'Eli Stone': No Seer, But No Rerun Either

Life is but a dream, or at least partly one, for Eli Stone (Jonny Lee Miller), left, who's imagined a performing George Michael on his coffee table.
Life is but a dream, or at least partly one, for Eli Stone (Jonny Lee Miller), left, who's imagined a performing George Michael on his coffee table. (By Dean Freedman -- Abc)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 31, 2008

Today's theory: As a reaction to the runaway trend toward unscripted programming, and to distinguish their work from all those so-called reality shows, more and more Hollywood writers (when they aren't on strike) have been coming up with surreality shows. These series are fictions that have some kind of supernatural or spiritual element, or are just preposterous, fantastic hooey, as far from reality as possible.

Tonight's example: "Eli Stone," a drama about a lawyer who sees odd things and hears funny music and imagines singer George Michael dancing around on his coffee table. Fetched far and already limping if not quite lame, the ABC show (premiering at 10:02, the network says) is designed to hang onto fantasy-fan viewers of "Lost," which precedes it and which makes a decreasing amount of sense with each passing season.

Maybe making sense is itself an outdated concept -- certain political candidates have been operating along that line -- and perhaps a viewing nation, genuinely dismayed with reality as it now exists, just as genuinely hungers for the outrageous in its pop culture. Or maybe it's just another facile fad that got out of hand, abetted by some writers who never liked the constraints of logic, rationality or originality in the first place.

Actually, "Eli Stone" rather straddles the fence between sense and insensibility. It presents us with a character who, not unlike such predecessors in fiction as Walter Mitty and Billy Liar, is besieged by what seem to be miraculous apparitions and daydreams come true. But then, in the very first episode, the writers (including series creators Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim) come up with a prosaic explanation for the flights of fancy: An MRI reveals that lawyer Stone, the man with the stubbly pop star on his furniture, has an inoperable brain aneurysm.

He could live for years, decades, says his neurologist brother. But the trolley clangs he thinks he hears -- and the prop plane that he thinks is chasing him down a city street (evoking, obviously, the image of Cary Grant in "North by Northwest"), or the patient in a hospital gown who pops up unexpectedly and pleads "Help me, Stone" -- originates in his ailing brain. Says Stone's hip Chinese acupuncturist: "Oh, wow, that totally blows, bro."

And yet even though there is a medical explanation for the visions, Stone still attaches some sort of mysticism to them, heeding the advice of one associate who tells him he might be a 21st-century prophet, a modern-day Moses, despite a stunning absence of evidence to support that view. The images and sounds aren't generally random, however, and the apparitions also tend to be premonitions. Thus, that patient he sees in his mind soon turns up, for real, in his brother's office, albeit in a suit rather than those back-drafty patient PJs.

Jonny Lee Miller, in the title role, makes Eli Stone appealing enough for an audience to actually care about his fate, his plight and what asserts itself as his new mission in life. He doesn't quite buy the prophet bit, but he vows to "start using my legal skills to make the world a better place" and to "fix the world, one lawsuit at a time."

He gets off to a bumpy start. Having hallucinated himself prancing about the Himalayas in India, Stone surprises the firm of Wethersby, Posner and Klein, where he works, by changing sides in a lawsuit brought against the firm's client: the manufacturer of a flu vaccine for children. Stone is won over by the plaintiff (Beth Keller), who says the mercury-tainted vaccine turned her 7-year-old son autistic in one week.

This aspect of the story -- arguably too serious for such a glib and flippant drama -- has angered parental groups and the medical establishment because it could generate unwarranted fears of vaccination and do serious harm. ABC rebuffed demands to scuttle the episode but has agreed to precede it with a disclaimer designed to get the network and producers off the hook.

After Stone falls off a burro in the hallucinated Himalayas, the show cuts quickly to the main setting, photographable San Francisco, where the law firm is located. Stone's freakouts are quite generously tolerated by his boss, Jordan Wethersby (the ineffably reliable Victor Garber), perhaps because Stone is engaged to Wethersby's daughter Taylor (camera-friendly and versatile Natasha Henstridge).

When he hears about the aneurysm and assumes the worst, Eli tells Taylor, "Well, we should probably move the wedding up."

Contributing liberally to the acceptability of all this are Loretta Devine as Stone's munificent but bossy assistant, Patti; James Saito as the philosophical acupuncturist; and Matt Letscher as Eli's brother Nate. Garber is responsible for whatever gravitas the show manages; indeed, he appears to be taking it more seriously than anyone else in the cast, including Miller.

It's not at all encouraging that a future episode deals, like the pilot, with a negligent corporation, this one manufacturing poisonous pesticide. What's this going to be, Bad Company of the Week? That could get tired quickly, though yet another future episode begins with Miller's voice saying, "This story's different." We shall see.

The series itself is at least different, if not quite as novel as it looks in the promos, nor as quirky and kooky as ABC's "Pushing Daisies," which is probably just as well.

These days, with the Writers Guild strike (and arrogant industry intransigence) continuing, "Eli Stone" gets points just for showing up, and for having a few unseen episodes in the can. Maybe it should be considered substitute programming, until more solid and substantial dramas return. On that level, it doesn't totally blow, bro; it's actually quite tolerable.

Eli Stone (one hour) debuts tonight at 10:02 on Channel 7.

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