Welcome back, 'Northern Exposure'

Television

April 08, 1991|By Michael Hill

"Alaska represents to us not just a state, but a state of mind," John Falsey said of the setting of "Northern Exposure," the wonderful bit of serious whimsy that returns to CBS' schedule tonight.

"It's a place where the Northern Lights are magical," he said. "Wonderful things happen there. Ultimately we see it as a benign universe, a place that in the end affirms that life is good."

Your tour guide to this bit of well-rooted surreality is one Dr. Joel Fleischman, a born-and-bred New Yorker, eager to blaze a yuppie trail, whose pact with the devil was to agree to work in Alaska for four years in return for his medical school tuition.

To his surprise, he was shipped to the mythical small, remote town of Cicely where his view of reality -- that accepted by the vast majority of the modern world -- puts him in a distinct minority.

Falsey and Josh Brand, who created "St. Elsewhere" and "A Year in the Life," came up with "Northern Exposure" for a limited run last summer, part of a wave of first-run programming that was put on to try to stem audience desertion during rerun season.

"Northern Exposure" was the only survivor of that now apparently abandoned programming experiment. Its return will be on Channel 11 (WBAL) at 10 p.m.

Last summer, Fleischman, played by Rob Morrow, met his match in Maggie, played by Janine Turner, Cicely's resident bush pilot and all-around handywoman. In tonight's episode, Fleischman gets a see-you-later letter from his New York fiance which clears his deck for the possibility of romance with Maggie.

"We're probably going to be a little sexier in these eight episodes," is the way Falsey put it.

The subplot tonight shows the real potential of "Northern Exposure." It deals with what you would think would be a taboo subject for a series -- addiction to TV.

The sixtysomething bar owner buys a satellite dish for his twentysomething bombshell pseudo wife and she can't tear herself away from it, watching programs from all over the world. It's a plot that makes its point about television, but also about seemingly isolated small towns that these days are literally tuned into the entire world.

It's bit crazy, a bit surreal. Even with Fleischman's breakup story, there are fantasy sequences, perhaps showing that Brand and Falsey remembered from their "St. Elsewhere" days that there's excitement out there on the cutting edge, a place they didn't visit with the laudable, but standard-issue, "A Year in the Life," thereby losing the critical battle to another family-oriented show that premiered that year, the more experimental "thirtysomething."

Next week goes a step further as an Indian character is visited by a spirit as he searches for the identity of his parents. Only the Indians can see the spirit, he remains invisible to the whites.

An intelligent, though still humorous, treatment of Native Americans has been one of the hallmarks of "Northern Exposure."

"We wanted to put this show in Alaska and not have it look like it was not in the continental United States," Brand said. "One way we could do that was by including Native Americans.

"We can't go up to the Brooks Range," he said, referring to the northernmost mountains in Alaska. "But we can give you Indians."

"Northern Exposure" is actually filmed in Washington state, near where "Twin Peaks" does its exteriors. As Brand and Falsey talked a few weeks ago in their offices Los Angeles, they were fretting over the first-too-much, then-too-little snowfall conditions that had delayed production by a week.

The two of them visited Alaska last fall, something they had never done before coming up with "Northern Exposure."

"We came away wanting to do a show about how the physical environment can affect people's mental state," Brand said. "We have an episode that happens right before the ice breaks in the rivers. It causes a lot of tension in the town."

Brand pointed out that it is the physical environment that is the ultimate reason for the differences among people, causing some cultures to develop one way, others in another way.

"The people in Alaska are just like the people in Seattle except there's an absence of sunlight for half the year," he said.

"Some of what we think about what's going on up in Alaska is the way we used to think about the old West, the wild West," he said.

"It gives everything a sort of heightened reality. We try to take that feeling and put it into the daily lives of these people."

The results are funny, touching, amusing and poignant. Welcome back, "Northern Exposure."

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