Redmond, Wash. -- If it were up to Barry Corbin, which it's not, Rob Morrow's long drawn-out departure from the cast of "Northern Exposure" would be over by now.
Not that Mr. Corbin, who plays cranky-pants astronaut-millionaire Maurice Minnifield, has anything against Mr. Morrow, whose final appearance as Dr. Joel Fleischman won't come until February even though his replacements -- Paul Provenza and Teri Polo as the new town doctor and his journalist wife -- join the cast tonight at 10 p.m. on WBAL-Channel 11. Mr. Corbin is worried that stretching the farewell story line over so many episodes may dilute the show's drawing power once Mr. Morrow is gone.
"I hope we can survive it in the ratings," Mr. Corbin says, "but I'm not convinced we can."
When Mr. Morrow, looking to parlay his much-praised performance in Robert Redford's "Quiz Show" into a full-blown feature film career, announced in September he was leaving the series, "Northern Exposure" executive producer-writers Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider were not exactly surprised.
Ever since Mr. Morrow's extended contract hold-out in 1992, rumors of his departure had become an annual ritual, as were discussions about how Dr. Fleischman would ultimately take his leave from the Zen wilderness of greater Cicely, Alaska. Would he be eaten by bears? Gored by an elk? Or, worse yet, simply return to New York?
"To just have him hit by a truck or go back to New York didn't seem like a satisfying end for us," says Ms. Frolov.
"And we also wanted something to have happened to him because of being in Cicely," says Mr. Schneider. "We didn't want Joel to go back to New York as the same kind of dyspeptic malcontent he was when he arrived."
So, in the story line that is being played out now, Fleischman goes native. After his lover/adversary Maggie O'Connell (Janine Turner) ends their relationship, he goes upriver to a back-water fishing village, where he grows a beard, traps beaver, carves totem poles and decides life makes a lot more sense when there's no electricity or indoor plumbing.
"He's giving up the material world," says Ms. Frolov, who won't say how all this plays out, except that "we are putting him on a kind of hero's quest."
That's what worries Mr. Corbin. "We'd have preferred a clean break, more like the way 'NYPD Blue' handled its star departure. One week David Caruso walked out the door, the next Jimmy Smits walked in."
"The real problem is not during the transitional period," says Mr. Corbin, who thinks the energy being devoted to Fleischman's leaving could be better spent incorporating the new characters and spicing things up for the old ones who stayed in town. "The real problem will be after Fleischman leaves.
"The danger then is that we'll have lost the audience for the rest of us. And if that's the case, you don't lose an audience and gain 'em back, not when you've been on as long as we have. If the ratings drop, they stay dropped."
The truth is, the ratings have already dropped -- not precipitously, but enough that practically everyone associated with "Northern Exposure" recognizes the need for some kind of shake-up.
"It's gotten too sedentary," cast member John Cullum, who plays tavern owner Holling Vincoeur, says of the show. "If Rob had stayed he would have insisted that we go in some new direction, and the show needs that. We've gotten into doing kind of flaky, repetitive stuff. We've gotten too slick at being offbeat. We need some friction and some excitement."
Some of which, Mr. Cullum hopes, will come from Mr. Provenza and Ms. Polo, whose characters, unfamiliar with the pseudo-mystical quirks of Cicely and its citizens, will notice the kind of local oddities -- moose in the streets, psychic visions, shape shifters -- that longtime residents take for granted.
"I get a lot of scenes where at the end I just go, 'Ah.' " says Mr. Provenza, a stand-up comic whose last steady gig on network television was on the considerably more linear "Empty Nest." "It's like, I don't know what planet I'm on, but I don't want to be rude, so . . .'Ah.' "
As he speaks, there is rain pelting the roof of his trailer, which is just outside the sound stages (a converted sporting goods warehouse in the Seattle suburbs) where all of "Northern Exposure's" interior scenes are filmed. Both he and Ms. Polo found themselves in Seattle less than a week after being cast, leaving little time for either to adjust to the cultural rhythms of the Pacific Northwest.
"I grew up in the Bronx," says Mr. Provenza, 37, who attended London's Royal Academy of Drama Arts, but started doing stand-up at the Improv in New York when he was still in high school. "I live in Los Angeles. So I need crime nearby. Which is hard to find here. I need to be able to walk down the street, get a cup of espresso, a quick bite to eat and some crime. And now they have some here. They had a guy come in."
Ms. Polo, 25, a Delaware native who has lived in New York the last eight years, is similarly impressed with the Northwest. "People actually drive the speed limit," she says with amazement. "And everywhere you turn there's an espresso sign. They have espresso at the local bait and tackle store. Seriously."
Until a few years ago, Ms. Polo was building a feature career of her own (she played Meryl Streep's daughter in "House of Spirits"). But she grew weary of auditioning for the string-bikini parts that inevitably are offered to blond actresses in their 20s.
Looking for parts with more dialogue and less skin, she told her agent this year that she'd consider doing television. "I was willing to wait until the right thing came along," she says. "And this was it."
Mr. Provenza and Ms. Polo's characters, Phillip and Michelle Capra, move to Cicely from Los Angeles seeking adventure and escape from urban life -- unlike Fleischman, who was forced to live there as a condition of his medical school loan.
"In a lot of ways I'm the other side of the equation that Rob's character had," Mr. Provenza explains. "We're both fish out of water, but I'm reaching out for the stuff he was pulling away from. It's a strange place to both of us; the difference is I want to be there.
"And on the most superficial level, I'm going through the same things that my character is. It's identical. Here I am coming into a situation where everybody has known each other for years and I'm the new guy, just trying to figure things out. And this is so different from what I'm used to doing -- sitcoms, where everything is joke, joke, joke. Here we'll go through an entire script, with not one joke in it, and yet we're all laughing. Sometimes the whole joke is that nothing happened. Nothing.
"And that's when I go, 'Ah.' "