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TV critics get ''Dr. Quinn'' wrong

TV critics get ”Dr. Quinn” wrong — Jane Seymour surprises everyone in CBS’s new TV hit series

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Jane Seymour owns the tiniest waist, flowingest hair, and prettiest cowgirl skirts allowed by law on a 43-year-old mother of two. She also boasts the best posture, velvetiest skin, and liltingest English voice sanctioned by Hollywood as suitable to represent the sun-scorched old American West — which Seymour does on CBS’ Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, playing Michaela Quinn, a Boston physician who moves to the post-Civil War Colorado frontier. But the lady doc is not all proper etiquette and delicate pantaloons: In fact, after only a year Seymour’s Quinn may have become the most influential woman on network television.

With a sod-busting 22 million viewers a week, seeded heavily with young women, Dr. Quinn has quietly instigated several television revolutions, some of which are just now becoming evident to viewers. Most significantly, it has reinvigorated the previously dead hour-long family drama; other bucolic intergenerational series have crowded the post-Olympics airwaves, from ABC’s The Byrds of Paradise and CBS’ The Road Home to CBS’ new daughter-of-Quinn period drama, Christy. In addition, the show has revitalized once-mordant Saturday evening network viewing, pulling CBS from fourth to first place for the night and helping it maintain No. 1 status overall despite its post-Lillehammer fade; revived the TV Western, along with its 10 p.m. guy-appeal counterpart, Walker, Texas Ranger, with which it has created a clever programming sandwich; and brought a ’90s feminist agenda to the classic Hollywood interplay between cowboys and Indians — correction, between frontierspersons and Native Americans.

Oh, and it has brought a ’90s age-of-caution twist to romance, as Michaela inflames the heart of strong, silent, buckskin-clad mountain man Byron Sully (Joe Lando of One Life to Live), yet remains a virgin.

Meanwhile, cynical critics have been left in the dust, simultaneously contemptuous and awestruck by Quinn’s not-just-a-one-season-fluke success.

Perched in her trailer in the hills outside Los Angeles that have been transformed into 1867 Colorado Springs — if that town had stocked camera dollies, boom mikes, and Ray Bans at the general store — Seymour sits with her back straight, and her lace-up boots gleam without a trace of frontier mud. ”Oh!” she lilts. ”You wouldn’t believe the people that watch this show! It’s about the only show that you can really sit down and watch with your entire family, male and female, old and young, and everybody gets something out of it. I don’t think the critics even really watched it, to be perfectly honest. I think they just kind of put it on and went, ‘Oh, it’s soft, it’s not Northern Exposure, it’s not quirky, it looks normal,’ and therefore passed.”

In fact, many critics didn’t simply pass — they trampled on the series, flinging accusations of ”treacle” and overbearing political correctness when it first appeared on New Year’s Day 1993, as a mid-season replacement for Frannie’s Turn and Brooklyn Bridge. And who didn’t giggle at Quinn’s unlikely premise — Michaela battles frontier hardships while singlehandedly maintaining her neighbors’ health and raising three adopted children and chastely stoking the sparks with Natural Man Sully, yet resisting any conflagration from those desires.

”Oh yeah, Sully’s been awfully patient,” says Lando, fingering the impressive tomahawk with which Sully communicates far more eloquently than with mere White Man’s words. ”This guy is really emotional, he’s sensitive, and he’s definitely whupped when it comes to Dr. Mike. Hey, he’s been out here alone in the woods all these years with his wolf,” says Lando, referring to the sidekick — actually, a Malamute — who accompanies Sully everywhere. ”What’s a couple more years until she breaks down?”

”When they said to me, ‘You’re playing a virgin,’ I said, ‘Oh God!”’ recalls Seymour with a laugh as, a few steps away from her door, young men thrilled to be in show business scoop genuine Western horse droppings into a wheelbarrow. ”I could just see the jokes. But actually, it’s a wonderful romance, because it’s so appropriate in this day and age.” Seymour’s wisdom on the subject cannot be discounted: She has appeared, invariably with romance in the script, in more than 40 TV dramas, including War and Remembrance and East of Eden (earning her the royal title Queen of the Miniseries); she is the author of the 1983 book Jane Seymour’s Guide to Romantic Living; she owns a terribly romantic 1,000-year-old manor house near Bath, England; and she recently married her fourth husband, actor-director James Keach (brother of actor Stacy Keach), 46, who has directed occasional Dr. Quinn episodes and whose floral watercolors brighten her dressing room.

Despite Seymour’s marquee value, Dr. Quinn had not been expected to do well. After all, with Saturday viewing co-opted by cable and video rentals, CBS hadn’t had a hit series that night since The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1977. ”But I knew people were home watching TV,” says series creator and executive producer Beth Sullivan. ”Baby boomers were there — I know, because I’m a baby boomer and I’m home.” Sullivan, 44, who also created 1992’s short-lived series The Trials of Rosie O’Neill, had unsuccessfully pitched ideas to the network before. This time she asked for guidance. The Hallmark production of Sarah, Plain and Tall had just done exceptionally well for CBS, ”so they suggested a period piece with a woman and, since it was going to be a series, something with a franchise.”

Sullivan, who minored in history in college, loved the post-Civil War era. ”You know, they were more politically correct then than we are now,” she continues, addressing criticism of the show’s omnipresent earnestness. ”They had nudist colonies, they had women running for President, there was the emancipation of the slaves. Women were making important contributions.”

Lando was signed immediately, but the list of actresses who wouldn’t commit to the series was long (including Mel Harris), and Seymour was cast at the last minute. (Lando and Seymour romanced briefly after the pilot was shot and before Seymour, then separated from third husband David Flynn, connected with Keach.)

Sold to more than 75 countries, the series has been renewed for another season, during which, Sullivan suggests, proper Dr. Quinn might actually make a questionable judgment or two. ”We’ve tried to soften her, give her character some flaws,” she says.

And will Michaela give in to Sully, too? ”Well,” says Seymour, ”I think (our relationship) is hotter than the two of us taking our clothes off and climbing into bed and saying, you know, ‘What position are we gonna choose tonight, honey?’ But who knows? All kinds of things could happen.”

Out on the set, women dressed as prostitutes chat with men dressed as soldiers in General Custer’s army. Lando, rehearsing, gets set to straddle a horse. A hawk circles high overhead. For a moment the landscape looks as it might have more than a hundred years ago. With not a TV critic in sight.

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