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'Northern Exposure' has struck the right note, slightly off key


IT HAS GLOWED like an aurora borealis in the bleak wintry sky that has been the 1990-91 television season. What was supposed to be a year of inventiveness and surprise turned into a time of discontent and disinterest. But then there was "Northern Exposure."

The show was born in the brief springtime run of risk-taking at the networks, when "Twin Peaks" gleamed in the ratings sunlight and network executives were encouraging producers to bounce shows off the wall onto the prime-time schedule.

A year ago CBS programming execs ordered "Northern Exposure," a quirky look at a New York doctor as a fish-out-of-water in a small Alaskan town, for an eight-week run of originals made for the rerun-dominated summer season.

It did well enough to get re-ordered in the fall, but by the time co-creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey, the pair who came up with "St. Elsewhere" and "A Year in the Life," were able to get another eight hours made, the climate in networkland had changed.

The second batch of "Northern Exposures" was hardly rushed onto the schedule. The show sort of sneaked into its Monday night at 10 o'clock time slot, close enough to the end of the season so as not to do too much harm if it plummeted in the ratings, far enough away from the May sweeps that it could be yanked for that crucial month.

"I don't think it was a question of the people at the network not liking the show," Brand said over the phone from Los Angeles last week. "We would always hear how much they liked this script or that episode. It was a question of will other people like it? Will it be appreciated beyond a group of programmers sitting around in a room?"

In other words, would the great unwashed American masses, who were rejecting "Twin Peaks," "Cop Rock," and about every other show that smacked of something new and different, watch "Northern Exposure?"

Surprise! They did. They got it. They appreciated its oddball characters, its warm sense of humor, its layered meanings and resonant irony, its non-condescending celebration of eccentricity as it highlighted a classic clash of urban vs. rural culture. The show's ratings have been the highest (29th last week) CBS has recorded this season in the 10 o'clock time slot that follows its Monday night lineup of strong comedies.

Brand said that he and partner Falsey had an inkling this would happen because of a screening last fall of the final episode of the summer run.

"It was an event put on by the Museum of Broadcasting," he said. " We offered them any episode, but they wanted the last one we broadcast, the one called 'Aurora Borealis.'"

Brand described it as the craziest of those first eight. A seemingly endless full moon has everyone in the vicinity of Cicely, Alaska, acting a bit off. A character shows up who lives in an isolated cabin in the woods and is a gourmet cook and pathological liar. The town disc jockey discovers that a black man passing through town is apparently his brother.

"Working in television, you rarely get to see people react to what you do," he said. "We sat there during the screening and couldn't believe how much people were laughing. They laughed at things we didn't think were funny. They laughed at our mistakes. What it made us realize is how taken the audience had become with these characters.

"And you know, once you fall in love with something, you're a lot more forgiving. You want it to work. You allow it to fail. Realizing people felt this way about this show made John and me feel a lot more confident about taking chances."

So in this second batch, Brand and Falsey weren't afraid to have Ed, an Indian played with an sort of straightforward subtlety by Darren E. Burrows, wander about looking for his parentage with the help of an elderly spirit, visible only to the town's Native Americans, not to the white folks.

Or to have an incident in the May-December romance between 60-something tavern owner Holling Vincoeur, played by John Cullum, and twentyish Shelly Tambo, played by Cynthia Geary, turn on Holling's decision to be circumcised to please his young girlfriend.

Or to make references that went from novelist D.H. Lawrence to rock star Robert Palmer in a wonderful hour about the effect the impending onset of spring was having on the town's collective hormonal subconscious.

Or, in last week's episode, to solve a seemingly intractable dispute between a visiting Russian singer, guest star Elya Baskin, and Maurice, the town's super-patriotic former astronaut the two of them were about to have a duel -- by having the characters, in a moment right out of Tom Stoppard, discuss possible alternatives for the script that would be more acceptable to the sophisticated audience that watches this show.

"We know we take chances when we do stuff like that," Brand said. "What we try to avoid is taking chances just for the sake of taking chances, being outrageous just to show that we can be outrageous."

"Northern Exposure" has at once shown an understanding that this world it has created is illusory, yet that such illusions are powerful and delicate substances that should not be abused.

Helping hold "Northern Exposure" together is a fairly garden-variety odd-couple potential romance. That would be between the whining New York-native doctor, Joel Fleischman, played by Rob Morrow, and the attractive, independent local bush pilot, Maggie O'Connell, played by Janine Turner. They've been rubbing each other the wrong way since episode one and that has generated quite a bit of heat.

In the first show of this second batch, Joel got a goodbye letter from his Gotham girlfriend. In tonight's finale of the spring run, which will be on Channel 11 (WBAL) at 10 o'clock, Maggie, who has always had trouble keeping boyfriends alive, loses her current beau in an appropriately surreal way. That would appear to mean clear sailing for a Joel-Maggie romance, though you can imagine a lot of arguments over who's the captain and who's crew.

"This is one of those relationships where you know they want to get together, the audience knows they belong together, so the challenge is to get them together in a way that makes it interesting," Brand said. "And once they are together, to keep the tension alive."

Brand and Falsey should know if they will be able to do that later this week when CBS announces its fall schedule. Though Brand is confident that the show will be picked up -- the fact that the network held back an eighth episode for fall broadcast is a good sign -- he's been down this road before.

"We were fairly confident NBC was going to pick up 'A Year in the Life' and then that didn't happen," he said. "So we're not counting any chickens before they hatch around here."

It would take a powerful full moon to get the CBS programmers crazy enough to cancel "Northern Exposure." It should remain a window, not only on the odd happenings in Cicely, Alaska, but also on the potential for genuine creativity in prime-time television.

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