'Men in Trees': Definitely a Hazard

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

This year's hands-down winner of the "What Were They Thinking?" Award is "Men in Trees," a halfhearted, feebleminded attempt at a situation comedy about that eternal and ever-fascinating struggle, the battle of the sexes. The creators of ABC's "Men in Trees," though, do seemingly everything they can think of to quash that fascination and declare the battle null and dull.

Brandishing all the wild, inventive wit of an encyclopedia entry on rock formations, the comedy stars Anne Heche as Marin Frist, a "relationship coach" who tosses off best-selling books with titles like "I'm Dating and So Can You." She also dispenses such dispensable counsel as, regarding desirable partners, "You can't always get the one you want." (You can't? What a shock! It might explain, though, why my letters to Granny Clampett always came back unopened.)

Anyway, in a baldly unlikely turn of events, Ms. Frist gets booked on a lecture tour of one small town in Alaska, a hamlet obviously patterned after the quaint and quirky setting of "Northern Exposure," to continue our tour among the ghosts of television past. Why would a publisher go to the expense of sending an author all that way to address an audience numbering about two dozen? So as to set up the premise for those laffs-aplenty we keep imagining, naively enough, are right around the corner.

Frist gets bad news soon after her arrival. Having brought her fiance's laptop along by mistake, she discovers photographic evidence that he has pretty much lost interest in her, as who wouldn't? Although supposedly an expert on handling such discomforting situations, the young woman -- whose parents named her after that county near San Francisco -- responds by getting drunk, making a fool of herself and walking on thin ice, literally. The ice gives way and a local hunk foolishly dives in to save her.

It's a nearly all-male town, so once Frist's broken heart has done a little mending, she realizes that her prospects might not be so gloomy after all. She knows the marriage is definitely off when a raccoon inexplicably breaks into her hotel room, steals her $10,000 wedding dress and drags it down the muddy main street of town. Why would she bring the dress to Alaska? Please. It might be explained in the script, but then your world-weary critic would have to go back and watch the thing all over again.

I'd sooner relive my pimpliest week of puberty.

Among other supposedly colorful local folk is a blabbery oaf who runs a radio talk show (shades of "Northern Exposure" yet again) and greets Frist with a hearty "Hey ho," quickly explaining that he was being friendly and not calling her a prostitute. She reacts by stepping into a puddle and getting her feet wet -- ha ha ha! -- thereby setting the tone for what writer Jenny Bicks tries to pass off as hilarity.

Even ignoring Heche's somewhat sleazy public past, she's not an actress who projects warmth or lovability on the screen. Sitcom veteran and reliable pro John Amos tries to help as an entrepreneur who operates a small airline, but he can only do so much. Heck, not even Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, were they with us today, could overcome the limitations of this awful show's premise, setting and slack, soggy dialogue.

The title, "Men in Trees," is seen on a warning sign meant to alert people below that pruning and trimming are going on above. "Beware 'Men in Trees' " would be even more appropriate. Please consider yourself warned.

Men in Trees (60 minutes) debuts with a special airing tonight at 10:02 (really) on Channel 7, then moves to Friday nights at 9.

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