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Such lovely 'Trees'

The felling of the well-made 'Men in Trees' is yet another example of network policy in action.

June 04, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Television Critic

A week from today, the town of Elmo, Alaska, will cease to exist. "Men in Trees," the TV series that takes place there and whose penultimate episode airs tonight, has been felled by the American Broadcasting Company. I have seen its end, and if it is not a conclusion as such -- you can see how a third season might spring from the unresolved business of the second -- it has been modeled into something resembling one, and it's a conclusion both satisfying and, since it is a conclusion, bittersweet.

I am sorry to see them go, the fictional people of this fictional town -- Marin and Jack and Patrick and Annie and Ben and Sara and Teresa and Jerome and Buzz and Mai and Celia -- because I like them and the show that contains them, which is well made in most every way that shows are made and comes with lovely, Alaska-adjacent rugged Canadian scenery attached. And because romantic comedy is a genre to be cherished and tended and encouraged to grow, for the psychic health of the nation.

On the other hand, "Men in Trees" is already twice the length of "Berlin Alexanderplatz," time enough for any series that knows what it's about to say its piece, and will bow out without ever becoming bad. There are few enough episodes -- 36 -- that the story arc is still legible from beginning to end, not hidden in a cloud of increasingly less relevant and likely digressions. The game in American TV is to run forever, but the ones that last usually go on too long.

There was not that much new under the sun in Elmo; what was fresh was the grown-up intelligence that animated the series, the characters who emerged and the performers who brought them to life. Beginning as the story of Marin Frist (Anne Heche), a "relationship coach" and author who comes to Alaska on a book tour and stays to know herself better, "Men in Trees" is often described as "Sex and the City" meets "Northern Exposure." Creator Jenny Bicks was a veteran of the first series, which also featured a woman who wrote about love and, like the second, it takes place in an Alaskan small town populated by improbably colorful characters and centers on an attraction between an urban sophisticate and an earthy local (James Tupper as Jack, not only taciturn but actually inarticulate). But it is also like a lot of other shows about places where everybody knows your name -- basic TV stuff.

If nothing else, the show's short life promises a relatively low-priced "Complete Series" on DVD -- should one eventually appear. There are 45 five-star reviews up on Amazon .com on the page where such a set would be offered for sale, if there were such a set to sell. (Customers are standing by.) Most of these comments were posted in direct response to the cancellation and have a thing or two to say to ABC about bad handling and bad faith. "Men in Trees" occupied six time slots in two seasons and disappeared for long stretches to give worse programs a space to fail. It had been off the air for a month when it returned last week for three final episodes. While you can blame the writers strike for some of the year's scheduling weirdness, this is just how it goes in the nervous, afraid-to-commit world of network television. But it's hard to create appointment television when you keep changing the appointment time.

I won't reveal details of the final two installments because if you're a fan of the series you won't want to know them, and if you're someone who just sort of stumbled in here with your coffee, they won't mean anything. I will say that tonight's episode deals with the burdens of knowledge and next week's with the benefits of surrender, and that all roads lead toward a community talent show that gets most of the characters into the same space and serves as a kind of emotional summing up. (I am a sucker for that sort of thing.) Not everyone gets what they want, or even what they need -- an honest way to end, in keeping with policy.


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