Sunday, October 08, 2006

TV Review: Men in Trees, Water Cooler Critics swinging from them

Men in Trees, Fridays on ABC, has a few hurdles to face. For starters, it has to fit in with the new "hard hitting" 20/20 (which just aired their look at "slacker" employees -- John Stossel's crap is no longer confined to his own reports). It also has to deal with 'feminist' critques from surprising places. One here to unknown 'feminist' critic felt the need to weigh in that the show was a 'throwback' from start to finish and that was underscored, he felt, by the fact that the lead character, Marin, was transplanted to the "wilderness." The wilderness?

The show's set in Elmo, Alaska (filmed in Canada) and they have both running water and electricity so we'll assume late-to-the-feminist-party critic also hasn't been on too many camping trips if he's seeing Elmo as a "wilderness."

There's actually a third obstacle: the public image of the actress playing Marin -- Anne Heche. Despite her book title, we'd never call her "crazy." We'd call her "troubled" and we'd call her "turbulent." We'd especially call her "immensely talented."

If you wouldn't, you might want to check out the show that ABC doesn't know what to do with. Hint, switch it to Mondays or Thursday or attempt to build a Saturday night with it. But get it away from 20/20 because geriatric corporate pigs, sure their employees are over doing it on the break times, are not the natural audience for Men in Trees.

Here's the backstory, which the show got across in one of this year's fastest moving pilots, Marin is a relationship advice-guru, on a tour when she learns her fiance is cheating on her. The town she's visiting is Elmo and she decides to stay both to nurse her wounds and to figure things out.

A guru with doubts? Don't worry, this isn't one of those special episodes of Frasier where all the women from his life (living and dead) pop back in while viewers grind their teeth as writers show off their dime store psychology. What it has been thus far is an opportunity for the water cooler set to trot out their fond memories of Northern Exposure and compare to the two shows -- which don't have much in common but the comparison does reveal that, as with Hawaii 5-0 and Magnum P.I., most of the water cooler set learn their geography via television.

If you think about it, it's really insulting to Alaska (as it was to Hawaii before) that the setting of a show leads the water cooler set to impose their own stereotypes. If they need a template to work from, they might try The Love Letter because the characters have more in common with that film and the show has a similar feel. But, hey, when you're calling an hour long romantic drama a "sitcom," you've got more problems then we can help you with.

As regular readers know, we're not fond of the voice overs. We think they're used far too often as a device to say directly what should have been shown. Marin has inner dialogue on Men in Trees and it's the weakest point of the show. It's made passable by the fact that Heche can carry it off.

What she can't carry off is the limp, long hair in the first episode. Get it away from the face and keep it away. (They've already begun doing so.) And that's about the only negative criticism we have of Heche.

If you're new to her, you may be wondering, "What's the big deal?"

Heche was a big deal in the late 90s. That's when she paired up with Ellen DeGeneres and got boos and hisses from a great many. From some gay activists, she got booed for failing to conform to their notions of sexuality. From some closeted types, she got tsk-tsking over destroying her career. (The more in the closet the person was, the louder he or she proclaimed that Heche had destroyed her career by going public about her relationship with DeGeneres.) She also got a bad rep among the suits because Heche is a fighter while DeGeneres enjoys being liked. That translated as Heche was the usually the most vocal defender of the TV show Ellen to ABC and Disney. Heche and an over-hyped (now gone and the disappearences is not lamented -- except possibly by those whose sexuality was 'vouched' for) TV programmer went many rounds.

What's the point of covering all of that at this late date?

Some people will never be interested in Heche's work because of that period. The fact that she's now legally married (to a man) doesn't matter, they'll go to their graves hating Heche.

But that's only part of the reason to note it. Heche then was in-your-face (to use the lingo of the period). That's very much who she is onscreen, regardless of the character. She can't play dumb (see Milk Money). She can play too smart for her own good (witness her character's ending in Wag the Dog). Onscreen, she's usually running about four laps ahead of anyone else.

