Farewell to Cicely

Quirky treatment of 'Exposure' an ironic end to a graceful series

Seattle Post-Intelligencer - 5/31/95

by John Engstrom

ROSLYN, Wash. - For most of its five seasons, "Northern Exposure" thrived on quirk, but in the end it was quirky stuff that killed it.

Not the softly bent characters or gently twisted story lines, but the unbelievably quirky way CBS abused and then blew away a perfectly good series at a time when the troubled network was desperate for any show with a pulse.

After the TV version of folding, mutilating and spindling, CBS finally put "Northern Exposure" out of its misery last week, canceling the series when the network amounced its fall schedule.

The end had been expected by everyone involved with the show, which was shot mostly in the Cascades foothills town of Roslyn and at a sound stage tucked away in a Redmond industrial park.

In an interview earlier this month, before she suffered a near-fatal rupture of her aorta, actress Peg Phillips described her parting when the series finished shooting what everyone suspected was the last episode.

"It was so sad," said Phillips, 77, who played Ruth-Anne Miller, feisty owner of Cicely's general store. "I had to leave in a hurry. I said, 'Goodbye, darlings, I've got to get out of here before I cry.'

"A series just takes up your whole life. You form these attachments. And then it's gone. It was very, very difficult emotionally."

Three original episodes remain to air and CBS will show them sometime this summer.

The first two are not great, Phillips said, but the finale is better, shot much like a series farewell. Cicely's several couples each find a note of closure or a new beginning, and the final scene is a last look at Cicely/Roslyn as an old pickup truck drives down a deserted street.

It's a leave-taking as gentle as the show's arrival.

"Northern Exposure" slipped quietly as a moccasin tread onto the CBS schedule in July 1990 for a two-month sununer tryout. No industry buzz preceded it, not even a whisper about this funny, feeling little show about the human condition as revealed when a Jewish New York doctor is forced into a fish-out-of-water relationship with the unusual residents of Cicely, Alaska.

Viewers gave it a few sniffs; some found themselves delighted.

CBS finally brought "Northern Exposure" back as a mid-season replacement the following April and it soon became a ratings-winner in the powerful Monday night lineup that helped CBS climb to No. 1.

For the next few years, the lives of cast members became entwined in the Seattle area.

Like any family, they had their ups and downs. There were marriages (Darren E. Burrows and Cynthia Geary, not to each other), a broken leg (Barry Corbin), gall bladder surgery (Janine Turner), connections to the local club scene (John Corbett), and work with local theaters (John Cullum). Several got national ads and commercial voiceovers.

Work on the set swirled around two of the most temperamental actors in the business. Rob Morrow (Dr. Joel Fleischman) leveled ego-centered demands for acting perfection. Turner (Maggie O'Connell) threw a stream of fits over things like her toy white poodle, or a gray hair found (and unwisely mentioned) by a stylist.

"Northern Exposure'' never cracked the top 10 in ratings for a full season, ranking No. 11 once and No. 16 twice, but it had a loyal following of the deeply devoted.

Memories of special episodes or scenes were treated like family jewels:

• When chris catapulted a piano across the countryside in search of the perfect moment. [3.14 Burning Down the House]

• Ed's 75th birthday gift to Ruth-Anne - a beautiful, isolated gravesite, where they danced to celebrate life.[3.8 A-Hunting We Will Go]

• Maurice's bottled 70-million-year-old water that flipped townfolk into a sexual role reversal. [6.12 Horns]

• And especially the wonderfully realized tale of the town's founding by lesbians Roslyn and Cicely. [3.23 Cicely]

The show's ratings began to slip in the 1993-94 season, when new writers and producers couldn't keep the scripts up to standard.

Then came this past season, when CBS tossed "Northern Exposure" to the wolves.

Throughout, there was almost no promotion by the network. And the season began with the drawn-out departure of Fleischman over 13 increasingly boring episodes, ending with a disappointing resolution.

In the midst of this came The Move. CBS needed to save "Chicago Hope" from the bashing it was taking by NBC's "ER" on Thursdays. Suddenly in early January, with a wham-bam and not so much asa thank you, "Northern Exposure" was dumped onto Wednesdays, where CBS was horribly weak, while "Chicago Hope" inherited the cozy Monday time slot.

After Fleischman's dissapearance in February, a new doctor and his wife were added to the show, but they never became more than shallow irritants.

It was the move to Wednesdays that ultimately doomed the show which might have been dead anyway because of the callous CBS treatment and Morrow's farewell.

"Northern Exposure" ranked 25th when it was moved. It finished this season tied for 40th, down 3 million viewers a week from the previous year, a 22 percent drop.

While no new episodes will be made, the series remains available in syndication.

Nationally, reruns air on 190 stations covering 96 of the top 100 markets.

Though the official cancellation came Wednesday, the network and production studio had already called the cast and thanked them for their work. Goodbye gifts had been sent out to publicists who worked on the show. And an unofficial wake had begun.

''After the shooting was all done, I still would wake up in the morning and want to get up and drive through the gate and visit with my friends in the production office," said Phillips.

"I loved that, because, you know, we had the only completely nonviolent drama show on TV. How can they let it just end like this?"

How, indeed.

Northern Exposure is Copyright Universal City Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Created 2/21/02
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