While the lead female in Northern Exposure may have been ripped apart to prove that women without men are neurotic lunatics, the rest of the women in the show are actually pretty interesting. Shelly Tambo was the blond teenage airhead beauty pageant winner who was on her way to marry Maurice when she fell in love with Holling and ended up living with him instead. Maurice was more than 30 years older than Shelly, and Holling was 44 years older than she (but it doesn’t count because the men in his family live to be well over 100). Sounds like your quintessential Hollywood or D.C. couple, if only money and power were the motives behind the couplings.
Shelly fulfills every airhead stereotype. She considers her mastery of cosmetics and hair products an accomplishment. In her world, “chicks” look good in order to get men, and then they’re under a lot of pressure to stay hot. She doesn’t think outside that box. She’s not really even bachelor degree material, although that’s more from lack of motivation than intelligence. After a couple of years, you get the feeling that if she was convinced a doctoral degree would actually get her something she wanted, she’d find a way to earn one.
Even though she buys into the stereotypes herself – as most people do, unfortunately – she belies them. She and Holling run the town’s only restaurant and bar, and when he’s gone, she does it herself. Most people seem to think restaurant work is for morons, but it actually takes a very quick, sharp, focused mind, which Shelly has. She comes up with some pretty wacky solutions to problems, but they work. She plans a wedding at one point in the series, and at that point you may find yourself wondering what kind of a commanding officer she would be in the military. Her organizational and people management skills are formidable. Unlike Lucy Ricardo, who taught generations of us that women are inept tricksters who ruin everything if you don’t micromanage them, Shelly is a problem-solver.
We later learn that she pretty much raised her very young mom, instead of the other way around. Her mom is just as fixated on perfect nails and hair and body, but she’s also immature enough to tell her very young boyfriend that Shelly’s her older sister. When Shelly finally decides she’s had enough of that, her mother runs off like an angry teenager. Throughout the story – and her childhood – Shelly’s the grown-up. Which, by the way, suggests her interest in older men isn’t your normal TV daddy-complex: maybe she’s just had enough of youth by the time she hits eighteen. Or maybe she just doesn’t see age like the rest of us do.
What works with Shelly is the fact that she stereotypes herself. The writers aren’t doing it to her. A lot of people do stereotype themselves – the unending obsession with being “normal” instead of “exceptional” proves it. But she’s more complex than that – just as are all those “normal” clones out there in the real world. They walk the walk and talk the talk, but on the inside, they’re just as peculiar as anyone else.