It's why, on the daytime drama Another World, she could play the complex twin (Vicky) but couldn't handle the sad sack (Marley). (And she won an Emmy for her portrayal.) It's why, in a nothing role in The Juror, she nearly takes over the film from stars Demi Moore, Alec Baldwin and James Gandolfini. It's why, for all the hand wringing over Six Days and Seven Nights, you bought that her character could fall in love with Harrison Ford -- she convinced you.

People wanted to ascribe motives to Heche when she was with DeGeneres and in the aftermath of the break up. At one point, the most ridiculous point, the fact that she was talking with Fox about a sitcom at the same time DeGeneres was debuting her short-lived CBS sitcom was seen as an attempt to get back at Ellen.

The woman's a lightning rod. Onscreen and off. She's also one of the most gifted actresses the entertainment world has. The lesbian angle (Heche never self-described as a lesbian) allowed
a lot of people an easy out. They 'couldn't' hire her or they were worried about the baggage or some other cop out that didn't address the fact that, while medicore woman could be cast in badly written roles, the industry was once again turning their backs on strong actresses.

The New York Times recently began fretting over the status of actresses and using women's roles in recent films as their supporting evidence. Films traditionally lag three-to-five years behind the times. The fact that the show's creator, Jenny Binks (Sex in the City), and ABC felt comfortable casting Heche is a good sign for actresses and indicates that there is a desire for something other than the skinny-wife-fat-man combo or the lone-women-among-the-men on a crime or legal show.

Men in Trees has an esemble cast but Heche is the anchor (not the tour guide). She holds the show together and makes you believe (even in a ridiculous scene where the reality called for Marin to be screaming her head off over her toe but Heche doing so would have destroyed the flavor of the scene). There are other stand outs and Cynthia Stevenson, in the reoccuring role of Celia Bachelor, is among them. Stevenson isn't playing the role with one eye to the audience. She's committed to the character and it's a complex role. All the roles are because this isn't your typical drama where you just show up and do your performance. Your performance has to fit with the flavor of the show (as Heche had to when her character was supposed to be in pain). One wrong move, one second of winking to the audience to be liked, and the whole thing will fall flat.

A John Corbett type brought on as a love interest for Marin will destroy the show (much as he weighed down Carrie Bradshaw on Sex in the City) because he's not able to do much more than stand around and telegraph to the audience, "Don't you like me? You should like me. I'm really likeable."

There are likeable characters, likeable because of the characters, not because the performer's attempting to stop the show and say "Dig me." For instance, Suleka Mathew plays the likeable Sara who's made the best out of her situation. The newly 'feminist' critics describe Sara as a hooker with a heart of gold and you have to wonder what show they were watching or what stereotypes they brought to the couch with them? What she does is not who she is. Jenny Binks and the actors have created characters that are much more complex than anything you'll ever see from Jerry Bruckheimer or Dick Wolf. But the same water cooler set that couldn't holler "Objection!" over those sketched out characters now want to hold their noses when actual creativity is on display.

If the show has a problem, it's frequently been too verbose in the early stages. They're attempting to deal with that now via the soundtrack. But this is actually a quality show. It's unique with its own style and pace. It draws you in with each episode and you find yourself caring, for instance, whether Annie (played by Emily Bergl) and Patrick (Derek Richardson) will be able to move their relationship further along (over the objections of Patrick's mother -- we're back to Cynthia Stevenson).

As the various plots and subplots unfold, for them to work, you have to believe in Marin and believe that she's noticing the world around her, taking it in. Anne Heche is perfect for the role and the TV season is lucky to have her. Even in the voice overs, she doesn't come off like she's doodling in the margins of a book. Marin's a strong female character who's not defining herself through others. The whole premise is about Marin discovering herself.

Mary Tyler Moore's Mary Richards led off a seventies phase that allowed Bonnie Franklin, Linda Lavin, Valerie Harper and other actresses to chart a character's journey. Broadcast television lost interest in that journey some time ago. When it does pop up, the women are usually surrounded with a (male) buffer zone and, for good measure, are at odds with the next highest ranking woman on the series.

If you're tired of the the simplistic crime dramas, if you're hungry for a show where a woman does more than shore up the man's likeability, if you're looking for something beyond what TV keeps programming year after year, you should check out Men in Trees. ABC needs to find it a better night and that's about all the help the show needs right now.
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