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Guided Without a ‘Northern’ Star : Show’s Quiz: How to Handle Rob Morrow’s Departure?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Northern Exposure” has always been the story of a fish out of water.

For five hit seasons on CBS, the eccentricities of Cicely, Alaska, have been refracted through the eyes of Joel Fleischman, a confirmed New Yorker reluctantly stuck in the isolated Alaskan town to repay the state for his medical scholarship.

Rob Morrow, the actor who plays Fleischman, was similarly bound to his TV contract. But over the summer he successfully fought to get out in order to pursue film roles. When last seen two weeks ago, Fleischman had abandoned his obsessive ways and moved up river to hang loose with natives in a primitive village.

So what do you do when the fish gets away?

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You haul out a couple more from the drink. In tonight’s episode, comedian Paul Provenza and actress Teri Polo are introduced as Dr. Phillip Capra and his wife, Michelle, an urban couple who are sick of city life. Capra gives up his flourishing practice in Los Angeles to search for paradise lost on the frozen tundra.

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Rather than lament the departure of Morrow, the producers and cast of “Northern Exposure” seem downright effusive over the rare opportunity in episodic television to change course.

“Ironically, now that Rob’s leaving, it’s helped the show,” said Janine Turner, who plays Maggie O’Connell, Fleischman’s off-and-on-again romantic interest. “Before, the show almost seemed to be written episode to episode. This year, they’re having to give some thought to character arcs, and they had to really think about how to get Fleischman off the show. So the scripts are more zany and exciting and full of life.”

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Fleischman isn’t gone yet. The character will appear in every episode of the series until his final farewell during the February ratings sweeps. For the next several weeks, he will remain in the small fishing village as different characters take pilgrimages to visit him and say goodby.

“The trouble with television is that characters can’t change and don’t change,” said executive producer David Chase. “This is a good opportunity for us to have Joel change, so all this hasn’t been for nothing. And in the same way, the show can possibly change.”

“Northern Exposure,” while still quite successful, could nonetheless use a slight transfusion. Its ratings are down about 11% this season, and fans have been complaining for more than a year that the characters have stopped developing. The writing had its moments, many said, but the episodes became darker and moodier, with less of the eclectic music that was the show’s trademark (two record albums have been released with songs used on the series).

“They still pull an ace out of their hat on occasion. But those occasions are getting further and further apart,” one fan, Gerry Ashley, wrote on a “Northern Exposure” computer bulletin board recently. “This is precisely why I feel that the end of the Joel and Maggie plot line (as sad as it is for some of us) offers a chance for the show’s rebirth. Sure it won’t be the same show. But the way it’s been lately, that’s good news.”

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In the past, O’Connell was mostly a counterpoint to Fleischman, as well as a periodic romantic entanglement. With Morrow leaving the show, the producers finally had a chance this season to bring them together--they got engaged--only to realize they were simply too different to cohabitate. O’Connell’s spurning of Fleischman sent him off on his journey of self-discovery.

“I have an episode with him right out of ‘Heart of Darkness,’ where I travel the river to find him and have an encounter with him that is really profound on me,” said Provenza, who was last seen hosting “Comics Only” on Comedy Central. “His departure is really integral to the show--not just serviceable.”

In Morrow’s wake, Turner lobbied the producers, the studio and the network for a return to her old, quirky, headstrong character, and she got it. (One fan on the Prodigy computer service referred to the character of the last few seasons as “Maggie Lite.”)

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In coming weeks, O’Connell will become mayor of the town and a major player to rival Maurice, thanks to a financial inheritance she receives. There are also plans for a romance with the philosophical deejay Chris Stevens, played by John Corbett, who grows suddenly attracted to her upon seeing a gavel in her hand.

Turner said she now feels “refreshed and inspired” going to work, compared with last season when she felt “repressed and trapped.” In the past, most of Turner’s scenes were with Morrow, who reportedly gained a difficult reputation on the set.

“Before this, I haven’t had much of a chance to work with (Corbett),” Turner said. “I’ve never had more fun on the set. It’s kind of like getting out of a bad marriage--you don’t know how good it can be till you leave.”

Turner was angry at first when she learned Morrow was quitting without having told her. He is in negotiations to play a public defender representing Sharon Stone on Death Row in “The Last Dance,” to be directed by Bruce Beresford. Like Morrow, who has been fielding film offers since appearing in director Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show,” Turner became a movie commodity after starring opposite Sylvester Stallone in “Cliffhanger.” But, out of loyalty, she decided to remain with the series until her contract runs out after next season, provided her role was beefed up.

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In the meantime, the town of Cicely will now be treated by a new doctor, whose wife is a travel writer for in-flight magazines. The producers regularly explored Fleischman’s Jewishness; now they will delve into Capra’s Catholicism.

And, while the characters of “Northern Exposure” are no longer fresh to viewers, they will be fresh to the two newcomers, who can provide perspective and commentary, the producers say.

“In the beginning, the audience was oblivious to the town of Cicely, and Rob’s character was a sort of liaison, going into this world we don’t know,” Provenza said. “Now everyone knows the world so well, and my character is the one who is discovering it. The audience is in on it more than my character, so they’re watching my reactions to what they have grown to know and love. The reason my character needs a wife is because there’s nobody else for me to connect with and share my thoughts.”

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These fish differ from the earlier one in another significant way.

“They want to be in Cicely,” executive producer Diane Frolov said. But, in other respects, she added, it’s still “Northern Exposure”: “Joel was our eyes, and basically these new characters will fulfill that function. The fish out of water is still the premise of the show.”

* “Northern Exposure” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on CBS (Channels 2 and 8).


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