Sadly, there's another passing from the world of prime-time television to report.
Last month, it was Angela Chase (Claire Danes) and "My So-Called Life" signing off after a brief and troubled run on ABC. Tonight, Dr. Joel Fleischman leaves CBS' "Northern Exposure" after five seasons, as Rob Morrow goes on to a career in feature films.
Just as Angela Chase was a breakthrough character -- in her case, by bringing the voice of a girl coming-of-age to television -- so was Fleischman.
In the words of an editorial in this week's Baltimore Jewish Times, "Dr. Fleischman seemed to stand Jewishly alone on television: He struggled with the Jewish conundrums provoked by assimilation, and his travails often reflected the crises facing American Jews as a whole . . . Dr. Fleischman was television's most highly developed Jewish character yet."
Indeed, the importance of Fleischman to many Jewish viewers is probably best suggested by the cover story and editorial in the Feb. 3 issue of the Times. The Times story on Fleischman's farewell episode also ran in other Jewish publications across the country.
"Fleischman was a breakthrough character. He explored what it meant to be Jewish in a spiritual sense as no other character on television ever had," Michael Davis, Times editor and former assistant managing editor of The Evening Sun, said last week during a discussion of Jewish television characters. The discussion, which focused on Fleischman, was sponsored by the Baltimore chapter of the Brandeis University National Women's Committee.
In a 1994 article in the academic journal Studies in Popular Culture, Terry Barr saw Fleischman as breakthrough in another way.
"He has allowed mainstream America to identify with as close to a three-dimensional Jew as a popular form of entertainment has heretofore managed," wrote Barr, a professor of English at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C.
Of course, Fleischman is not alone -- there are more than 20 Jewish characters in prime-time TV shows this season.
Nor is Fleischman the first to explore what it means to be Jewish. But, generally, that exploration looked at Jewishness in a superficial, secular, often stereotypical way.
For example, being Jewish meant liking certain foods, having a mother like Rhoda Morgenstern or being slightly neurotic. Regarding the latter, think Paul Reiser's Paul Buchman, Grant Shaud's Miles Silverberg and Jerry Seinfeld's Jerry Seinfeld.
Occasionally, a great series did go beyond the secular. In a 1966 episode of the "Dick Van Dyke Show" titled "Buddy's Bar Mitzvah," Buddy Sorell (Morey Amsterdam) studies with a rabbi so that, as a man, he might have the bar mitzvah he missed as a boy. In 1991 on "thirtysomething," Michael Steadman (Ken Olin) wondered whether his son should be circumcised during a Bris. The episode ended with the ceremony lovingly presented.
But such moments of spirituality were rare, whereas Fleischman has been engaged in a spiritual journey the last five years, wrestling with his Jewishness and assimilation.
"We wanted Joel to have a direct experience of the Almighty. We wanted him to go on a journey, to tear down boundaries and
view God in an all-embracing way," says Andrew Schneider, one of the executive producers of the series.
Tonight's final Fleischman episode is "The Quest," and it's all about the journey of Fleischman's soul.
Maggie O'Connell (Janine Turner) joins Fleischman as he sets off to find the Jeweled City, somewhere beyond the Aleutian Islands. It is all about the hero quest, ritual and Joseph Campbell, with riddles to be solved, gatekeepers to be appeased and dragons (in a manner of speaking) to be battled on the journey.
Fleischman's final passage at the end of tonight's episode is so skillfully handled that it will be open to multiple interpretations, all of which will surely be argued tomorrow morning. To discuss details here would give too much away. Suffice it to say that the final moments of the quest speak directly and profoundly to Fleischman's identity as a Jew.
There is a sense of loss when a character like Fleischman disappears from the television landscape. There's nothing I can say to make that fact go away.
But try to think of Fleischman's departure tonight as a rite of passage rather than a passing. Think of yourself as part of the community of "Northern Exposure" fans who will be gathered to witness the return of the hero at the end of his quest for a spiritual Jewish identity.
"So the story of Joel Fleischman is the story of American Jews," the Times says. "Some of us remain among our people and continue the traditions of our ancestors. The rest leave our homes, as Abraham did, to discover our spiritual selves among strangers."