Friday, February 1, 2008

"Eli Stone" is the Latest Entry in the Growing Greg Berlanti TV Portfolio

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

And to think, it all started with a critically beloved, relatively low-rated show on the old WB. "Everwood," whose fans were as ardent as they were few in number, managed to cling to the schedule for four years, exiting in June of 2006 when the WB transitioned into the CW. Who would have imagined that the show's creator, former "Dawson's Creek" writer Greg Berlanti, would be responsible for two of ABC's few bright spots of the strike-ravaged 2007-08 season?

Berlanti is an executive producer of the network's hits "Dirty Sexy Money" and "Brothers & Sisters," and on Thursday night, yet another of his creations, "Eli Stone" (Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern), hit the air. How does "Eli" stack up with Berlanti's two reigning offerings? It's not in the same league yet, but there are certainly flashes of Berlanti's wit and storytelling prowess.

"Eli" follows the eponymous big shot San Francisco attorney (Jonny Lee Miller), who, while representing a pharmaceutical company in a lawsuit brought by a mother claiming that her son developed autism because of an additive in a flu shot, starts to hear things. First, it's just organ music, but the chords eventually develop into the opening of George Michael's hit "Faith." Soon, Eli sees Michael (playing himself, and how grateful do you think he is for a chance to return to television in something other than a mug shot?) performing the song in his living room (interrupting sex with his blonde, patrician, attorney fiancé, Taylor, played by Natasha Henstridge) and later, in his office lobby. Eli starts out on a road that ends with the suggestion that he may be a modern day prophet.

Opening in the mountains of India, with Eli on some kind of mission, and then flashing back to see how he got there, beginning with a string of standard-issue clichés to identify Eli's lack of soul and impending awakening (did we need to see him dressing down an old woman on the witness stand and bullying the mom in the autism case?), "Eli" quickly reveals itself to be the latest entry into the "Regarding Henry" canon of movies and TV programs about soulless yuppies finding their way.

The first half hour of "Eli" is plagued with characters and scenes we've seen too many times before, from Eli's sarcastic-but-wise African American assistant, Patti (Loretta Devine, Richard's wife Adele on "Grey's Anatomy"), to Henstridge's ice queen fiancé, to the evil senior partner, Jordan (Victor Garber), who is only concerned with profits, along with the redemption of the yuppie who once wanted to "make a difference." Of course, Eli can't ride the horse in India, is disliked by his guides, and shows up on the mountain in his suit. Why is he dressed up? Apparently, so we can see what a jerk he is, because there is no logical explanation why someone would wear business clothing to fly from Northern California to India to climb a mountain.

The result is, at least for the first half of the pilot (more on this later), bland and overly plotted. Even the hook of "Eli," an attorney seeing things that aren't there, is so 1990s. It's not a big jump from "Eli" to "Ally," as Ms. McBeal was also prone to visual and aural flights of fancy.

But "Eli" shows some promise. The writing is sharp, as you would expect from a Berlanti show (he co-wrote the pilot with Marc Guggenheim). When Eli asks his brother Nathan (Matt Letscher), a doctor, what he should do if he sees George Michael again, Nathan tells him, "Ask for an autograph." And Miller is solid and engaging as Eli, believably perplexed at all the changes thrown at him.

The key to the second-half redemption of the pilot are twists that Berlanti and Guggenheim throw into the action, both of which serve to tweak some of the show's stereotypes. As I said, there is nothing new about a lawyer having wacky visions that help guide his/her spiritual growth. But just when you think you've had it with Eli's daydreams, they are revealed to be the result of a small aneurysm in his brain.

Having a medical reason for Eli's hallucinations is satisfying, not only because of the unexpected twist, but also because of how we're forced to rethink what we've been told about Eli's deceased father (played in flashbacks by the always terrific Tom Cavanaugh). Eli lived his life thinking that his father's unreliable behavior was due to alcoholism, but his diagnosis, and the revelation that it is hereditary, sends the show in a new and positive direction. Eli has to completely re-evaluate his opinion of his dad, and this epiphany gives sorely needed weight to Eli's emotional development. We eventually learn that he is in India to scatter his dad's ashes, something his mother didn't tell him was in his father's will until the new information about the aneurysm comes to light.

