Northern Exposure made its first appearance as an eight-week Thursday-night "tryout" on CBS in the late summer of 1990. With swift, sure strokes, the series' producers quickly established that 27-year-old Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow), freshly graduated from Columbia University Medical School, was required to spend four years working in Anchorage, AK, to pay off 125,000 dollars in student loans. Though Joel had seldom strayed off his native Manhattan Island, he took a deep breath and prepared for his journey northward (the alternative was a 10,000-dollar fine and/or 18 years in jail). Upon arrival in Anchorage, Joel discovered that his services were no longer required -- but there was an opening in the tiny (population 815) Alaskan village of Cicely, whose only doctor had just died. Throughout the eight episodes of Northern Exposure's first season, Joel bemoans his "exile," desperately tries to pull strings to get out of his contract...and slowly, almost imperceptably becomes adjusted to his new life in Cicely.
Just as the series wasted no time in establishing its locale and premise, so too did the writers vividly bring the other characters to life with efficiency and economy. During season one, the viewer was introduced to Joel's attractive landlady Maggie O'Connell (Janine Turner), the local air-taxi pilot, whose love life was complicated by an inexplicable "curse" whereby all of her boyfriends were doomed to die under bizarre but undeniably amusing circumstances (her latest beau, fellow pilot Rick Pederson (Grant Goodeve), knew he was living on borrowed time, but managed to survive the series' first season). Also seen for the first time were worldly ex-astronaut Maurice J. Minnifield (Barry Corbin), who owned Cicely lock, stock, and barrel, and entertained dreams of transforming the remote community into the "Alaskan Riviera"; Maurice's best friend, the aggressively masculine tavern owner Holling Vicoeur (John Cullum); Holling's 18-year-old fiancée, Shelly Tambo (Cynthia Geary), former "Miss Northwest Passage"; Maurice's Native American assistant, Ed Chigliak (Darren E. Burrows), an orphan with a murky past and an overwhelming desire to gain fame as a big-bucks moviemaker; and Chris Danforth (John Corbett), the quirky, poetic morning DJ on Cicely's radio station KBHR, who functioned as the series' combination narrator and Greek chorus. Also seen in these formative episodes were Ruth-Anne Miller (Peg Phillips), no-nonsense proprietor of the local general store, and Marilyn Whirlwind (Elaine Miles), a poker-faced Eskimo who worked as a nurse in Joel's medical office.
By the end of season one, the series had introduced at least two of the peripheral characters who would add to the funkiness and eccentricities of Cicely from time to time. The first was Adam (Adam Arkin), a shaggy, sociopathic brute who happened to be a "damn good" gourmet cook; and the second was Bernard (Richard Cummings Jr.), a peripatetic African-American who turned out to be the rootless Chris Danforth's half brother. Although Northern Exposure set no fires in the ratings, the word-of-mouth buzz about the series was sufficiently encouraging for CBS to give it another limited-run tryout in the spring of 1991. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi
- Rob Morrow, Janine Turner, (more)