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''Men In Trees'' is back

After a long hiatus, the romantic dramedy starring Anne Heche returns on a different night

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10:00-11:00PM · ABC · Starts October 12

Maybe it’s the paycheck. Or the stunning scenery outside her trailer window of the Canadian Rockies. Or the photo on the table of her entwined with her costar (publicity still? personal pic?). Whatever the reason, Anne Heche seems in love with all things Men in Trees right now. ”I don’t want to sound like it’s gooey, but we’re all pretty silly about each other,” she says as she talks about her castmates and fails miserably at not sounding gooey. ”You walk around and you can see it’s just a group of friends who found a home.” And what a nice home it is. Men in Trees, ABC’s romantic dramedy about an author/relationship coach named Marin Frist (Heche) who gives up her big-city lifestyle to settle in fictional Elmo, Alaska, shoots mostly in Vancouver — about as far from anything resembling the Hollywood scene as you can get. To get even farther, head up into the mountains of Squamish, where the cast and crew film all their Elmo exteriors. Between hanging out in front of Heche’s trailer (”the café” as they call it) and taking in the kind of views featured on travel shows, it’s a virtual summer camp. (Hey, Anne’s practicing knitting for an upcoming scene! Arts and crafts!) Squamish’s true appeal, however, lies in what it’s missing. ”Part of what’s so fun about being up here,” says Heche, ”there’s no paparazzi.”

But wait, why would the star of an only moderately successful TV show need to escape to the ”outdoor recreation capital of Canada” to avoid the paparazzi? Could it maybe, possibly, perchance be because of that photo on the table in Heche’s trailer, the one of her and costar James Tupper — the one in which their chemistry has a certain…authenticity? You might have heard back in January that not long after they’d each split from their spouses, the pair started dating. Recalls Tupper, who plays Marin’s love interest, Jack: ”I think [the rest of the cast] read it in the newspaper and came in one day like, ‘Oh, you guys are together?”’ The situation seemed decidedly more dire a few short weeks later when ABC pulled Men in Trees off the schedule with five episodes left in the season. That’s when the conspiracy theories began.

”What happened to the show?” It’s a constant refrain from fans, says Abraham Benrubi, who plays bar owner Ben. ”’Are you coming back? Are you still on? Are you canceled?’ Nobody knows, because it was really never made clear.” Before ABC yanked the show, Men in Trees was averaging 9.2 million viewers. Modest by network standards, but the numbers tell only half the tale, because Trees huggers are a fiercely loyal bunch. They followed Marin as she moved from New York to rural Alaska, just as they followed the show when it packed up and moved from Friday, where it was faring pretty well, to a higher-profile slot on Thursday (it’s back to Friday this fall). And then they flocked to message boards to pass the time till next week. Only, then there was no next week, as Trees was forced to step aside. But why? Was it Heche and Tupper?

”That had nothing to do with it,” says ABC programming chief Jeff Bader, literally laughing off any suggestion that the network was cowed by the tabloids. The truth, as it turns out, is far less juicy. ”It was all about the fact that we were able to launch an additional show [October Road] off of Grey’s Anatomy. ” Thursday at 10 p.m. is the prime in prime time, and ” Men in Trees was losing a huge portion of the Grey’s audience” — let’s call it half — plus, ”we didn’t see any harm in not returning the show because it was already picked up for the next year.” Besides, ”if you want to be really cynical about it,” says Trees creator Jenny Bicks, ”I think it would have made more sense for them to keep [airing] it, because [the gossip] was getting attention.”

The timing of the hiatus was one thing. The fact that it was so excruciatingly long (eight months by the time Trees returns in October) left Bicks with a conundrum: How to relaunch the show with five episodes already in the can? In a word: prequel. ”The prequel exists because the first episode back wasn’t really an episode I would choose to introduce the season,” she says. ”It doesn’t necessarily tell an audience member who has been gone for eight months — or who was never around to begin with — who everybody is.” The new season opener, an episode chronologically wedged between the one where fans left off and the five they have yet to see, serves as a new jumping-in point. In it, Elmo gets battered by a storm in a candy-coated catch-up episode that ”takes us back into the understanding that Men in Trees is like a fairy tale,” says Heche. What’s curious about this fairy tale, though, is that in some ways it feels seductively real.

