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Thursday, March 5, 2015

TV Pilot (Heaven!) - Northern Exposure (1992)
Northern Exposure (1990-1995; CBS)

Creators: Joshua Brand and Joe Falsey
Starring: Rob Morrow, Barry Corbin, Janie Turner

When I was a kid, there was a lot of hype surrounding Northern Exposure.  It aired as a mid-season replacement on CBS in the Summer of 1990.  After CBS’s 10pm timeslot opened up with that Spring’s finale of the beloved Newhart and the failure of The Dave Thomas Comedy Show, this little series came out of nowhere and become a winning and beloved titan in the eyes of millions. Morrow plays Joel Fleischman, a New York doctor who is given an opportunity to work in lovely Anchorage, Alaska, but his big greeting to the city hospital does not go as planned.  He is informed his position was full and was redirected to the small, fictional town of Cicely, Alaska where he is greeted by a shrewd former astronaut who is consumed by his desire to turn his small hole-in-the-wall town into a booming resort.  Trapped in this strange place due to a legal contract, the breaking of which could result in a prison sentence, Joel opens a small practice with only the help of the awkward Marilyn.  Joel interacts with the locals, including a tomboyish pilot and a friendly young leather-clad bro-dude, and it all seems he has to make the best of it while he waits for his wife (who is still in the big city) to finally arrive in town.

Northern Exposure had a lot going for it; a funny premise, a smart and talented cast and a great team of writers, but the show had a troubled history behind the scenes.  After the first few seasons were extremely successful, CBS inexplicably cut the show mid-season to air new test programming during Sweeps.  This killed any momentum the show had for that running season.  Other issues, including actors demanding more pay and a failed list of new characters being introduced drive viewers away, resulting the in the show’s ultimate cancellation.  A lot of this could be traced back to some of its stars (Morrow in-particular), moving into film.  Morrow landed a major role in the critical darling Quiz Show, and as a result he began to seek either more compensation from CBS, or better film roles.  Sadly, his film career never really took off.  He’s a charismatic performer, good looking and was adaptable, able to play different types of characters, but ultimately his career landed him back in TV on the quality crime thriller Numb3rs after a decade of movie flops.
This is an example of how a very simple premise, a likeable cast and a smart team of writers can create something special under very strenuous circumstances.  A midseason replacement always has a few things going against it.  First, it moves in to fill a time slot for a show that people just did not watch.  Reason then dictates they were watching something else.  DVR was not a thing, and while you could record a different channel on the VCR at the same time, it was still a toss-up battling two other networks’ existing programming (Fox did not have a slot past 10pm).  Secondly, there is the risk of the network experimenting with other new programming for the Fall season.  This is what happened in Northern Exposure in its last year, with CBS breaking the season up to test other new shows in its slot.  The final major obstacle for this series was the fact that it ran on Monday nights, meaning for several months out of the year it was competing with ABC’s Monday Night Football.  

All-in-all, Northern Exposure tenaciously triumphed over great adversity thanks to a devoted fanbase and the chops that come from being a multi-year Emmy and Golden Globe nominee.  The final season’s cast and crew changes did it in, but that happens all of the time with TV, and the fact that this show lasted for four seasons is quite the accomplishment because most shows do not make it that far, even some really good ones.  It’s a funny, well-written show with a lot of warmth (in spite of the climate) and lastly, I’m willing to bet the mooseburger is actually quite delicious.

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