Men in Trees

Doesn’t this town have anything better to do than gossip about me?

–Marin (Anne Heche), “Power Shift”

Imagine Sex and the City set up on a blind date with Northern Exposure, and you have a pretty good take on Men in Trees. A fish-out-of-water tale from former Sex writer Jenny Bicks, the pilot gets no points for originality and several demerits for sheer implausibility. But lead Anne Heche brings a welcome edge to her role as newly downtrodden relationship coach Marin Frist. You want the series to be better than it is.

The pilot was all set-up. We learned Marin is a successful self-help author (book two is I’m Dating and So Can You) and saw her advising roomfuls of eager single women about their “learner’s permit to love.” (Typical advice: “You wouldn’t drive with a blindfold on, so stop dating with one!”) Tempting fate, her third book was to be titled I’m Getting Married and So Can You. That dream came crashing down when she discovered, en route to a speaking engagement in Elmo, Alaska, that fiancé Graham (Tobias Slezak) had been cheating on her.

Reeling, Marin failed to put her best high-heeled foot forward in Elmo. Three hours before her scheduled lecture, she beelined to the town’s only bar to drown her sorrows in multiple shots of vodka. Inebriation was one problem; the other was the fact that her audience was full of men. (In Elmo, males have a 10-to-1 advantage.) Within minutes, she was deviating from her usual spiel in favor of references to her own heartbreak. “The point is, don’t cheat,” she advised.

As Marin’s humiliations and pratfalls piled up, the pilot proved less a story than a series of set pieces. When Marin missed her flight out of Alaska, her designer shipped her the now useless wedding gown (along with a note of condolence and a bill). The dress needed to be there, you see, so that Marin could play tug of war with a tulle-hungry raccoon (while the Violent Femmes’ Gone Daddy Gone played on the soundtrack), before pitching the dress off a cliff. The episode then stooped to the “strip and huddle for warmth” plot point when her designated new love interest, wry, stubbly Jack (James Tupper), saved her from drowning after she failed to notice she was, ahem, on thin ice. Offering contrivance after contrivance, Men in Trees is on similarly shaky ground: after six seasons of Sex and the City and countless imitators, who’s jonesing for more jokes about fancy shoes and the women who love them?

If watching Marin battle the elements was a snore, her interactions with Elmo residents offered reason to stick with the show. The locals, it turns out, range from charming to intriguing. Bartender Ben (Abraham Benrubi, branching out from ER) made his fortune in business and moved to Alaska to escape friends’ constant requests for handouts. He’s separated from wife Theresa (Sarah Strange), which means they still work together at the bar but live in separate wings of his mansion. He wants her back, but she wants to “see what else is out there.” (Marin: “So up here, women get to be men?” Theresa: “Everyone gets to be what they wanna be.”) By contrast, Sara (Suleka Mathew) knows Elmo’s men all too well. A divorcee raising a young son, she’s turned to the “hospitality” business to make ends meet. As her clients visit her in the hotel room next door, she and Marin became quick confidantes. When Marin noted that men cheat all the time, Sara agreed: “I know. I’m the one they cheat with.”

In opposition to the cynics are sweet Patrick Bachelor (Derek Richardson), the innkeeper and morning radio show host (more echoes of Northern Exposure), and another Manhattan transfer, Marin’s stalker-ish number one fan, Annie (Emily Bergl). Both have a trying habit of quoting Marin to Marin, as when Patrick, on opening her car door, quipped, “Chivalry isn’t dead, chapter five.” Their bookshelves and brains overflowing with Marin’s dating “wisdom,” these innocents are clearly meant for each other: in fact, they realized they’d already met in a chat room devoted to the author.

In Episode Two, “Power Shift,” the shared interest that brought them together threatened to stall their romance. Stunned to find Annie still in town, Marin tossed off some doomsday advice about Annie’s long-term prospects with Patrick, and impressionable Annie immediately, regretfully put on the brakes. Patrick wasn’t happy. “Just because you don’t believe in yourself anymore doesn’t allow you to take everyone else’s hopes,” he scolded Marin.

Which is to say, it’s time for the coach to stop lecturing and start listening. Given Elmo’s male-female ratio — and maybe, the mystery and challenge represented by Jack — the town suddenly seemed just the place to put her plan into action. Scrapping the how-to-get-married tome, Marin decided to extend her stay and start writing about men. If creator Bicks can follow suit — ditch the urban-girl stereotype in favor of exploring the other characters’ quirks and hurts — this Alaskan adventure may evolve into a decent Friday night date.

RATING 6 / 10