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''Northern Exposure'' debuts

On July 12, 1990 the CBS drama starring Rob Morrow ushered in a new era of amiable weirdness

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Like its protagonist — a young, jewish, New York doctor shipped off to a remote Alaskan hamlet to fulfill a scholarship debt — CBS’ Northern Exposure, which premiered July 12, 1990, was something of a misfit. Neither comedy nor drama, both highbrow and homespun, and teeming with eccentric characters, this kinder, gentler cousin of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (which itself had bowed just three months before) nonetheless proved to be a bracingly cool frontier-scented breeze in the dead of summer.

Set in the fictional burg of Cicely, Exposure was conceived by St. Elsewhere creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey as a whimsical medical drama, intentionally warmer in tone than the wards of St. Eligius. With little fanfare, CBS picked Exposure up for a summer run and introduced us to Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow), the bagel-and-urbanity-deprived doc, and his down-bundled neighbors. They included: Chris (John Corbett), a studly DJ whose tunes were often leavened with Nietzsche readings; Maurice (Barry Corbin), the swaggering ex-astronaut with culinary talent; and Maggie (Janine Turner), the radiant, tomboyish bush pilot whose prolonged flirtation — and, finally, romance — with Fleischman gave the show’s out-there story lines a tautly engaging tether.

The show gradually gained both critical and commercial success. The first complete season of Exposure (1991-92) won both the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series and a place in the ratings top 20. With its quirky plots and gentle envelope-pushing (it featured the first prime-time gay wedding), Exposure became the dominant watercooler program of its day. ”The magic about the show was that it truly believed in this benevolent community of people — without winking at the audience,” says Morrow. ”And it certainly helped that there was something very gypsy-like about the way we made it, traveling to different locations, eating pizza together, like a nomadic film company.”

Unfortunately, the magic was short-lived. Morrow left in the middle of the 1994-95 season to pursue a film career, and with the show waning creatively, CBS canceled it. Today, Morrow is active in indie filmmaking; most recently, he completed Labor Pains, a romantic comedy with Kyra Sedgwick. Turner starred in 1997’s Leave It to Beaver, and has worked in TV films, including this year’s Fatal Error on TBS. Meanwhile, the show itself has enjoyed a sturdy legacy: Exposure fan clubs are still active, and enthusiasts can browse numerous websites devoted to the series. Says Morrow: ”I can’t think of another mirror world more emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually right than the one that we created in Cicely.”

Time Capsule: July 12, 1990
AT THE MOVIES: Bruce Willis yippie-ki-yays his way to the head of the box office in Die Hard 2.
IN MUSIC: M.C. Hammer can’t be touched as he shuffles to the top of Billboard‘s pop chart with Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em.
ON TV: Baseball’s All-Star Game is the most-watched show of the week.
IN BOOKS: Scott Turow’s The Burden of Proof notches a courtroom victory as the No. 1 novel.
AND IN THE NEWS: the Senate passes the Omnibus Crime Bill, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of selected semiautomatic weapons.