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Fall '06: Men in Trees

Men in Trees, a new dramedy airing Friday nights on ABC, is a ridiculous show. It's silly, improbable, confused, and superficial. In fact, it's been a long time since I've watched any show that is such pure and utter fluff.

I liked it a lot.

Men in Trees follows the exploits of Marin Frist (Anne Heche), a successful relationship coach, self-help author, and exposition-spouting narrator. As part of a book tour, Marin accepts a speaking engagement in the tiny, backwoods town of Elmo, Alaska. While there, she discovers that her fiancé has been carrying on an affair right under her nose.

Aghast that her supposed expertise couldn't even hold together her own relationship, Marin tries to return home, but foul weather and Elmo's quirky transportation timetables conspire to keep her in Alaska. Disgusted with men in general, she finds herself trapped in a town that is 90% male. But eventually, Marin realizes that Elmo is the perfect place to truly learn to understand men, and perhaps come to better understand herself in the process.

In other words, it's basically a mash-up of Northern Exposure and Sex and the City. But Men in Trees differentiates itself by eschewing the gritty realism that was the hallmark of those two shows. Here's a sampling of some of the more asinine plot points we're expected to swallow during the pilot:

  • Marin discovers her fiancé is cheating on her when she accidentally takes his laptop on the flight to Alaska. Of course, his infidelity might have remained hidden had he not:

    A) Taken the time to compile a digital slideshow that begins with pictures of himself and Marin, then smoothly transitions to shots of him macking on the hot literary critic,

    B) Named the slide show something that Marin would feel compelled to examine, like "grahams_slideshow", and

    C) Left his computer with a folder window open and stretched across the entire desktop; a folder which contains but a single icon, the aforementioned slideshow of forbidden love.

    I mean, it's nice that Marin is willing to spend her life with a severely retarded man, but she should have expected something like this to happen eventually.

  • Marin is horrified to discover that a raccoon has taken up residence in her closet. But when the local biologist comes by to retrieve it, she refuses to go outside because she doesn't want to leave the vermin alone with her favorite shoes.

    Later, as the fluffy, whipped topping on this pie of absurdity, she wrestles the raccoon for her wedding dress.

  • Marin is asked to lecture in Elmo because the men of the town don't know how to attract women. 24 hours after her lecture, Marin is sitting in a bar where many of these selfsame men explain to her the "Dirty Harry Syndrome", wherein women unrealistically expect men to be Clint Eastwood-tough and Alan Alda-sensitive at the same time. So are these guys clueless backwoods lunks or worldly, intuitive, amateur marriage counselors?

  • Throughout the bar scene, the jukebox is playing some femme-y adult alternative pop song that sounds like it would be at home in an episode of Dawson's Creek.

    I repeat: circa-2006 adult alternative. In a dive bar. In a working schlub's dive bar. In a working schlub's dive bar located in a remote burg in the middle of Alaska, which in the real world would have exactly one record: a scratchy old 45 of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Lodi" that just plays over and over until somebody goes berserk and smashes the jukebox with a moose jaw.

  • At the end of the episode we learn that the tiny radio station in this equally tiny town somehow gets enough call-in traffic to justify the cost of twenty phone lines.

  • Marin spends the entire pilot determined to escape Elmo, then in the last moments makes a totally improbable snap judgment to stay there. I suppose it's possible that she was transfixed by a sudden, pungent whiff of salmon, borne on the ocean breeze. If so, you can expect the show to last three years, then end with Marin flying home, taking ecstacy, driving to Fresno, and announcing to the press that even though she's no longer in Alaska, she wouldn't technically call herself a mainlander.

All I'm saying is, if you like your television to be set in a universe even slightly similar to our own, you should probably just move along. There's nothing to see here.

