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`Trees' gets a big transplant on ABC

The ascending Anne Heche series slides from quiet Fridays to the Thursday hot spot after `Grey's Anatomy.'

January 10, 2007|Kate Aurthur | Times Staff Writer

VANCOUVER, CANADA — The diminutive Anne Heche rules over the rainy Vancouver set of "Men in Trees" by the sheer speed of her movements, darting across the soundstage, chatting with the crew and drinking Red Bull, which she did not appear to need. And when she sat for an interview in her trailer, this declaration sounded like one word: "I had a dream, and my dream was to move after 'Grey's Anatomy.' "

After an unpredictable fall season in network television, Heche's show has indeed moved, at least for the time being, into the spot after "Grey's Anatomy" on ABC's Thursday schedule, completing a trifecta of "Hey, Ladies!" television serials that begins with "Ugly Betty" at 8 p.m. The change came after "Men in Trees" -- in which Heche plays Marin Frist, a life coach and writer who moves to a tiny Alaska town after her fiance breaks her heart -- shored up a loyal viewership on ABC's barren Friday nights.

This week's episode will be the first real test of the show's potential success on Thursdays at 10 p.m. because its previous two outings there occurred in the repeat-laden holiday doldrums. "Men in Trees" is booked to appear after "Grey's Anatomy" through January: If it retains a good portion of the tremendously popular hospital soap opera's audience, it is likely to stay there.

Jenny Bicks, the former "Sex and the City" writer who created "Men in Trees" and is the executive producer who runs the show, is anxious about the move to the most profitable, and therefore the most pressure-filled, night of prime-time television. "I felt like there was an audience on Friday nights that wasn't being utilized," Bicks said on a recent afternoon in her Hollywood office. "You always want to be the one that's rewarded, given this plum spot, but at the same time, I was aware of what it would mean in terms of the exposure."

Bicks sighed. "My third grade report card: 'Jenny worries too much.' "

In a television season when new series like "Smith" and "The Nine" looked like action films, "Men in Trees' " simplicity -- lost woman goes to Alaska, finds self -- was somehow more puzzling than those intricate crime dramas. It seemed like a Meg Ryan romantic comedy movie from the '90s, or "Sex and the City" set in Alaska, or "Northern Exposure" with a female lead. But none of those descriptions sounded exciting, nor did they lend themselves to splashy marketing campaigns, and "Men in Trees" was largely overlooked by the press.

Bicks thought its under-the-radar status could work to the show's advantage. As she watched elaborately plotted network series parade by, Bicks said: "I guess I felt like, 'I'm glad I don't have a serialized drama.' I don't know the first thing about that."

As for Heche, she was confident in Bicks, she said. "You get in Jenny's presence and you want to participate in a hopeful atmosphere." The actress picked up steam and continued in her Katharine Hepburn-inflected voice: "We wanted entertainment! We wanted people to laugh! We're in a chaotic, sad, complicated world. How do we exist as human beings in that, and how do we help each other in that, is what this show is about."

Stephen McPherson, the entertainment president of ABC, said that he thought "Men in Trees" derived its strength from its "really romantic, wish-fulfillment" plot: Marin goes from a frenzied, ambitious New York City life to a bucolic, cozy one, where she is surrounded by warm new friends and a brooding, sort-of-unavailable love interest, Jack (James Tupper). "We feel like that's been missing from television, and that's why 'Grey's Anatomy' has popped," McPherson said in a phone interview.

McPherson took note of "Men in Trees' " promise during the fall, when it generated a disproportionate amount of interest at ABC's audience phone line, a service in which operators field calls about the network's shows. He said that questions and comments about "Men in Trees" made it the third most called-about series, behind only "Grey's Anatomy" and "Lost," and ahead of ABC's other hits. "What we started to see was the reality that these fans were really dedicated and that it was kind of bubbling up as a sleeper on Fridays," McPherson said.

Peter Roth, the president of Warner Bros. Television, the studio that produces "Men in Trees," also called the show a sleeper. Warner Bros. has had a tough season with its new shows: "The Nine," "Smith," "Happy Hour" and "Justice" have disappeared from the networks' schedules, and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" and "The Class" have underperformed in comparison to the high expectations projected onto them.

"Those suffered, to some degree, by virtue of the spotlight," Roth said. "Now we have this quiet show, 'Men in Trees,' which is doing beautifully, thank you very much."

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