SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

"Men in Trees"
By Dave Kiffer


September 25, 2006

Ketchikan, Alaska - Ketchikan's own A.J. Slagle got a "shout out" last week on national television.

Slagle was mentioned in an episode of a new television series that is "set" in Alaska called "Men in Trees." The premise of the show is that a "relationship" expert sees her relationship implode and she ends up in Alaska, where the sexual ratio is so out of whack that there are "men in trees."

During the early part of the episode, Anne Heche - the New York expert - is talking on a radio call in show and she thanks the last caller "A.J. from Ketchikan."

It seems that last year a writer for the show was in Ketchikan doing some research and met with some local families - including the Slagles - for local "color."

She also met with Elmo Guerrero's family and the show is set in the fictional town of "Elmo, Alaska." That may be just a coincidence, but I think not.

"Men in Trees" or at least the first episode was mildly diverting, but already it is coming up short when compared the rest of the world's last attempt to "televise" Alaska, "Northern Exposure."

"Northern Exposure" was on the air from 1990 to 1996 and still lives in syndication here and there. And of course you can get the DVDs if you miss it that much. Seeing "Men in Trees" does make one pine for the comparative veracity of "Northern Exposure."

For the record, as much I liked "Northern Exposure" it wasn't totally accurate on the Alaska it supposedly portrayed to the rest of the world. Sometimes its characters were more "quirky" than "offbeat." I cringed every time they used the word "county" instead of "borough" and whenever they tried to mix in Native culture with the plots it always felt more like "new age" psychobabble than traditional Native spiritualism.

But danged if I didn't like the show in spite of my natural Sourdough pickiness. The characters and their situations were realistic. Professional "outsider" trapped in Alaska? Check! Wealthy anti-government type who got his wealth from the government? Check! Humorless state trooper? Check!

The only thing that bothered me was that as a radio person I was never as cool as John Corbett's "Chris."

I was working at KRBD during the last years of the TV show and tourists would often come in to the station and make comments about how it - and we - just weren't like the show. We even had Southeastern Exposure t-shirts made up but it wasn't the same. I'm sure even my wife Charlotte wishes I was little more like "Chris." So it goes.

In the early years of "Northern Exposure," I was Outside and that meant having to answer the same question a million different ways. Everyone wanted to know whether Alaska was really like the show (they never asked whether the show was like Alaska, but I digress).

I would patiently explain that the show was filmed in Roslyn, Washington but that the scenery was very much like the part of the Alaska that I was from. That usually confused them because they assumed that all of Alaska looked like Barrow in a whiteout and that we Alaskans were constantly digging holes in the ice to escape polar bears.

They also wanted to know whether Alaskans - like the characters in the show - really spent so much time in bars and I had to answer that some - okay, quite a few - did. Remember, those were the days when there was more Tanqueray than Tanzanite on Front Street.

In general, I had to answer that - yes - small Alaskan towns did have that "quirky" aura that "Northern Exposure" gave off. And yes there were a lot characters like that in Alaska. And yes, funny little odd things happened in real life Alaska just like they did in the show.

Overall, "Northern Exposure" was a well-written hour-long "dramady," that just happened to be set in Alaska. And it was an Alaska that most Alaskans would recognize to some extent.

Which brings us back to "Men In Trees." About the only thing realistic in the first episode was the reference to "A.J. from Ketchikan."

First off, the town itself seemed more than a little unreal. Northern Exposure's "Cicely" could have been any number of wide spots in the road between Anchorage and elsewhere. In fact, it kind of seemed like a gussied up version of Talkeetna at times, although the Native lore that was frequently bantered about was of a distinctly Southeast Tlingit flavor.

In "Men in Trees" it seems like "Elmo" is sort of an odd version of Cordova but with a lot of other things thrown in. There were railway tracks in one scene and a lot of cars, and the town was clearly much more "metropolitan" than Cicely, but then it was made clear that all access to Elmo was by ferry, apparently from Juneau. I guess that explains why one of the characters was referred to as an "old Tlingit man" and why there were the obligatory totem poles standing around the town.

Yet this fairly sizeable town was just "funky" enough to to suffer a major and long-lasting power outage when Heche plugged in her hairdryer. And at one point, one of the characters is shown the only "apartment" in town. It just happened to be adjacent to a bowling alley, so the show must also be trying to catch some good vides from another TV show, "Ed."

Then, there were the attempts to incorporate - okay steal - some of the quainter parts of Northern Exposure. For example, the radio show and the bar scenes could have come straight from the earlier show. The only difference was that the denizens of both locations seem to have fewer interesting things to say in the later show.

Of course the sexual roles are reversed. Rather than a displaced male doctor pining after a gorgeous female bush pilot, "Men in Trees" gives us a displaced female relationship counselor pining after a cute male fisheries biologist.

But since Anne Heche is perceived as a bigger sex symbol than Rob Morrow ever was, the sexual tension is hotter from the get go and it is clear that it will be the focal part each show's plot.

In fact the upshot of the first episode was a scene in which all the bar denizens stood up and announced they had slept with the heroine in order to convince her straying boyfriend from New York to go back home empty handed. Now, there's a warm and fuzzy plot point.

Almost as warm and fuzzy as the fact that Heche's new best friend is the town "hooker." And yes, she does seem to have a heart of gold.

The Fleishman-Maggie thing was always there in "Northern Exposure," but it wasn't always the focal point of every plot. In fact, there were times when the principals on "Northern Exposure" were allowed to go nearly whole seasons in vehement dislike of each other. At first blush, "Men in Trees" appears ready to consumate much earlier and more often.

Another difference is that "Northern Exposure" had wandering moose for local color. "Men in Trees" apparently has a lesser animal wrangler budget and must make do with a raccoon that chases the heroine up and down the street chattering away like an indecipherable Greek Chorus.

I realize that sometimes it takes a few episodes for a show to hit its stride and I'll be tuning to future episodes of "Men in Trees" to see how things go in Elmo. At least it has more to do with Alaska than anything else on the air. Even if it isn't an Alaska that I'm familiar with.


Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2006

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