Elmo tickles me, and I couldn't be more pleasantly surprised.

Not the cute Muppet but the fictional town of Elmo, Alaska, the gorgeously rustic setting of Men in Trees. Here, men are men, women are scarce and romantic comedy frequently erupts, spreading warmth all around. 

At first, I dismissed Trees as a flimsy rip-off of Northern Exposure with a Sex and the City sensibility. (Trees' creator, Jenny Bicks, was a producer of that HBO hit.) I wasn't entirely wrong. Elmo can't hold a candle to Cicely's quirky brilliance, but it isn't meant to.

As I caught up with episodes that had aired on Fridays until ABC moved it after Grey's Anatomy — a better fit than the pretentious Six Degrees — I began to relish Trees' unassuming sweetness, which has even melted the brittle shell of star Anne Heche.

She plays Marin Frist, a New York relationship expert/author who lands in Elmo after being dumped by her fiancé. Intrigued by Elmo's men, especially a soft-spoken hunk of a biologist named Jack (James Tupper) who calls her "Coach," she stays — and mellows.

The show has toned down Marin's frantic klutziness to spotlight a winning tribe of "retro-sexuals," including ER's Abraham Benrubi as a gentle giant of a bartender and Derek Richardson as a wistful young innkeeper.

"In Elmo, people get to be who they really are," Marin soon realizes. Who she is involves Jack, who went from her sparring partner to sex partner to friend in record time. Their complicated relationship is worth tuning in for, but you'll probably stay for many other reasons.

Men in Trees isn't quite appointment TV yet. More like very good date TV.

A Messy Room
Sci Fi Channel's annual December miniseries have diminished in size (unavoidable, given it all started with the 20-hour Taken) and, lately, in quality. The Lost Room (Dec. 11-18 at 9 pm/ET) is an especially silly descent into incoherence.

Peter Krause keeps a straight face as the bland hero of this mystery/fantasy, in which a motel-room key opens onto a room that takes you anywhere (and that swallows his daughter). The key is one of many magical everyday objects being sought by members of cabals named the Order and the Legion. It's as ridiculously dense as latter-day Alias, but not as much fun.

Although I did laugh when Roger Bart tried to make clicking a ballpoint pen (with microwave powers!) look scary. And I howled when someone shouted, "Watch out! He's got the comb!" (The comb can stop time.)

The object that comes in handiest here: your own remote, with nifty buttons like "fast forward," "stop" and "erase."