TV Review: 'Eli Stone'
Sharp characters carry whimsical legal drama
If you don't -- or if you're looking for more lawyering in your legal dramas -- then you're probably going to be a little disappointed. If, however, you're willing to accept the idea that George Michael can pop up in a corporate attorney's living room, you're buying into probably the best new scripted series the broadcast networks are offering up this midseason.
Our title character (Jonny Lee Miller, late of CBS' "Smith") is a fast-rising lawyer at a big San Francisco firm who worships the holy trinity of "Armani, accessories and ambition." He's got a hot fiancee (Natasha Henstridge, "Commander in Chief") and the ear of one of the firm's partners (Victor Garber, "Alias"), who's also his future father-in-law.
Things are going swimmingly for Eli -- until he starts hearing organ music from nowhere, and then, as he and fiancee Taylor are in flagrante, has a full-blown vision of Michael singing and dancing on his coffee table.
Turning to his doctor brother (Matt Letscher) for help, Eli eventually discovers he has a brain aneurysm -- the same thing that affected their father (a cameo-ing Tom Cavanagh in a flashback), whom Eli had long ago dismissed as just an unreliable alcoholic. To placate his assistant (a fantastic Loretta Devine), though, he also sees an acupuncturist named Dr. Chen (James Saito), who at first seems like a complete caricature of an Eastern medicine practitioner.
Except he's not -- which is one of several nice surprises in this very well-crafted show. As Chen (which isn't even his real name) explains, his job prospects as a UC-Berkeley philosophy graduate weren't great, and since people expect the mumbo-jumbo when the visit a Chinatown acupuncturist, he puts on a little show for his customers.
He also tells Eli that "everything has two explanations -- the scientific and the divine," and that the divine explanation for his visions just might be that he's a prophet, meant to lead mankind to a better place. Which, in Eli's situation, means fewer rich-get-richer cases and more work for the little guy. (In the pilot, that entails representing a mother who says a flu vaccine triggered autism in her son, a plotline that's drawn fire from medical groups. ABC has agreed to run a disclaimer and direct viewers to the Internet for further information following the episode.)
That's quite a bit to swallow, and to the show's credit, Eli is just as incredulous as we are. The visions (understandably) freak him out, and he spends a good deal of time trying to avoid them. No such luck, though: A different George Michael song dogs him in episode two -- and Garber gets to show off his musical theater chops -- and he begins, ever so slightly, to see that the visions are guiding him toward something important.
Not everything works in "Eli Stone" -- the legal cases Eli takes are a little too closely tied to his visions, and at least early on, there's a social-cause-of-the-week feel to them. There's not a lot of theology behind the notion that Eli may be a prophet -- heck, he tells Chen that he doesn't even believe in God. "You believe in right and wrong, in fairness, in love -- all those things are God," is Chen's reply, and while that may be so, it's also about as non-specific as you can get when discussing a higher power.
But creators Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim, who have worked together on "Jack & Bobby" and "Brothers & Sisters," have populated this world with a host of richly drawn characters, and their writing is uncommonly sharp. It would be hard, too, to find a much deeper cast anywhere on network TV. Sam Jaeger ("Lucky Number Slevin") and Julie Gonzalo ("Veronica Mars"), who joins the cast in episode two, both play colleagues of Eli, and "Everwood" regular Tom Amandes has a recurring role as one of the firm's partners. Pamela Reed ("Jericho") guest stars as Eli's mom.
The combination of stellar cast and good writing is a treat in any TV season, and "Eli Stone" would get a thumbs-up from me regardless of the climate in which it's airing. Given the dearth of options in this strike-addled winter, though, the show becomes almost must-see viewing.