For those of us who watch Lost, and at last check, there are quite a few of us out there, we remember seeing the teasers for a mid-season show called Eli Stone, and we chuckled to ourselves. I mean, why would anyone watch a story where singer George Michael (no, not the sportscaster) appeared in the visions of a lawyer suffering from a brain aneurysm, right? Well, people apparently watched the show in fairly respectable numbers, and just in time for the show's second season, the first miraculously arrives on DVD.
What's surprising to me is that upon further review, creators Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim are no strangers to television; Berlanti is also the showrunner for another ABC show in Dirty Sexy Money, and Guggenheim assisted Berlanti with another show in Brothers and Sisters. Berlanti was also executive producer for the WB show Everwood. Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting) stars as Eli in the title role, a successful lawyer in a law firm that traditionally represents large corporations. He's got a big office, a company Porsche and is engaged to the boss's daughter (Natasha Henstridge, The Whole Nine Yards). But then he has that night where he sees George Michael dancing on his coffee table and singing his song "Faith." From there, he starts to have visions, some of which include his office members (a biplane flying at his boss Victor Garber, (Alias)) is one that comes to mind), some don't, but others are large scale musical numbers, which include everyone he knows. Some of these larger-scale musical numbers might be the legal version of Cop Rock, but within the perspective that Eli is having these visions, and because they might be the result of his condition, you're able to suspend the disbelief. The visions have varying messages, but they all compel him to take on cases where the "little man" is being wronged, and require him to dispense some moral justice, albeit in a legal fashion.
The casting of the show is spot on. I mean, I remember Miller as Sick Boy, and he was almost unfamiliar to me here. But he carries each episode well and reveals several facets about his acting ability that weren't familiar to me before. Matt Letscher (Gods and Generals) plays Eli's brother Nathan, and there's something the two of them share in their eyes that makes you believe that they're related. Add to it their late father is played by Tom Cavanagh (Ed), and that's a family I would tune in to watch every week. The chemistry between Miller and Henstridge is really palpable, something that transcends televised boundary if I didn't know any better, it's that good. Sam Jaeger (Catch and Release) plays Eli's antagonist, if you can call him that, he's a funny character and you honestly can't hate him for too long. Throw in Julie Gonzalo (Veronica Mars) and Loretta Devine (First Sunday) and there's a handsome mix of people that compel you to watch. They'll break out into song and dance, with costumes to boot, and you're swept up into the fantasies, into Eli's head, which is the cover and introduction for the show.
If there were problems with the show, they are few. First off, some of the messages sound a little bit on the preachy side. I know that the show revolves around faith, but I think you can still accomplish a sound message while not pointing too large of a finger at people. We get it, a cruel real estate magnate is "lower than Dick Cheney's bunion," and another "right-wing nutjob" is keeping two homosexual chimpanzees from living with one another. And if this was 2005, maybe I could get with the program on this, but some of the lines and stories just come off as mean to this particular viewer. We've already got one show on ABC with lawyers preaching about how bad the government is, we certainly don't need another. The other thing that might hamper the show is how conventional the secondary storylines are. Let me put it this way; Alan Rachins makes a cameo appearance as Eli's prospective lawyer in an episode. Rachins played Douglas Brackman on L.A. Law, and his appearance as the same character here did bring a smile to my lips. And for a devotee of that show, it's apparent to me that the character advancement in Eli Stone is awfully reminiscent of this. I mean, [character A] flirts with [character B], they hook up, and [character C] finds out about it and is either cool with it, or will do some grand gesture to win back A or B for future episodes. Whether it's Grace Van Owen or Taylor Wethersby (Henstridge), these movements are derivative.
Nevertheless, there's an emotional whimsy surrounding Eli Stone that makes it a show worth your attention. The performances are admirable because of how much heavy lifting has to be done by the cast, and it's easy to be swept up in the fantasy. Eli Stone is a charmer, both the character and the series.
The 13 episodes of Eli Stone are spread out over four discs, and they're all in 1.78:1 widescreen. The images themselves look good, with very little artifacts, however they experience some weak blacks periodically through the show. You do see some film grain prevalent through the show's episodes, but overall this is a pretty solid visual presentation.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack does surprise, that's for sure. The George Michael songs are crystal clear and have good fidelity, but what I did not expect was a level of immersion for such a dialogue-driven show. The biplane pans through your speaker system quite effectively without any distortion, a World War II vision Eli has also brings some decent sonic goods, and other effects pack a subwoofer "oomph" with them, like the dragon (you'll see what I mean). This was a pleasant experience.
Continuing with the George Michael theme, the episodes are named for Michael's songs, and they are as follows:
"Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go"
"One More Try"
"Something to Save"
"Heal the Pain"
"Praying for Time"
"I Want Your Sex"
"Waiting For That Day"
There are a few more extras on these discs than I was expecting. First off, there's an extended pilot (46:20), which includes commentary from Berlanti, Guggenheim, Miller, Henstridge, Jaeger and Ken Olin, who directed the episode. There's a lot of joking at Miller's expense, particularly by Jaeger, but the crew discusses shooting with Michael, while Berlanti talks about the production challenges and the cast recall particular anecdotes. They catch themselves watching and say so (something that occurs on each commentary here), but overall the track wasn't too revealing. Another track on "I Want Your Sex" has the same group, save for Olin, who's replaced by Garber, episode director Chris Misiano, writers Leila Gerstein and Wendy Mericle. Berlanti and Guggenheim drive these commentaries, asking everyone questions and just generally covering the same things as the pilot commentary. And one more track, this time on "Soul Free," with the core group, and writers Andrew Kriesberg and Courtney Kemp. This one was turned in just before the strike, so that's discussed a little, and some of the larger themes in the show are covered, but otherwise, same ole same ole here.
Afterward, you've got a few making-of featurettes that are just as ordinary. Seven deleted scenes (8:26) are first, and aside from a scene where Eli and Matt's relationship is softened, the other scenes are forgettable. "Turning a Prophet" (12:13) is your official making-of look at the show, with thoughts on the show's intent from its creators and thoughts on the characters, which the cast decide to share as well, along with their thoughts on their co-workers, all mixed in with a lot of on-set footage. "Acting on Faith" (4:33) describes Michaels's attachment to the show, and Michael discusses how he got to it, while the cast and crew talk about how awesome he is. "Creating Visions" (5:35) covers the visual effects, but does it rather quickly and shows a scene from "Waiting For That Day" as an illustration of what effects are done for the show. "Inside the Firm" (4:58) is a set tour hosted by Henstridge, where the set looks an awful lot like the last season of Angel, or maybe it's just me. "Eli Oops!" (3:29) is a disappointing blooper reel, aside from some dancing improvisations by Jaeger and cast member Jason George. Previews for virtually all of the ABC broadcast hits complete the set.
Eli Stone might be a little bit unoriginal at times and a little bit convoluted in others, but you know, it's actually an cute piece of weekly entertainment. Forgotten due to the writers' strike, ABC has brought it back for a second season, and the good part about the show is that there's not a lot of catch up that you have to do. That sounds like I'm inferring that you shouldn't peruse the first season, but you'd be wrong, as the first three episodes pack a surprising emotional punch. Airing on Tuesday nights, it's worth exploring now while you have the time.