For a good laugh, expose yourself to 'Northern Exposure'

April 08, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Northern Exposure" returns tonight at 10 on WBAL-TV (Channel 11). And if CBS has any brains, it will never again let this series leave the schedule. It is one of the smartest and funniest hours anywhere on television.

Some viewers might not be familiar with the show, which stars Rob Morrow as Dr. Joel Fleischman, a Columbia University medical school graduate practicing in the sticks of Cicely, Alaska. That's because CBS has never been too sure about the quirky show and scheduled it as a summer replacement last year.

By the time the reviews and ratings convinced CBS that it had something special, the network was already locked into a fall schedule of such watershed programs as "Uncle Buck." There was no room for "Northern Exposure."

ZTC If you haven't seen "Northern Exposure," think of it as a "Twin Peaks" that's funny and almost makes sense. Some of the small town stuff is as weird as what goes on in "Twin Peaks," but without that show's self-indulgence. "Exposure" is weirdness that almost anyone should be able to relate to, strangeness that reflects real behavior turned up a notch in the direction of the absurd for laughs.

Fleischman is a New Yorker whose medical education was financed by a small town in exchange for his commitment to set up practice there for a few years after graduation. It's sort of a med school version of ROTC.

Now Fleischman is doing his time in Cicely and feeling homesick, alienated, a warm fish in a snowbank -- even though he kind of likes some of the townfolk. Tonight, he's about to return to New York for two weeks when he is crushed by a "Dear Joel" letter from his girlfriend.

This plot description gives little sense of the loopy-wry-pop-culture texture of the show. It starts with the opening credits: A chromatic harmonica plays a peppy song with a rhumba beat while a gangly moose strolls down Cicely's main street. It continues through informed references to other TV shows, a dream-sequence parody of "The Graduate" and a couple of genuinely touching moments involving Fleischman and some of his new friends in Cicely.

This show is funny the way "M*A*S*H" was. But it's also profound in what it says about alienation and relationships in an age where traditional notions of neighborhood and family no longer work for many of us.

Funny and profound. Let's hope that's enough to keep it on the CBS schedule.

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