A Little Bit of Northern Exposure, A Little Bit of Cheers, A Little Bit of Grey's Anatomy, and a Little Bit of Work To Be Done
by Jon Weisman
Men in Trees will never hold an antler to Northern Exposure as far as shows centered around outsiders in Alaska go. In fact, the comparison alone compels the question of whether every hour in Elmo, Alaska wouldn't be better spent in neighboring (?) Cicely.
Trees takes little advantage of its setting other than to give its characters some quirks - the exteriors they've provided us so far aren't even all that spectacular, and if it weren't for the producers making a big deal of the perils of cell phone reception, the show could almost be set in "Central Perk." Unlike Northern Exposure, which was perhaps television's greatest philosophical and metaphysical series, regularly pondering the great questions of life on both a daily and epic level, Trees is contentedly a relationship show. Nothing wrong with that, but people should just be guarded about making comparisons between the two based on their locales.
Nevertheless, Trees does have a genial quality to it without being saccharine. Without the laughs but with the characters, it evokes the early days of Cheers as much as anything - with the show's point of view emanating from the Diane character.
In this case, that character is the tongue-trippingly named Marin Frist, played by Anne Heche. Heche, who has been calmly coming back from her crazy days in the tabloids with a series of small-screen character roles, shows herself capable of handling the lead. She sometimes pops up a distracting nasal Katharine Hepburn delivery, and is also given a few dreadful lines to deliver or sight gags to pull off, such as the mindless slapstick opening scene to the series' second episode. But some of those sloppier moments seem to be a function of the expository torture that almost every series endures at its outset, and when things settle down, Heche can be very relatable and even sweet. It's fair to say that Joel Fleischman got some getting used to, too.
The show's biggest strength, though, might be its male characters. If Trees gets any viewership at all, James Tupper (Jack Slattery) will turn Patrick Dempsey's Dr. McDreamy from Grey's Anatomy into Dr. McCatnap. Jack is first-season-Cheers Sam Malone with intelligence - though not without baggage. Jack owns every scene he's in, including those with Marin (it's no contest) and is just self-aware enough to make it work without venturing out of character. It's a fine line, but Slattery pulls it off and immediately leaps to potentially being the coolest guy on TV.
Derek Richardson channels Steve Zahn in the role of Patrick, but in a seemingly guileless way that's easy to take. (He's got more than a little John Burns from Taxi.) Late of ER, Abraham Benrubi (Ben) gets a role that he truly deserves and shines in. And the indomitable John Amos goes miles from his recent West Wing big honcho role into the small-time pilot, Buzz, whose character runs the risk of being only as smart as the producers want him to be in a given scene, but is still a joy to watch every moment he's on screen.
Conversely, the female supporting characters are struggling. Annie (Emily Bergl) is inoffensive if a little too daffy, and Theresa (Sarah Strange) is quietly intriguing. (It was also nice to see Cynthia Stevenson again in a guest role that should recur.) Unfortunately, Jane, played by Seana Koefoed, is a drag on the series - ostensibly there to provide some sort of urban counterpoint but only succeeding in delivering banality. Jane's one chance at shining, when she had to dispose of Marin's unused wedding cake, was undermined by a wishy-washy tag to the second episode in which she kept a layer of the cake to eat in her lonely apartment. It was all too believable; it was predictable and pointless. Speaking of which, Sara (Suleka Matthew) is drawn straight from the book, To Serve a Hooker with a Heart of Gold. A television series provides the opportunity to bend these cookie cutters into some original shapes, but whether they do it soon enough to satisfy television audiences remains to be seen.
Should ratings become an issue, the obvious answer for Trees is a pairing with Grey's Anatomy - even if the latter is a rerun. In several ways, Trees is already the superior show - and given the backlash that almost seems inevitable for Grey's, ABC would be wise to expose any fans of Meredith and Derek to Marin and Jack. The latter two are a lot less annoying and look like they'll be more fun.