On a positive note, Elmo is refreshingly free of characters who are quirky for quirky's sake. The dopey innkeeper is not also a self-taught astrophysicist who is building a working space shuttle out of pine cones and velcro. The pilot is not secretly a deposed Sudanese prince in hiding who has learned to speak the ancient and noble language of the grizzly. And although there is an eskimo who spouts mystic wisdom, his brand of mumbo jumbo is not an insightful summary of the show's moral; it is useless, completely insane, and very funny.

Not that anyone could summarize the show's moral. While it's clear that Men in Trees aspires to provide astute commentary on the nature of relationships, I can't for the life of me figure out what it's trying to get across. I'm not sure that the writers know either.

See if you can piece anything together from the various nuggets of wisdom the pilot bestows upon us: Men are bad. Except sometimes men are good. But you must understand, it's hard for men because women expect them to be both bad and good. Women are also sometimes bad, but when they are, we just say that they're acting like men. And, well, relationships are just weird, but darned if we don't keep running headlong into the crazy things!

Thanks so much, Dr. Brothers! That explains everything.

The show's other message -- and I know this only because one of the characters actually states it verbatim -- is, "Maybe you should stop thinking in stereotypes." That's all well and good, but it would carry a lot more weight if it wasn't coming from a script that features such stereotype-busting characters as a superficial yuppie who is ignorant of the down-home wisdom of the country folk, a shrewish book editor whose crusty exterior masks a hidden yearning for love, and -- I kid you not -- a hooker with a heart of gold.

So here we have all the makings of a televised train wreck. And yet, Men in Trees' breezy triviality turns out to be the show's biggest strength. A few years back I might have called it inconsequential drivel, but given the recent glut of crime procedurals and moody Lost clones, this dumb, dumb show feels like a fresh Spring breeze blowing through the charnel house. It's just refreshing to spend an hour in an environment where there's so little to worry about; nobody's in danger of being gang-raped, nobody accidentally kills a kid on the operating table, and nobody has to be reconstructed from scalp fragments and teeth discovered in the soft serve dispenser at the Souplantation.

So in spite of my misgivings, my thought process while watching the pilot went something like this: "Oh, this show is cute. Ugh, this show is annoyingly cute. Hmm... this show is intriguingly cute. Hey, I'd forgotten how much I used to like 'cute'!"

That's not to say that Men in Trees is a masterpiece, but it is something that is otherwise in short supply on this year's prime time schedule: fun.

The show has some other things going for it, too, not the least of which is Anne Heche's turn as Marin Frist. As we learned from her stint on Ally McBeal, Heche is a natural at the silly, slapsticky sort of humor that's on display here. She sells her ludicrous situation with an effortless, un-self-conscious charm, and in the process makes her basically obnoxious character seem likeable.

The rest of the cast is also strong, particularly the always terrific John Amos, who gets most of the best lines and deserves them. It's also great to see Abraham Benrubi -- the guy who played Jerry the desk clerk on ER several decades ago when it was still watchable -- as the town bartender; though I'm thinking the lower half of his body should really get a better agent.

The cast's weak link is James Tupper, who as Marin's apparent love interest is so wooden he should be standing in the corner of a cigar shop wearing a headdress. Then again, that might be because all the script asks him to do is be strong and silent, like the mighty oak. Way to blow apart our preconceived notions again, Men in Trees!

There's also some genuinely funny dialogue. I'm shocked to admit that I actually laughed out loud three separate times, which is five times more than I did when I watched the pilot of 'Til Death.

The question is, can Men in Trees sustain our interest in this shallow, overly talky, mildly grating character's love life for more than a couple of episodes? I wouldn't think so; but then, I didn't think anybody would want to watch the four shallow, talky, grating hobags on Sex and the City either, and that lasted six seasons. I still say that show's runaway success was largely a testament to how much yapping guys will put up with in order to get a glimpse of some funbags. Men in Trees probably won't scare up nearly as much of a male audience, because there's no full frontal on network television, and because there are no funbags on Anne Heche.

However long it lasts, you can expect Men in Trees to remain daffy, lightweight, and preposterous. And I think that's reason enough to give it a shot.


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