I also love what Berlanti and Guggenheim do with the herbal healer, Dr. Chen (James Saito), that Patti sends Eli to see about his hallucinations, before Nathan finds the aneurysm. In the first scenes in which we meet Dr. Chen, the character is borderline offensive, speaking in an exaggerated Charlie Chan Chinese accent. Dr. Chen is supposed to stand for the faith (thus, Mr. Michael's song) that balances Nathan's science, but it's hard to take him seriously as he cracks wise while treating Eli with acupuncture. (After Eli tells him about his father, Dr. Chen goes back to his instruments and says, "Dead father? Different needle.")

But once Eli comes to Dr. Chen with his true diagnosis, he reveals himself to be a perfectly articulate, American-born philosophy Ph.D., who went back to school to learn holistic medicine. Dr. Chen explains that he affects the Chinese accent to satisfy the expectations of Americans, who want their holistic healers to be exotic. Berlanti and Guggenheim expertly turn around the stereotype, implicating the audience for buying the Dr. Chen character for the first half of the episode.

Dr. Chen is the key to Eli's development, explaining to him the balance between faith and science, and suggesting that Eli may be a prophet. He points out several coincidences, including the autistic child spelling out "George Michael" with his building blocks, and the boy's mother, Beth (Laura Benanti), being the college fling responsible for Eli losing his virginity (while "Faith" played on the stereo, as we see in a charming flashback that reveals a dorky Eli, with Beth recognizing that he was bound to grow into being a catch).

Armed with a compelling reason for Eli's quest (the discovery that his father may not have been who Eli thought he was), Eli's journey suddenly becomes interesting, and we, as viewers, are given a reason to come back and see how Eli is doing. It's fortunate for Berlanti and Guggenheim, since the central plot of the pilot is a disaster, and certainly would not, on its own, inspire anyone to continue on with the show.

The courtroom drama in the pilot is so implausible, and so departs from basic legal rules, that I was amazed it was allowed to air. In the interest of full disclosure, I am an attorney, but I am in recovery, having practiced for less than a year in the mid-1990s. I don't expect stories centered on the law to get every detail of the justice system right, but I do hold the writers to what I like to call the "Perry Mason Rule," which simply says that the plot cannot violate what nearly every American knows about the law from watching legal television dramas and movies. "Eli" violates this statute, terribly.

Essentially, after Eli tries to bully her into a settlement, Beth comes to Eli's office and asks him to represent her. When he points out that he is barred from doing so by the rules of ethics, she informs him about the concept of a "Chinese wall" that would allow him to take the case while sealing himself off from the firm. Now, I don't expect the average viewer to have heard of a "Chinese wall," but I don't think you have to be the editor of the Harvard Law Review to figure out that no legal principal would allow the lawyer of one party in a lawsuit to switch sides and represent the other side in the same case. And yet that's what happens, with Eli representing Beth, while his firm continues to represent the pharmaceutical company.

Incidentally, a "Chinese wall" only allows a lawyer in a firm to represent a client that may have been an adversary to a party that was represented by another attorney at the firm in a different matter. I am explaining this not to show off (okay, maybe a little to show off), but to illustrate that I, a lowly small-firm associate who hasn't practiced law in 14 years, know what a "Chinese wall" is, but Jordan, the managing partner of a powerful firm, somehow is not aware of this concept.

To center the plot of your pilot on an action that most viewers will instantly know is completely ridiculous only results in quick detachment from the story. "Eli" gets so much wrong about the legal profession that everything feels false. Amazingly, the show also gets the medical profession wrong, featuring two major violations of physician ethics that I recognized even though I'm not a doctor. Nathan treats Eli despite their relationship, and he then proceeds to reveal Eli's diagnosis to a third party, their mother. (I checked with a physician friend of mine to make sure I was correct about Nathan's actions, and he assured me that no competent doctor would treat his own brother, and certainly wouldn't violate doctor-patient confidentiality.)

"Eli" is quite the interesting muddle. If future episodes can dodge the pitfalls of the pilot, moving away from the stereotypes and getting their legal ducks in a row, the clever dialogue and intriguing journey could make for interesting television. The show is nowhere near as entertaining as the over-the-top, whip-smart "Dirty Sexy Money" (which I reviewed on October 10, 2007), nor is it as well-constructed as "Brothers & Sisters," which overcomes its soapy story lines with an engaging group of characters, infused with life, played by a strong ensemble of actors.

But "Eli," in some ways, aims higher than both of them, trying to tread on more thought-provoking ground. As of the pilot, the show hasn't quite delivered on its ambitions, but in the episodes that were filmed before the strike, it's entirely possible that Berlanti and Guggenheim figured it out. After all, it's Berlanti's moment in the sun. Nothing, short of a writers strike, can seemingly stop him now.