TV Review: 'Eli Stone' has McBeal-like imagination
January 31, 2008 5:00 AM
Jonny Lee Miller is "Eli Stone," with Loretta Devine as his assistant, Patti, in the new ABC series premiering tonight.
By Rob Owen Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In ABC's "Eli Stone," the title character is a male Ally McBeal minus the fluster.
Like Ally, the aneurysm-plagued San Francisco lawyer in this whimsical drama has a wild imagination. He doesn't see a dancing baby, but he does hear a singing George Michael, who later performs atop Eli's living room coffee table.
Created by Greg Berlanti ("Everwood") and Marc Guggenheim ("Law & Order"), "Eli Stone" offers a well-stirred mix of character comedy, relationship drama, legal cases and musical numbers. Yes, musical numbers. Don't worry, they're "Ally"-good as opposed to "Viva Laughlin"-bad.
When: 10 tonight, ABC.
Starring: Jonny Lee Miller.
"Eli Stone" is not innovative TV, but it effectively entertains in tonight's premiere that sets up the show's premise: Eli, who worships "the holy trinity of Armani, accessories and ambition," begins to have hallucinations that are caused by an inoperable brain aneurysm that may or may not burst and kill him in the future.
Before the episode is over, Eli has imagined George Michael singing on a stage in his law firm's lobby as his co-workers dance. In a future episode, co-star Victor Garber ("Alias"), as Eli's boss and potential future father-in-law, leads the cast in a rousing rendition of The Rascals' "Good Lovin'."
"Eli Stone" does suffer from a blind, deaf and dumb streak of Hollywood activism that allows ideology to get in the way of reality as evidenced in tonight's unbelievable court case that purports a link between childhood vaccinations and autism. (The American Academy of Pediatrics deems the story line a reckless perpetuation of a myth and asked ABC to not air the episode; ABC added a disclaimer to tonight's broadcast.) This plot distracts from the introduction of a memorable character, Eli's blunt assistant, Patti (scene stealer Loretta Devine). She despises Eli's fiancee, Taylor (Natasha Henstridge), and audiences are bound to agree. Taylor's purpose in the show is unclear.
What is clear and welcome is the producers' commitment to creating a semi-realistic San Francisco. The city's vibrant Asian community is represented in the character of Dr. Chen (James Saito), who is not the caricature he at first appears to be. To be a truly realistic depiction, "Eli Stone" needs more Asian background extras and supporting players, but the show makes more of an effort than some others set in the city by the bay.
After a strong start tonight, next week's episode rehashes this week's events, even resetting Eli's attitude. Suddenly, Eli doesn't seem to have learned anything.
Earlier this season, The CW's "Reaper" was plagued by the network mandate that subsequent episodes re-establish the premise of the pilot, doing so in a way that was merely repetitious. "Eli Stone" falls into the same trap in its second episode (network executives either need to quit giving this note or show runners need to stop taking it so literally). The fourth episode breaks free of the pilot format, allowing a better showcase for the show's supporting cast and a less similar setup for Eli's hallucination-of-the-week.
Still, "Eli Stone" risks becoming a prisoner of its own formula if it hews too closely to its procedural elements and doesn't do more to explore the notion, as posited by Dr. Chen, that Eli may be a prophet of some sort. Only by embracing its more offbeat attributes will this "Stone" roll on.
• Tonight's premiere of "Eli Stone" includes a court case about childhood vaccinations and autism. Nancy Minshew, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Excellence in Autism Research, attacks the link between vaccines and autism.