For five improbable years, every Monday night, I wanted to be a citizen of Cicely, Alaska. It was a television community so congenial to the fantastic, so forgiving of the eccentric, and so full of people I'd really like to know, that it seemed more like some sort of Buddhist sanctuary than the usual prime-time hospital, penal colony or loony bin.
Ever since, I've needed another Northern Exposure, another generous surprise. It's a category, like cop shows. And in this brand-new TV season, only two series even come close.
That's Life, on CBS Saturday nights, stars Heather Paige Kent as Lydia DeLucca, a 32-year-old bartender in a Frank Sinatra state of mind in blue-collar New Jersey, who decides to improve herself by going to college. This means dumping a dead-end boyfriend, Sonny Marinelli, and mystifying her parents, homemaker Ellen Burstyn and turnpike toll-collector Paul Sorvino. ("You want to find yourself? Go to Mass."]
Fortunately, she has friends: the gum-chewing hair stylist Debi Mazar and the former Miss New Jersey Kristin Bauer. But most of all, writing a paper while everybody else is watching football on television, she has her smart self. Her paper is all about free will and determinism, and so is Lydia.
Whereas in Ed, Sundays on NBC, Tom Cavanagh goes back instead of forward. Dismissed by his big-city law firm, cuckolded by his wife with their mailman, Ed returns to his hometown of Stuckeyville to regroup. And there he discovers that Julie Bowen, on whom he had a crush in high school, now teaches English at that high school, is still radiant, and hasn't quite married yet. So he will court her; first, in a suit of knightly armor; and then, by buying the local bowling alley, from which he will also practice makeshift law. Maybe you really can go home agan.
Did you know that Herman Melville, between whales, was once upon a time a pin-boy in a bowling alley in Hawaii? People have been hurling stones at standing objects from a distance of 60 feet ever since the ancient Polynesians, and nobody knows why, but never before has it been romantic.
I'm not saying, at least not yet, that either of these series will prove to another Northern Exposure, the Paris Commune and Plato's Republic of network whimsy. But Lydia and Ed are citizens of the Alaska state of mind -- the dream of community.