If George Michael ever shows up in Judge Joel Pearce's living room, he's going to have another run-in with the law.
Just when you think you've found your way…life changes direction.
Though I wasn't initially impressed, Eli Stone is a series that crept up and surprised me in the middle of the season. It's a show that takes a generic premise and creates something special from it, which keeps getting better as it pushes toward an impressive finale. Highly recommended to those who mourn the loss of Wonderfalls, Eli Stone is a legal drama/comedy with spirit and optimism to spare.
Eli Stone (Johnny Lee Miller, Trainspotting) is a corporate lawyer—the kind that helps companies avoid being sued for horrible things. He is engaged to the beautiful Taylor (Natasha Henstridge, Species), has a good relationship to his boss, and can only see his life going up from here. One day, though, he finds a vision of George Michael singing in his living-room, then again at work, and it sends his life into a tailspin. It turns out that he has a brain aneurysm, and that he will likely keep seeing these strange visions. His new acupuncturist has a different theory, though, that Eli is a prophet, given visions in order to help and guide people. Can a bloodsucking lawyer also be a modern-day hero? Eli soon finds himself trapped between the world that he lives in, and the world that only he can see.
Two or three episodes into Eli Stone, and I wasn't impressed. At first, it plays out much like Joan of Arcadia and Wonderfalls, in which God chooses to speak through an unbelieving (and initially unwilling) participant. This time, the reluctant hero is a slick corporate lawyer, rather than a young outcast. The visions themselves aren't especially compelling, and the premise of the series seemed pretty contrived. I became worried that this would end up as another example of big-business America trying to make a God-friendly show that would also appeal to the Ally McBeal crowd.
Four or five episodes in, and my opinion was starting to shift slightly. The cases that Eli ends up working are all fascinating, and challenging in their own right. While they wouldn't make the basis of a great courtroom drama series, the creators are willing to dive in and deal with society's most important and contentious issues. Outside the courtroom, the formula was feeling a bit stale, the plotlines hedged a bit too closely to soap opera territory, and the whole series threatened to collapse under its own weight. A show can't be a great sitcom, a faith-based character study, a courtroom drama and a soap opera, all at the same time.
As the season wears on, though, I found the show growing on me. The show starts to settle into a groove halfway through, and the court cases become more personal. Much of the credit goes to the cast, who help the show rise above its initial potential. Johnny Lee Miller seemed above this script initially, but he crafts an engaging character here—a lawyer who is professionally without ethics but who is also impossible not to like. The trajectory of his character transformation becomes the true core of the show, and it makes for compelling television. Most of the other characters appear to be simple stereotypes at first, but to goal of the writers was clearly to pull the rug out from under us as the show unfolds. It's ultimately a show about wrong first impressions, and the great things that can happen when people are offered a second chance. It's also one of the few first seasons that works as a perfectly self-contained story, but could also serve as the basis for a great ongoing series.
I still have a few issues with Eli Stone's wishy-washy approach to religion. It's awkwardly non-denominational, and although Eli is clearly designed to be the modern-day equivalent of an Old Testament prophet, God is described in the series as some mysterious force at the center of the universe or whatever. I can't help but wonder if it began as a religious series, but was secularized by the network in order to gain wider appeal. In truth, I would enjoy the show as one that affirms a specific faith, or as one that doesn't try to connect to religious faith at all, but the conceit that faith counts no matter what one believes in has always struck me as both pathetic and simplistic. This also improved as the series built, though, so I'm hoping that it was simply a writers' concession at the beginning of the show.
In terms of presentation, the first season of Eli Stone looks and sounds great. The picture quality is as good as we can expect from recent television. It doesn't look quite as strong as a high-budget film shot on 35mm, but it is consistently sharp and colorful. The detail is excellent. The sound is also just fine—with clear dialogue and well-mixed music. The surrounds and LFE are a bit active in some hallucination scenes, but there's nothing dazzling about the track. There are a number of extras on the final disc, including an extended pilot, a pair of commentary tracks, deleted scenes, and a blooper reel. There are also four short featurettes, covering a variety of aspects of the production. All of the extras reveal a startling enthusiasm on the part of the cast and crew. That enthusiasm was probably the reason the show was able to turn itself around midseason and turn into something special.
And, if you can make it through those rocky initial episodes, you really will find something special in Eli Stone. I expect that we will see even greater work in the second season, but fans of the genre will want to nab this DVD set, whether you missed the original run or not.
Not guilty. Crazy, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
• Episode Commentaries
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