Three decades ago, before the modern streaming era embossed the phrase “prestige television” in our cultural lexicon, I fell in love with the primetime network series “Northern Exposure,” which centered on the lives of the eccentric residents in a fictional frontier town dubbed Cicely, Alaska.
In the show, back-to-the-landers and dirtbag philosopher-kings intermingled with wealthy business moguls, bush pilots, and Alaska Natives, and all roads led to “The Brick,” whose French-Canadian owner served a dual role as purveyor of moose burgers and “brew dogs,” as well as a brawny buffer against the throngs of interloping out-of-state investors peddling an unwanted brand of “progress.”
I’ll admit, when I moved to Montana 20 years ago, my imagination was pocked with romantic notions of a mile-wide landscape where misfits and mountain men swapped tales of survival over mugs of Red Hook and delivered sentimental soliloquys about the sanctity of solitude in nature. Just as “A River Runs Through It” gave me the unrealistic expectation that life in Montana would entail newspapering by morning and shadow-casting for rainbows on the Big Blackfoot by evening, “Northern Exposure” imbued in me a misguided impression that no problem was so complex it couldn’t be solved with a barroom brawl and an inspired sermon in the street.
Indeed, many of the most memorable monologues in “Northern Exposure” were written by David Chase, who, a decade after cutting his teeth as a screenwriter in Cicely, Alaska, imagined a different storyline featuring Sicilians when he created HBO’s “The Sopranos,” arguably the greatest television show ever made, whose success inarguably altered the television industry forever, touching off the “Golden Age” of programming that’s currently dominated by yet another epic drama depicting the New West — “Yellowstone.”
But I’ll get to Kevin Costner in a moment.
Because while one of Chase’s creations inspired me to migrate West to hike and fly-fish and imbibe enough microbrew to float a Clack-a-Craft, the other did not compel me to move to New Jersey and fritter away my time with Tony Soprano’s cast of cappos at the Bada Bing, nor did it transform Newark into a tourism draw.
Conversely, the popularity of “Northern Exposure,” set in Alaska but produced beneath the backdrop of the Cascade Mountains in Roslyn, Washington, inundated the sleepy town with tourists as local businesses sold Northern Exposure-themed souvenirs (as a young fan, I owned a t-shirt as well as the show’s soundtrack on compact disc).
All of which brings me to the “Yellowstone effect,” the cultural phenomenon to describe the out-of-state invaders bearing down as a cudgel on Montana, many of them eager to nab a postage stamp of land and line out their legacy just like Costner’s fictional “Yellowstone” protagonist, John Dutton. Come to think of it, Dutton shares more than a few characteristics with Soprano — after all, both are kings defending their kingdoms by any means possible.
Unlike Soprano’s concrete-gray criminal empire, however, Dutton’s kingdom is brimming with eye-popping scenery, stunning wildlife, and delightfully seedy storylines. Recently, a new University of Montana study revealed that “Yellowstone” brought an estimated 2.1 million visitors and $730 million in spending to Montana in 2021 — enough moolah to turn Soprano into an FBI informant. Filmed primarily in the Bitterroot and Missoula valleys, “Yellowstone” treated more than 12 million viewers to the scenery of western Montana during its season-five premiere last November and has surely accelerated the inrush of western-curious residents.
To be sure, film is an economic driver of tourism, and the “Yellowstone” TV show has demonstrated the potency of Montana’s American West image.
But style is nothing without substance and, as with Cicely, Alaska, the secret sauce that makes Montana so special is a recipe that’s still in need of safeguarding. Because not every trespasser is as romantic as me.