younger actors doing their best to appear broodingly cool.
There’s a sense in which Going to Extremes is a distinctly baby-boomerish daydream, a yupscale version of Fantasy Island: You can just imagine Brand and Falsey cooking this one up after a weary, chilly night of Northen Exposure postproduction. The music they’ve chosen for the show’s soundtrack — ’70s hits from Toots and the Maytals and Jimmy Cliff — isn’t the fresh dancehall-reggae of the ’90s. It is the sort of stuff Brand and Falsey probably listened to in college themselves — the reggae version of American soul music — which dates the sensibility behind this series.
What keeps the show from being time-warped cultural imperialism is the fact that Brand and Falsey have something rare in mass media: consciences. Having dreamed up this white-boy fantasy of tropical graduate study, they know that it would be nothing less than immoral to make a quirky American TV show about colorful, cheerful, hey-mon Jantiquans when so much of its real-life model, Jamaica, is hobbled by poverty. In the debut episode, Brand and Falsey demonstrated the subtle way they’ll work in local talent as Oliver Samuels turned in a fine, shaded performance as an uneducated but intelligent local man grappling with the med school’s diagnosis that he has diabetes.
So the producers intend the big sign we see at the entrance to the Jantique airport — ”One Happy Island” — to be at once ironic and touching. Irony and heart are an unlikely combination, but given a chance and a few novel medical cases, Going to Extremes would seem to have a good shot at pulling off one happy culture clash, and not a rip-off at all.