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Published: Tuesday, 1/29/2008

Moral flip-flop: A lawyer finds himself at the crossroads in ABC's 'Eli Stone'

BY MIKE KELLY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
Laura Benanti plays a woman from the past of lawyer Eli Stone (Johnny Lee Miller), left, and William Topputo plays her son. The new drama begins its run at 10 p.m. Thursday, after the season premiere of <i>Lost</i>. Laura Benanti plays a woman from the past of lawyer Eli Stone (Johnny Lee Miller), left, and William Topputo plays her son. The new drama begins its run at 10 p.m. Thursday, after the season premiere of <i>Lost</i>.
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Eli Stone is your typical fictional TV lawyer - well, one of the two types of lawyers you normally run across on TV. He's smart, ambitious, and a bit on the ruthless side. That last quality comes in quite handy, because Eli works at a big-time law firm that represents huge, insanely powerful corporations, the kind of conglomerates that have no qualms about squashing the little guy.

But then something happens to Eli that magically transforms him into that other kind of lawyer you'll find on TV, the earnest, altruistic type who fights for the little guy against the evil forces of - surprise, surprise - huge, insanely powerful corporations.

This metaphysical and moral flip-flop is at the heart of a quirky new ABC series called Eli Stone, which premieres at 10 p.m. Thursday, immediately following the season premiere of the highly rated series Lost. The new show is a drama with healthy dollops of comedy and fantasy mixed in.

In the pilot episode, Eli begins having odd hallucinations, the first of which involves a very animated scene featuring pop singer George Michael belting out a spirited rendition of his 20-year-old song "Faith" in Eli's living room. In case viewers can't fathom the symbolism, we soon meet another character, a mystical Chinese acupuncturist and philosopher named Dr. Chen, who explains that George's song is a message to Eli that he needs to have faith.

It also means that Eli may well be a prophet. How Dr. Chen comes to that conclusion isn't exactly made clear, but hey, the guy's an acupuncturist, so he must know all kinds of inscrutable stuff. (Except it later turns out that Dr. Chen isn't really all that mystical, or all that Chinese, either.)

Before long, a confused Eli is hearing music at other times, too, and (luckily for him) it's not always George Michael. During a business meeting, he picks up on some mysterious organ music and asks if anyone else can hear it. Blank looks all around.

"My cell phone plays 'Ode to Joy,' " offers one lawyer, "but it's on vibrate."

Eli figures he must be going nuts, but eventually, his physician brother Nathan comes up with a rational explanation for the bizarre hallucinations: it seems Eli has an inoperable brain aneurysm, the same type that caused their father to act all goofy before he died.

Still, Dr. Chen has his own take on things. "Everything has two explanations," he tells Eli, "the scientific and the divine. It's up to us to choose which one we buy into."

Gee, Doc. Mr. Miyagi himself couldn't have put it better.

Keeping the loopy series on track is Jonny Lee Miller, the English actor who plays the title role.

His big-screen credits include Trainspotting (1996) and The Flying Scotsman (2006). His main claim to fame, however, was his real-life role as the first Mr. Angelina Jolie, long before Billy Bob Thornton and Brad Pitt came along.

Miller brings an easy likeability to his character - to be honest, he's not really all that convincing as an unscrupulous legal shark - and as he struggles to redefine his priorities and his approach to life, the doubts and fears he experiences seem very real.

Eli Stone is produced by Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim, who between them have had a hand in creating such intelligent shows as Brothers & Sisters, Dirty Sexy Money, The Practice, and Everwood.

There are lots of things to like about Eli Stone. Miller in the title role is one of them, as is Victor Garber (Alias) as his intimidating boss and future father-in-law. Then there's Loretta Devine (Boston Public) as Eli's sassy assistant, who doesn't hesitate to dump on him when he deserves it.

After she goes off on Eli for not telling her about his aneurysm, he tries to sooth her feelings. Finally, satisfied that he has, he asks her, "Are we OK?"

"I'm OK," she snaps. "You have a hole in your head."

The whole show has a bit of an Ally McBeal flavor to it, with its frequent flights of fancy and even the occasional big-production dance number. And as a fan of Ally, I consider the comparison a compliment - though I realize some viewers might not.

There are a few things not to like about the show, too. Sure, you need to suspend disbelief on any TV legal drama, but come on. When Eli suddenly abandons one of the law firm's big corporate clients and wants to represent the poor woman who's suing that client, what do you suppose the firm's senior partners would do?

Well, it's not what you would think.

And the supposed red-hot relationship between Eli and his Barbie Doll fiance? That has all the heat of a deposition. There are at least two other women on the show with whom Eli has more chemistry, and one of them he actually had a dalliance with many years before, while in college.

In fact, when he reconnects with her and sees her son, he suspects he might even be the boy's father. "Is he am I?" he stammers.

"Yeah," deadpans the woman. "I was pregnant for eight years."

All in all, there are more pluses than minuses for Eli Stone. With the growing shortage of new scripted programming on TV these days, and with a killer lead-in like Lost, there's no reason why this series shouldn't become one of the more successful new shows of early 2008.

If it does, we can only hope that Eli's future hallucinations might feature some better '70s singers. Maybe Billy Joel? Eric Clapton? Aretha? Heck, even Elton John would be nice.



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