SEATTLE -- In keeping with a growing trend in television of introducing positive gay characters, CBS-TV's hit series 'Northern Exposure' winds up its season May 18 with an episode about the lesbian couple that founded the fictional town of Cicely.
The story, filmed in a turn-of-the-century set built outside Seattle just for this episode, centers on the town's establishment in 1909 by lesbian partners Roslyn and Cicely. They are the second homosexual couple for the show -- which twice has featured Ron and Erick, who own and operate a bed-and-breakfast -- and their presense is barely raising an eyebrow.
More and more, homosexuals are coming out on television. NBC's 'Cheers' recently featured playwright/actor Harvey Fierstein as Rebecca's old high school sweetheart, and 'Roseanne,' 'The Golden Girls,' 'Designing Women,' 'L.A. Law' and 'thirtysomething' have all depicted non-heterosexual characters.
Chris Fowler, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, or GLAAD, said television is miles ahead of films in the positive portrayal of homosexual characters.
'The incidence of gay characters in episodic television series is phenomenal,' he said. 'There is a desperate need for positive images in the media, and television is definitely more willing to take a risk than movies.'
In stark contrast, he and others note, are such movies as 'The Silence of the Lambs' and 'Basic Instinct,' which both portrayed homosexuals as psychotic killers and prompted nationwide protests and demonstrations.
Fowler said GLAAD, which seeks to raise awareness about gay-bashing in the media, regularly recognizes in its newsletter the films and television programs that portray positive and accurate images of homosexuals.
Fowler said there is still a lot of room for improvement in the film and televison industry, because even though there have been several gay characters on regular series, only one, 'Rosanne,' has had a recurring character. GLAAD's hope, he said, is that 'Northern Exposure' will make Ron and Erick recurring characters.
'Northern Exposure,' which is filmed in Redmond and Roslyn, Wash., first aired as a summer series in July 1990. It was added to CBS's regular Monday night lineup in March 1991. It has consistently remained among the top 10 rated shows each week.
The show received three 1991 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Drama Series, and Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series. The series was recently renewed for two more years.
Andrew Schneider co-wrote this season's final episode with his wife and partner, Diane Frolov. Schneider said the story focuses on how Roslyn and Cicely came to the town to create an artists' utopia, a place where people would be free to live without prejudice.
Though the episode is sprinkled with subtle references to the fact the two women are romantically involved, Schneider said their sexuality is not an issue.
'The relationship is moving and powerful,' Schneider said. 'We hope people are affected by it.'
Director Rob Thompson said the show isn't trying to make a statement with the episode, but merely highlighting the relationship between two women who love each other.
Jo Anderson, who plays Roslyn, said she isn't concerned about the public's reaction to the characters.
'I'm portraying the character as a person,' she said. 'I think there's an unnatural focus on sexuality across the board, and especially the media. In this case, it's about love, and a commitment to higher ideals.'
Yvonne Suhor, who plays Cicely, said she loved the script because the women are extraordinary characters. Suhor agreed the show isn't about sexuality.
'Their souls are one,' she said. 'They don't have to compromise .. . and they don't succumb to social mores.'
Executive producer Joshua Brand said the basis of 'Northern Exposure' is putting aside the polarizations that exist in life. Brand said the 'Cicely' episode is simply a part of that.