Given the length of Hollywood’s Writers Guild strike, its rare enough to see new episodes of any (non-reality) TV series these days, let alone a brand-new offering. With carefully hoarded TiVo shows long ago watched and erased, viewers are desperate for something--anything--fresh in prime time. ABC recently responded by ripping the wrapping off its quirky legal comedy/drama “Eli Stone.”
The brainchild of writers/producers Marc Guggenheim (“Brothers and Sisters”) and Greg Berlanti (“Everwood”), “Eli Stone” introduces us to Eli Stone, a morally conflicted San Francisco lawyer played by Jonny Lee Miller. (Scandal rag collectors might recognize him as Angelina Jolie’s long-lost first hubby.) Stone’s lucrative life of defending high-profile corporate clients comes to a crashing halt when he starts seeing strange visions, most of which seem to involve British pop star George Michael.
In time, Eli is diagnosed as having a genetically inherited brain aneurysm. It’s inoperable and very likely the source of these hallucinations. A bit of soul searching and a visit to a phony (but still wise) Chinese acupuncturist leads our lawyer to conclude that maybe he’s actually a prophet. It’s a pretty huge leap of logic, particularly since “Eli Stone” strenuously avoids any overt religious endorsements.
Mixing the wacky, delusional lawyer hijinks of “Ally McBeal” with the surreal religious symbolism of “John from Cincinnati” and gluing it onto the feel-good framework of “Touched By an Angel” leaves “Eli Stone” as something of an oddball pastiche. Each episode, Eli receives some mysterious godly/cardiovascular disorder-induced vision in the form of a George Michael tune (an odd choice, given the singer’s recent personal woes). This is intended to serve as a roadmap, steering Eli toward this week’s good deed. Helping the mother of an autism-afflicted boy? Assisting some illegal immigrants just trying to live out the American dream? These tasks may not lead Eli and his high-tone firm toward financial reward, but they do seem to help balance TV’s universal, non-denominational karma.
Miller’s got measurable charisma, and he’s surrounded by some veteran players (Victor Garber from “Alias” as his boss, Natasha Henstridge from Species as his fiancée, Loretta Devine from “Boston Public” as his secretary). The show, however, tries a bit too hard to be quirky and “special.” That style only works when it grows organically from the minds of all involved. (“Pushing Daisies,” for example.) Here, it feels a bit too contrived. No one seems to be reading off the same page on this set. Henstridge is grim-faced serious. Devine offers her usual flighty support. Miller careens wildly between sincere and slapstick.
It’s possible the show will settle into its groove in the next few episodes. There are plenty of professionals involved to help it feel its way along. Stranger miracles have happened in prime time. So here’s hoping “Eli Stone” finds its salvation before it runs out of George Michael tunes.
“Eli Stone” airs every Thursday night at 9 p.m. on KOAT-7.