As much as Squamish resembles its fictional Alaska counterpart (the show’s watering hole, the Chieftain, really exists), it’s the cast that drives the point home. ”Jenny calls us the Little Elmo,” admits Heche. ”We’re a very tight group.” She’s not kidding. Lauren Tom (wily clotheshorse Mai) and Cynthia Stevenson (Sheriff Celia) live across the street from each other. Suleka Mathew, who plays ex-hooker Sara, has a six-year real-life relationship with onscreen love Nicholas Lea (The X-Files) and a longtime friendship with costar Sarah Strange (barmaid Theresa). Back when Tupper made his living as a carpenter, Tom’s husband was his boss. ”I feel like we’re so boring,” says Emily Bergl, whose character, Annie, followed her favorite author to Alaska. ”I mean, the fact that the biggest scandal on our show is that two people fell in love, I think is indicative — I mean, it’s not really a scandal.”

Well, sort of. Because scandal seems to follow Heche. After all, this is the woman whose romantic history — Steve Martin, Ellen DeGeneres, estranged husband Coley Laffoon, and now Tupper — has been meticulously documented by the tabloids. And there was also the whole thing about her claiming to have an alter ego from the fourth dimension named Celestia who was the ”Second Coming” of Jesus. You know, stuff like that. ”She made mistakes in the past,” concedes Tupper, biting his lip. ”You have to keep your private life private, and [becoming] a public figure happened to her at such a young age, and she probably didn’t understand all that.” If anything, says Heche in her trailer, the mistakes of her past can only help her now. ”Because I know that [Marin will] probably never go through as much hell as I have, I can really have fun with her. Because she’ll never fall as far as I fell.”

Even now as Heche finalizes her divorce, she and Tupper have moved on with their lives — and in with each other. ”Some shows you can’t have your leads together, because they don’t get along,” says Bicks, ”but this is certainly not the case.” Sure, for now. But what if Heche and Tupper break up? What if an offscreen separation becomes an onscreen one (see: Alias)? ”You can’t think, Down the road, what if?” says Bicks. ”Because there’s so many what ifs when you have a show that one couple is not the thing that you’re really focused on.”

Bicks may have a point. As the series gears up for its 27-episode season, Marin and Jack are just part of the ever-expanding population of Elmo. Annie Potts (Designing Women) signs on as Annie’s mom, and Kelli Williams (The Practice) joins in as a confidante of Jack’s. (Chill, fans. ”They have a purely platonic relationship,” swears Bicks, even if they do ”become very emotionally tied to each other.”) As for the series regulars? Annie and fiancé Patrick (Derek Richardson) face a crisis. ”We’ll see a Patrick that’s a bit more rebellious and fearless in exploring parts of his life that he should’ve explored a long time ago,” reveals Richardson. Buzz (John Amos) and Mai play love doctors. And in spite of a nasty breakup last season, Marin’s editor Jane (Seana Kofoed) and Plow Guy (Ty Olsson) ”have not seen the last of each other,” according to Kofoed. As for Marin and Jack, Marin’s latest book puts her back at the top of the Amazon rankings, and Jack gets a plum research assignment — which means some alone time for both of them. ”There’s going to be some boat-rocking this year,” Bicks warns, sounding as if she could be talking about the impending drama on her show — or surrounding it. ”I like to see this year as kind of ‘be careful what you wish for.”’

Especially if what you wish for are quiet moments to enjoy a new relationship, a mountain idyll, or a show finding its way. Because as the light dims and Tupper walks from the Chieftain back to the production’s base camp after shooting his last scene, he makes a fairy-tale-spoiling discovery: a man crouched low in a car, telephoto lens in hand — a paparazzo. Ah, but there is a bright side: If the tabloids can find ”Little Elmo,” maybe viewers can too.