By Tanner Stransky
July 12, 2010 at 02:00 PM EDT

Image Credit: CBS/LandovExpectations were low when CBS launched Northern Exposure in the middle of July, traditionally a TV dead zone. “I don’t know whose idea it was to launch in the summer,” says Rob Morrow, who starred as Joel Fleischman, a New York City doctor forced to relocate to tiny Cicely, Alaska, where he discovers a bevy of wacky townspeople, including love interest Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner). “I don’t think anyone had any idea what they had on their hands.”

Critics took to the show’s sweet, quirky sensibility, and the program quickly developed a cult following. Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker gave the first episode a B+, writing that Exposure “may well prove to be summer television’s most likably eccentric series.” CBS stuck with the show despite so-so ratings, eventually moving it from Thursday to Monday. Suddenly, the network found itself with a bona fide hit — something that became obvious, Morrow says, when engineers showed up one day to reinforce the flimsy set. ”We were thinking, They made us work like that?” he recalls with a laugh. “Now they have an interest in us!”

The surging rating — and infusion of cash — allowed Exposure‘s writers to take risks with story lines,

which included prime time’s first gay wedding. The show went on to win the Outstanding Drama Series Emmy in 1992, as well as two Golden Globes and two Peabody awards. “As a series, it has a benevolence about it, and an intelligence,” says Morrow, who will star on ABC’s legal drama The Whole Truth this fall. “It spoke to the heart in a way that was refreshing. That is refreshing still.”