Two immediate questions leap to mind while watching the premiere of Eli Stone, the lawyer-cum-prophet dramedy bowing at 10 tomorrow (Jan. 31) on ABC (Channel 7 in Detroit):
If George Michael really had even the slightest connection to anything prophetic, wouldn't he have foreseen the demise of his own career?
And why does television — and by extension, America — have such a fixation with legal series when so many Americans say they can't stand lawyers?
Maybe the latter is a discussion for another day. For now we have Eli, arriving the same week as another goofy-looking protagonist named Eli (Manning) is preparing for the biggest sporting event in the galaxy. The fictional Eli has been receiving great fanfare as well, through ABC's incessant promotion of Michael and his song "Faith" within the show's pilot and the show's sweetheart launching pad following the two-hour blockbuster return of Lost. You will want to like this Eli, much as you tend to think the Giants quarterback seems like a pleasant enough fellow. Ultimately, though, Eli Stone has as much of a chance against network competition as Manning does versus the Patriots.
It's just too gimmicky, and series that rely on clever internal devices to advance their storylines tend to wear thin quickly. There are brief singing and dancing interludes sprinkled throughout the first few episodes (prime-time programs that include musical production numbers almost never fare well), and next week's show revolves around a recurring airplane- strafing-man-in-suit contrivance stolen straight out of North by Northwest. It's quirky, and ABC really seems to dote on quirky dramas nowadays (see Daisies, Pushing). But there's a hole in the heart of this drama that no amount of surgery may be able to repair.
Surgery is contraindicated in the case of Stone too, as portrayed by British actor Jonny Lee Miller, a moon-eyed, rubber- faced sort who looks like the wimpy kid everybody beat on in grade school, all grown up. (Another question: Why is it English actors land American roles without a hitch while U.S. performers are almost never cast as Brits?) As Eli, he appears to have it all: A high-powered attorney at a prestigious San Francisco firm, he's enjoying wealth, status and his engagement to the boss's daughter. (As Miller, with a breakthrough role in the transcendent film Trainspotting and three-year marriage to Angelina Jolie in his past, this may be life imitating art.) Then the visions begin. Eli sees Michael singing and performing lustily in his living room and office lobby. The reason? A brain aneurysm, inoperable. Like Ned in Pushing Daisies, this guy could go at any moment.
At the suggestion of his stereotypically brassy black secretary (Loretta Divine, Boston Public), he visits an acupuncturist (James Saito) who suggests his apparitions may be a sign that Eli could be a modern-day prophet. Through a series of circumstances, Eli ends up filing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against one of his own firm's top clients — a pharmaceutical company whose vaccines may trigger autism in children — and wins. How many attorneys do you suppose could pull off that coup and keep their jobs?
While the opening episode is all about brains — Eli's and the little boy he represents — in weeks to come, Eli repeatedly rails against his firm's smug profiteering and uses his legal skills to defend the helpless. A corporate lawyer with a social conscience? We do so love fantasies.
There are a lot of familiar faces to help you digest all this. Besides Divine, Victor Garber (Alias) is Eli's boss, Natasha Henstridge his fiancee, and Tom Amandes, who played Eliot Ness in the 1990s TV remake of The Untouchables, a senior partner. Veteran hands Ken Olin (thirtysomething), who wrote and directed the pilot, and Greg Berlanti (Dirty Sexy Money) are at the controls. Yet there is something about Eli Stone that just doesn't feel quite right. Eli doesn't seem conflicted or dismayed enough, the key people around him are slightly off the mark, even Dr. Chen, the acupuncturist, is not who he seems to be.
Late in the first episode, Dr. Chen declares to Eli, "Everything has two explanations, the scientific and the divine." The concept behind Eli Stone seems too scientific, too precise, to be considered totally divine. In a rarity these days, all 13 episodes of the series were completed before the writers' strike. The fourth question is, will the ratings permit us the chance to see them all?Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org