ATX Television Festival: Northern Exposure

Cicely forever!

It’s been off the air for two-plus decades, but only a few minutes in to a retrospective screening of Northern Exposure, the early Nineties show about a New York doctor uneasily adapting to life in small-town Cicely, Alaska, and you could feel the Alamo Ritz flood with good feelings.

Rob Morrow, Janine Turner, Cynthia Geary, and Adam Arkin (photo by Jack Plunkett)

In advance of a Q&A with cast and crew, ATX Television Festival screened, on Friday, season 1 closer "Aurora Borealis: A Fairy Tale for Big People." Excepting Rob Morrow’s incredibly dated, pleated khakis and rolled-up-sleeves polo, the show hasn’t aged much. It’s still pretty magical – a character-driven, melancholy comedy nimble enough to shimmy between slapstick and references to Nanook of the North, Carl Jung, and “Moonlight Sonata.”

“Aurora Borealis” was originally intended to be the show’s fourth episode. But, as co-creator Joshua Brand explained, “When the network saw it, they thought it was too weird, too odd, and they didn’t want to air it.” Not too weird for viewers, though. As more episodes aired and positive feedback came in from viewers, he said, “We understood that the audience was willing to go on any ride we were going to take them. They were in good hands and we weren’t going to drop them on their head.”

Morrow joked, “I don’t know why everyone keeps saying it was 25 years ago. It was five years ago.” (To be fair, co-stars Janine Turner and Cynthia Geary hardly looked like they’d aged a day.)

The product of a CBS and Universal deal that premiered in the summer, back when the summer was a TV dead zone, Northern Exposure initially didn’t have much of a chance, at least in the network’s opinion. Said Brand, “They had to burn off an eight-episode series. They thought it was a medical show. A medical show in Alaska. … The network didn’t get it. They wanted to call it Doctor Snow.”

Praising the show’s elegant tonal wingspan – “lyrical, spiritual, high-brow and low-brow” – Morrow argued that Northern Exposure was a prime example of why unconventional shows need time to grow and build an audience. “I think if you had put this on as a pilot only, it would never have seen the light of day.”

Creator Joshua Brand, executive producer Robin Green, producer Cheryl Bloch, Rob Morrow, Janine Turner, executive producer Mitchell Burgess, and Cynthia Geary (photo by Jack Plunkett)

In addition to the summer premiere date, the show was then an anomaly for being shot not on a Burbank backlot, but in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. The gorgeous setting became a character unto itself.

Brand: “You know, in real estate, they say ‘Location, location, location.’ Well, look at where we got to shoot. It was not a show that was defined by a directorial style. … You have Janine’s face. You don’t have to be a brilliant director – just make sure it’s in focus.”

Recurring guest star Adam Arkin, sitting in the back of the theatre, was coaxed onstage to talk about his character, the volatile, Bigfoot-esque chef Adam (first introduced in “Aurora Borealis”), and how Northern Exposure gave him his first opportunity to go behind the camera, launching a prolific directing career. Riffing on Brand’s comment, Arkin laughed, “Only now do I know it’s because they knew nobody could screw this up.”

The panel wound down with talk of how hard it’s been for any other show to reproduce Northern Exposure’s unique speed: its kindness and innocence and willingness to explore loss. Turner – who came off tickled pink, reciting lines from the show with perfect recall – noted the efforts of Morrow and costar Darren Burrows to revive the show in the manner of Arrested Development. At the very least, she hoped Universal would put the show out on a streaming service. (It’s currently, criminally only available on DVD.)

The erstwhile cheerleader sweetly urged the audience: “Y’all write letters.”

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