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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!
There’s a line I never tire of trying to pass off as something I just came up with: “The three best words in the English language? All new episode.” And there’s another phrase that’s even more tingle-inducing: “pilot season.” And I’m not talking plane drivers.

At this time of year, I always open up TiVo with antici—pation!

Everything I read about ABC’s new Anne Heche vehicle Men in Trees (crappy title—for one thing it serves up a too-tempting lob for TV Guide’s Matt Roush, who declares the network is “up a tree” and predicts it’ll “get the chop”) made me think that I liked the show better when it was called Northern Exposure. Like that show, which had a surprisingly short life in syndication, it’s a fish-out-of-water tale of a caustic, know-it-all New Yorker who finds herself in the beautiful wilds of Alaska and sets out on a laughter-and-tear-filled journey through the five stages of adjustment. If I had to make a rash prediction after 44 minutes of viewing, I’d say those stages were going to be: arrogance, anger, awe at the rough-hewn beauty of nature, appropriate shoe buying, and acceptance that even guys with bad haircuts can be haut and that, therefore, she can live in a place where you have to stand in the street to get cell-phone reception.

The thing is, since they didn’t even bother to disguise the debt to Northern Exposure, I almost believed it was an hommage rather than a rip-off. Instead of a goofy young man with a movie fetish and a sexy philosophical guy with a radio show, there’s a goofy young man with a radio show and a sexy, resistant-to-the-lead’s-charms fish and wildlife guy. Instead of a March-December couple running the local bar, there’s a chunky guy and his spunky lady running the local bar. Instead of a white female bush pilot there’s a black male bush pilot. Instead of a crusty old lady running the grocery store, there’s an attractive ho with a heart of gold (actually, that character is pretty original—an undeluded woman who’d like to get out of the “hospitality industry” but hasn’t found an alternative way of supporting her family—yet). But this show is fresh, see, because it features a lame crutch that’s only come into fashion in the last couple of years: the knowing, philosophical voice-over. (Actually, there’s also an echo of an even better show—Canada’s North of 60—in the form of the slide-guitar soundtrack and the presence of North of 60 regular Tim Webber. So, the show is filmed in Vancouver, eh?)

Well, there are a couple of original elements: In the pilot episode, Anne Heche was naked once, “dressed” only in a towel once, and down to skivvies what felt like a couple of times. An Alaska-based drama with more skin than an Australian soap! Now that’s an achievement. (Heche’s arms are like matchsticks, by the way, I sure hope she gets some good organic meat on those too-prominent bones in the coming episodes.) Oh, and there’s a recurring raccoon—I haven’t seen an animal character that lame since the talking cat in Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

The writing is pretty good—speaking of the local men, who outnumber women 10-to-1, the female bartender tells Heche, “The odds are good, but the goods are odd”—and the hook-up potential gives it a sexy edge. (Heche is a relationship coach who realizes that she knows nothing about men, but thinks she can figure them out in this testosterone territory.) I wonder, though, if there are enough women characters for the show to succeed on Friday night, where it’s up against Ghost Whisperer and Nanny 911. Men in Trees is better—smarter, funnier, and less treacly—than either of those shows, but that, unfortunately, often counts for little when it comes to the ratings.

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