By Mark Harris & Kelli Pryor
In the old coal-mining hamlet of Roslyn, Wash. (population 869), a TV crew is creating springtime: One guy is spray-painting a pine tree a more youthful green, the prop assistants are bringing in potted plants, and an animal handler is wrangling a skittish squirrel onto a stump to eat a scenically placed nut. The producers of CBS’ year-old series Northern Exposure scouted more than five states and Canada in search of a town to stand in for fictional Cicely, Alaska. Finally they settled on Roslyn and rolled in to capture its natural beauty — and to touch it up just a bit.
If you happen into the Roslyn Cafe (famous from the show’s credits) when a few locals are warming their hands around mugs of coffee, the cook might tell about the time he woke up in the still-murky morning and heard a voice calling, ”Here, boy. Here, boy.” When he looked out the window, he saw the Exposure crew cajoling an impassive moose into taking a stroll on camera. Since last summer, Roslyn’s citizens have learned to expect anything. But they haven’t spotted anything stranger than what viewers see on Monday nights.
Since it turned up with little fanfare as a 1990 summer replacement, Exposure has explored a terrain like no other on television, somewhere between sitcom and drama, fact and fable, a dramatic crossroads where medicine meets magic and where a single story can teeter teasingly between tall tale and outright fantasy. It’s a complicated balance, but creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey have kept the show’s tone precisely calibrated.
Now, at a time when style setters from thirtysomething to Twin Peaks have been canceled and the hour-long quality drama is an endangered species, Exposure is, amazingly, flourishing. After modest success last summer, followed by a six-month absence, the show returned this spring and the audience grew to match its reputation. The season finale reached Nielsen’s top 10, and this summer, as more viewers discover the show before new episodes air in September, Northern Exposure has become the season’s least likely and most delightful new hit.
The premise sounds TV-traditional: A young doctor, Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow), who thrives on the cranky urban-neurotic hyperactivity of New York City, is transplanted to a tiny Alaskan village to work off his med-school scholarship. He’s schooled in science; the locals are steeped in folklore and custom. He cures with Medicare; they prefer mud packs. But thousands of miles away from Hollywood’s assembly line, Brand, Falsey, and their talented ensemble of writers and actors work wonders, transforming real-life Roslyn into a town that’s far too sophisticated for TV’s standard culture-clash stereotypes. Cicely’s locals aren’t yokels — every week, their inner lives are revealed in surprising and hilarious ways.
See Maggie (Janine Turner), that crisply gorgeous, self-sufficient bush pilot? Well, she’s also an unwitting black widow spider who builds personalized shrines to her boyfriends after they die — and all four (oops — make that five) have indeed met grisly ends. And Marilyn Whirlwind (Elaine Miles), the receptionist who believes so firmly in house calls that she provides road maps when Dr. Fleischman asks for a patient’s chart? She also hands out effective home remedies with a shy smile. Local teenager Ed Chigliak (Darren E. Burrows) may seem a bit thickheaded, but his obtuseness masks a genius IQ and a cineast’s passion to become Alaska’s own Ingmar Bergman.
Then there’s Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin), the blustery, bullying town tycoon whose personal and professional résumé — ex-astronaut, halfhearted bigot, gourmet cook, show-tune fan, lovelorn bachelor — doesn’t begin to encompass his complexity. Maurice owns the town’s only radio station, where itinerant ladies’ man and morning deejay Chris Stevens (John Corbett) regularly infuriates him by devoting airtime to War and Peace readings or discussions of homoeroticism in Walt Whitman’s poems. Maurice was once in love with Shelly (Cynthia Geary), a teenage nymphet who has instead found almost-wedded bliss with the kindly, perpetually startled 63-year-old barkeep Holling Vincoeur (John Cullum) — except when quarrels over their new TV satellite dish impede their romance. Add in the characters who give the show its surreal halo — an Indian spirit who walks through the fields, a Sasquatch who’s revealed to be a vagrant chef — and Northern Exposure offers a blend of folksy coziness, otherworldly mythos — and, always, the unexpected — that puts it in a class by itself.