So let's talk about quirky television shows. In minute one of Eli Stone, when our hero (Jonny Lee Miller, aka Trainspotting's Sickboy) shows up in a small mountain village in India, in a suit, and takes a pratfall off a donkey - we know this show's quirky, which also means sweet, heart-warming, kinda odd, and kinda smarmy. Eli Stone is a show about a weasely corporate lawyer who one day becomes a hopeless romantic do-gooder - but only after he sees George Michael singing "Faith" in his living room. It's a show about how a little magic can talk us into doing the right thing.
As soon as Eli starts hearing voices - voices that tell him to, you know, stop being such a schmuck - I got a major Wonderfalls vibe. That's the show from 2004 about a cynical hipster who's ready to slouch her way through life, until one day, little plastic animals start talking to her. Both shows use a surreal plot contrivance to push their protagonist into one heart-warming, world-bettering scenario after another. But there's a big difference between the two shows, and it's a difference that may help Eli Stone last more than four weeks on the air.
When Eli hears his dead lush dad call to him from a streetcar, or walks in on George Michael performing for a lobbyful of dancing lawyers - a scene that's less divine vision than cheesy Coke ad - we get the impression that he's probably just a nut. In fact, halfway through the pilot we get a plausible explanation for why he hallucinates: he has an inoperable brain aneurysm, which we can count on to keep sending him useful clues and advice, at least until it blows up and kills him. The fact that the show doesn't try to string us along - "Is this the supernatural? Or is he crazy?" - is kind of considerate, in case it gets cancelled. I still wonder sometimes whether Jeremy Piven on Cupid was a saint or a nutcase. But it's another way for Eli Stone to keep its miracles at arm's length.
The difference between this show and Wonderfalls is that if you liked Wonderfalls, it's probably because you really wanted to see little plastic statues talking to Caroline Dhavernas. On Scrubs, Zach Braff can keep running into Men at Works' Colin Hay and it's no big thing; on Eli Stone, Miller sees a British pop star, mugs us an "Am I crazy?" look and does a doofy dance. Some quirky shows - the ones that get no viewers - respect your sense of make-believe, at its sweetest and most subversive. Eli Stone doesn't cross that line. It's just looking for a cute way to make its hero stop acting like such a dick.
Of course, it's hard to believe that Eli was ever a bad guy. He's a nice enough doof who slips pretty easily into doing right 'cause Trainspotting notwithstanding, Jonny Lee Miller doesn't look like he has a mean bone in his body. Still, when he introduces himself via voiceover, he explains that he used to be a corporate lawyer who only believed in three things: Armani, accessories, and ambition. He's engaged to the boss's daughter and represents sleezeball corporations, including one that makes a vaccine that causes autism. But after a couple handy visions, he decides to switch sides: he renounces the big pharmaceutical company, and goes to work for the single mom who's suing it. And that's where the lazy writing starts.
Quirky shows sometimes get away with thin plots, but almost nothing in Eli Stone passes the smell test. Our lawyer hero manages to switch sides from representing the defendant in a case to representing the plaintiff - and I don't have a law degree, but I'm pretty sure that's not how it works. But ethics aren't an issue here: Stone's brother is his doctor, his fiancee is the boss's daughter, his sassy African-American secretary steals evidence, one of his key witnesses could've just invoked doctor-patient privilege, and oh yeah, did I mention the whole show's really stupid?
A few of the gags go for sarcasm and irony - for example, when they play it both ways with a stereotype by having a Chinese acupuncturist lecture, "Dr. Chen not Jiffy Lube!", and then revealing that he's really a Berkeley grad with a Polish last name who puts on an act to get customers. But it's mild stuff. There's a funny pregnancy joke and a lot of schlock, but most of it's mild, as quirk goes, and even seeing Tom Cavanagh's ashes spill out of a Chock Full o' Nuts coffee can doesn't send a Wonderfalls-type message that life is a fine balance between witnessing magic, and stepping in dog shit. It's just a cheap joke.
- For accuracy's sake, let me explain that even though Eli probably has hallucinations because his brain's about to explode, we also learn - from "Dr. Chen" - that he also might be a prophet, who actually speaks to God. This is seriously mumbo-jumboy, and another case of Eli Stone trying to have it both ways on a plot point that didn't need to make much sense in the first place.
- For about half the show, I was scared Miller was going to keep hearing "Faith" every time he had a vision. Luckily, it looks like he'll suffer a variety of convenient hallucinations, all of them tied to poignant moments in his childhood.
- The pilot caught some press this week because of its issue-of-the-week: a mother sues a drugmaker for making a vaccine that causes autism. As a dad, I think writing a story around the vaccine/autism issue stinks to high hell. Sure, we get a mouthful of exposition about how most vaccines are safe, and they no longer carry the preservative that was thought to be linked to autism, and it's just this one evil, fictional drug company that's making this stuff and screwing up kids. But people are stupid. They'll just hear, "Oh yeah, vaccines cause autism. I heard about it on that dumb show with the guy who married Angelina Jolie." And their kids will go to my kid's school and give each other polio. Way to start on a high note, Eli Stone.