Without a doubt, Anne Heche should be starring in a TV series. For all the ways she was sidetracked as a figure of gossipy derision for her eyebrow-raising revelation a few years back that she had a separate, otherworldly personality named Celestia, the creative reality that Heche the actress really channels is the soul of those steely-and-sweet, whiplash-smart screwball heroines of the ’30s and ’40s: Kate Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck, etc. In her ’90s stint as the Next Big Thing in movies, she was a battle-of-the-sexes throwback — equal parts feisty and soft, comically vulnerable and dramatically tough — and she easily held her own with the men who invariably had more screen time. But the likes of Volcano and Six Days Seven Nights are hardly the stuff that nurtures star power; so in today’s disproportionately young male Hollywood landscape, Heche’s resolutely adult-woman charisma probably foretold marquee doom.
On television, though, if you’re a sharp and sexy woman, you have a chance to rule, as long as you allow that you might be working against the tide of a knockoff premise or a silly gimmick. But since those Golden Age movie comediennes rarely played anything other than wacky socialites or hard-nosed reporters, why shouldn’t Heche take a crack at today’s preferred romantic-comedy gig for women — media professional — in today’s preferred romantic-comedy subgenre, the Sex and the City wannabe? In ABC’s new hourlong show Men in Trees, Heche plays nationally popular relationship coach Marin Frist, a bubbly, confident New Yorker with best-selling self-help books and legions of female fans on the motivational-lecture circuit who are warned that when it comes to men, they should “watch the signs,” whereupon Heche’s character makes cutesy STOP, DETOUR and SLIPPERY WHEN WET jokes. But unlike Carrie Bradshaw with her perpetually inquisitive single-girl mind, Marin Frist, as introduced to us in the pilot’s opening minutes, is a smug know-it-all/has-it-all with a perfect fiancé. Then, while on a plane to a remote Alaskan town named Elmo to begin her book tour, she realizes she’s grabbed her fiancé’s computer by mistake and . . . you can guess where this is headed.
With physician-heal-thyself precision, the story drops a despondent, love-shattered Marin off in a snow-swept, blue-collar town where the ratio of men to women is 10-to-1. Her smarmy aphorisms about relationships meet with blank stares, and a flirtatious diversion arises in the form of a strapping, bushy-haired environmentalist (James Tupper). In other words, Sex and the Northern Exposure. But still, Heche’s early scenes as the top-of-the-world Marin and her initial slide into fish-out-of-water comedy in Alaska are fun to watch, and, like those aforementioned classic movie stars, she knows how to play two things at once with her comedy, so that her bewilderment has a touch of abrasiveness, and even irrationality. Also, for a while, I was under the impression that creator/writer/executive producer Jenny Bicks, a former Sex and the City writer, was making a statement about the annoying ubiquitousness of Carrie types in pop culture, and having some satiric fun with the self-possessed sexpert authority of her old show. In fact, the premise has more than a passing resemblance to an episode of the HBO series that Bicks wrote, in which Carrie holds a Learning Annex class on where to meet men, only to realize she’s clueless on the subject.
But quickly you realize that Men in Trees — a clever gag title that refers to the sidewalk warning sign one is likely to find in woodsy towns — wants to hold onto the aura of Sex and the City in more ways than one. Marin will stay in Elmo not because it’s possibly a nice place to live, but because she can now write a book about men and learn something about them. (Insert clacking-keyboard shot and thesis-question voice-over here.) So it’s really a sentimental looking-for-love show after all, albeit one with a wonderful lead actress who will surely do her best to bring nuance and spark, and without the help of that cable juggernaut’s penis-and-vagina jokes, shopaholic farce and naked Kim Cattrall. There is one regrettable Sex holdover, however, that has become the most obnoxious storytelling device in television today: the episode-ending summing-up narration about love and life that sounds like the diary ramblings of a third-grader, spoken over a soft montage of wistful, private or unbearably cloying moments in the lives of each of the characters. On second thought, is it possible to swap that out for genital jokes?
MEN IN TREES | ABC | Fridays, 9 p.m. (special preview Tues., Sept. 12, 10 p.m.)
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Crashing in on?The Honeymooners
The new Fox sitcom ’Til Death also lulls you into thinking it’s going to be a sour goof on the marriage timeline, pitting suburbanites Eddie and Joy (Brad Garrett and Joely Fisher), in the prime of middle-aged bitterness, against their blissed-out newlywed neighbors Jeff and Steph (Eddie Kaye Thomas and Kat Foster). Eddie can’t wait to wipe the idealistic grin off Jeff’s face with tales of what lies in store for a husband.
“Men want to have fun, and women want to walk that fun deep into the woods and shoot it dead,” Garrett growls in that distinctive chopper rumble of his, a vocal tool that gives almost any hoary sitcom line he utters an extra 30 percent chance of being funny. But bickering and resentment gags aside, Eddie and Joy clearly still love each other, which is a far cry from the feeling you sometimes got in Garrett’s last series — the classic family squabbler Everybody Loves Raymond, on which he played Ray’s mama’s-boy brother Robert. In that series, the central couple Ray and Debra could barely stand each other. Will this secret happiness dilute the sting of a show that otherwise has a borscht-belt comic’s view of marriage as a special circle of hell? Possibly. But the entertainment value in this otherwise rudimentary sitcom lies in watching Garrett aim for front-and-center Gleason-ness, that sublime mix of apoplectic rage, slow burn, awkward physicality and vaudeville snap that has been the benchmark for domestic humor since Ralph Kramden barged into American homes. ’Til Death will never be The Honeymooners, but Garrett is a gifted enough laugh getter to put sitcom lovers in an “And ?awa-a-a-a-a-y we go” frame of mind.
’TIL DEATH | Fox | Thursdays, 8 p.m.