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'Eli Stone' explores new life inside his head

Complex characters, not the special effects, make for a compelling new comedy-drama.

January 31, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

The soul of the lawyer: It's a subject we find particularly compelling, here in our judge and ye-shall-be-judged, heaven-or-hell culture. They have become the bad and good angels of our modern dramas, comedies and New Yorker cartoons -- more than, say, postmen or plumbers or other such underrepresented occupations that more frequently touch our lives.

In "Eli Stone," a likable midseason comedy-drama from ABC, the title character, played by Jonny Lee Miller ("Trainspotting," "Melinda and Melinda"), is a San Francisco attorney who has let his early desires to do good lapse in favor of, you know, "doin' good!" A star at a high-priced firm that seems to specialize in protecting corporate clients from the ordinary rest of us, he has dedicated his life to "Armani, accessories and ambition." And then one day he starts to hear music in his head, and one night he has a vision of George Michael singing "Faith" on his coffee table. He also discovers that he has an inoperable brain aneurysm that might kill him and is possibly the reason he's hearing and seeing things -- the Himalayas outside his apartment, a trolley car in the office, a biplane chasing him down the street. In the course of time, these and other visions will push him, in fits and starts, back to his better self.

Created by Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim, who have "Brothers & Sisters" credits in common -- Berlanti also created "Everwood," and Guggenheim writes superhero comics -- it reflects the current ABC predilection for whimsy, as seen in such series as "Pushing Daisies," "Samantha Who?" and "Ugly Betty." (Eli is in a common superhero predicament, in fact, dealing with an unasked-for power -- "Trapped in a World He Never Made" as they liked to say in the old Marvel days.) Is it a trickle-down effect from corporate parent Disney? In any case, "Eli Stone" does not lack for pixie dust.

It also echoes the spikier "Wonderfalls," a 2004 series in which a post-collegiate Niagara Falls underachiever got messages from the universe, funneled through kitsch animal statuary, impelling her to help people, almost against her will. Here, Eli finds his way to Dr. Chen (James Saito), an acupuncturist who puts on a fake Chinese accent for effect and believes that Eli might be a "prophet."

There are two explanations for everything, Chen tells Eli, "the scientific and the divine." But as is usual in our sentimental world, the divine is given the edge here. Chen's pidgin injunction to "Make peace George Michael," for instance, later turns up in a wall of alphabet blocks that a client's autistic son is building. And the client, who has convinced Eli to take her case -- a lawsuit against a vaccine manufacturer represented by his own company -- also happens to be the woman to whom he lost his virginity, while a George Michael tape played in the background. Everything is connected. (The episode has drawn protest from the American Academy of Pediatrics over the vaccine-autism link.)

The CGI apparitions are not always convincing, and the musical production numbers, which come at least once an episode, not as marvelous as they might be -- but these things are just the stuff of music videos. And as in all legal dramas, there are straw men everywhere. (The writers decide who wins.) What makes the show worth watching are some old-fashioned character relationships; no single performance tears up the place, but together they make something interesting.

Miller, the latest Englishman to try on an American accent for the sake of a trip to Hollywood, wears very well and is the hub to which all else connects. He has an affectionately insulting relationship with doctor brother Nathan (Matt Letscher); a new, outside-his-box pal in Dr. Chen; and a subtly mouthy assistant, played by Loretta Devine ("Grey's Anatomy"), whom I will watch in anything -- a used car commercial, a weather report, anything.

Natasha Henstridge (the fatal mutation in "Species" and "Species 2") is his fiancee, Taylor. I was happy to see that they didn't take the easy road of making her shallow and self-serving so that, should she be dumped for Eli to pursue some new romance -- perhaps with overeager young associate Maggie (Julie Gonzalo) -- we would not feel so bad. They take quite the opposite tack, in fact. Similarly, her father (Victor Garber, from "Alias" and everywhere), who is also Eli's boss, is not quite the evil emperor that Frank Capra, say, might have made him.

The show improves its rhythms from episode to episode; I've seen three, and there are 13 finished. In these product-hungry times, it's a good bet, and a happy chance, that you'll get to see them all.



'Eli Stone'

Where: ABC

When: 10 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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