One of the best things about last year’s writers’ strike is it forced the networks to take a few chances with programming, thus giving offbeat series like Eli Stone a shot they might not have gotten in a more traditional TV season. A show about a corporate lawyer who, due to a brain aneurysm that gives him hallucinations, may or may not be a prophet most likely would have disappeared after a few episodes in an ordinary season. That’s assuming it would have even been aired in the first place.
Eli Stone did air, though as a “mid-season replacement” in the heat of the writers' strike, premiering Thursday 31 January 2008 at 10P EST, and maintaining that slot through a 13-episode run that ended 17 April 2008. It wasn’t a ratings juggernaut in that run (then again, what was?) but it attracted a following substantial enough to secure it a second season on the new ABC fall schedule. (Premieres 14 October, 9p EST.)
Watching the DVD release of Eli Stone: The Complete First Season, it’s easy to understand why ABC picked the series up for a second season. Imagine all those Frank Capra movies you grew up with placed into a 21st century context, where good guys don’t always win in the end, put in the requisite romance, add a few musical numbers and ratchet it up a bit with some cool CGI effects, and you have a reasonable backdrop for the series. What really makes it compelling, though, is that beneath all that razzmatazz, Eli Stone touches a universal core of the human heart.
Rather than produce yet another courtroom procedural, creators Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim opted to utilize the setting as a larger stage in the quest for self-realization. When we first meet Eli Stone (Jonny Lee Miller), he’s a cutthroat trial lawyer on the fast track, devoid of any semblance of conscience. That’s before he sees George Michael performing in his kitchen at a most inopportune time. It’s a hallucination, of course, brought on by an undiagnosed brain aneurysm. It could be something more, according to his acupuncturist — he could be receiving these visions as divine inspiration, and may, in fact, be a prophet.
Prophetic visions or not, Stone’s hallucinations usually have a bearing on his current case, and often his personal life. That they happen to usually include Broadway-class musical numbers is merely incidental. And that his concept of God bears an uncanny resemblance to George Michael shows that the series never takes itself gravely seriously. Unlike antecedents such as Ally McBeal or Cop Rock, the show intertwines Stone’s musical hallucinations in such a way they actually enhance what might be an otherwise dry plot. Since we share his hallucinations (or are they prophetic visions?), we relate to his plights, whether it’s taking on unlikely cases, sacrificing his true love for the greater good or dealing with the pesky anomaly that may kill him at any given moment.