For Anne Heche, the wilderness backdrop of her series is like another character. "You could not do this show on a studio set in L.A.," she said of ABC's "Men in Trees," which airs Wednesday nights. Now in its second season, the program is set in fictional Elmo, Alaska, and filmed in Vancouver, where "part of being in a place so glorious in terms of its beauty is that you realize how small you are," she said.
Heche portrays transplanted Manhattanite Marin Frist, an author and life coach whose own serene life abruptly spins out when she learns her fiancé has been unfaithful.
In Elmo for a book promotion, Marin impulsively decides to settle down in the rugged town, working on a new book and taking to the local radio airwaves to offer her views on love and life.
"Marin came in thinking she knew a lot, but was humbled by her life experience, as you are when you take a tumble," Heche said. "She isn't so much telling people what to do anymore as she is offering a perspective from her heart."
The show, which has drawn a steady following for its part-drama, part-comic story lines, has survived in multiple time slots. Nine more new episodes, including this week's, are slated to air this season.
The show's offbeat title stems from a large road sign Marin spots as she bicycles around the town, past towering trees. The program itself was inspired by Alaska Men magazine, whose creator, Susie Carter, initially was an executive consultant for the show.
"Men in Trees" creator Jenny Bicks, a native New Yorker, said she wanted the series not only to follow the journey of the central character but also "to capture the humanity of the small town" — a theme shaped by her own memories of time spent in a coastal village in Maine.
The humanity is spelled out with sometimes overlapping back stories of a large group of locals, including the police chief (Cynthia Stevenson), a reformed prostitute (Suleka Mathew), a pastor (Nicholas Lea) and a loner handyman (Scott Elrod). Their secrets and quirks piece together a community that provides Marin with comfort, joy, exasperation and hope.
Marin has adapted to her new world, where The Chieftain bar and a local hockey team are the only entertainment options — "there are no Starbucks anywhere in Elmo," Heche joked. But Marin occasionally finds herself nostalgic for the life she left behind.
"She misses the free movies in Bryant Park in the summer, and she wants to bring New York to Elmo," said Bicks, referring to a recent episode in which Marin pushes residents to watch "Movies Under the Stars" as freezing temperatures and rain obscure starry skies. "She still fights against a lot of what living in a small town is about."
In a place heavily populated by men in flannel shirts, Marin even finds love again. Her initially tentative attraction to hunky fish-and-game biologist Jack (James Tupper) has blossomed into a solid relationship. The bond is mirrored off-screen for Heche, who shares her Vancouver home with Tupper and her 6-year-old son, Homer.
"Jack and Marin are very different than the two of us," Heche said. "But I think when people watch (the characters), they feel our truth, the opportunity that we have to share our lives. It is kind of lovely to work like that."