Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Eli Stone

I probably should have been talking about this television program before now, but I've gotten into a mode of thinking about what I am reading as blog material and not the things I am watching. And it's made easier by television programming being on every week, such that it becomes standard, while reading a book changes every time I pick up a new book. But given the lack of good science fiction or fantasy on serial television, it's important to talk about the good stuff.

Until the latest episode of Eli Stone, I might have had trouble supporting my claim that it was good stuff. But the show required patience, building up slowly to one of the best moments in television this season. Honestly, the show started whimsically, introducing us to the title character, a brilliant young corporate lawyer (played by Jonny Lee Miller) who is the heir apparent to a partnership in a prestigious San Francisco law firm. Things are looking great for Eli: he's engaged to the senior partner's daughter, that same senior partner envisions big things in his future, and everyone recognizes Eli's brilliance in defending corporate clients. And then the visions start.

Eli finds himself watching George Michael perform "Faith" in his office lobby. Then Michael appears in his living room. And Eli jumps to the conclusion that he's becoming his father, who apparently suffered delusions throughout his life, making Eli's young life miserable as his father repeatedly embarrassed him in public and required special attention. But Eli's brother goes further and, as a neurologist, recommends that Eli get a CAT scan. They find that Eli has a brain aneurysm, and that his visions are in fact hallucinations. Except that the hallucinations Eli has predict the future, and they have the disconcerting habit of coming true.

At this point, Eli Stone could have gone down a road similar to Medium, which until recently made a weekly episode out of its main character predicting the future and no one believing her, not even the people who hired her to use her psychic powers to fight crime…and sometimes not even her husband. Instead, Eli Stone becomes a story about the maturing process of a lawyer, who comes to realize many things, but perhaps most importantly that law is not intended to be a refuge for corporations, but support for individuals. As a result of his visions, Eli takes on more and more improbable cases, causing his coworkers and friends to rethink who Eli really is. And because Eli is a brilliant lawyer, he almost always wins, aggravating his bosses who want him to back to his money-making ways. Particularly infuriated is the senior partner, Jordan Wetherby (played wonderfully by Vincent Garber), who is legally bound to keep Stone hired but uses that tie to make Eli's life miserable the further he goes from the firm's corporate policy. At one point, Stone assists a client to sue one of the firm's large corporate clients, which is maddening enough, but then Stone wins.

As I reread this, I recognize that these are the kinds of things that created a sort of mainstream veneer to Eli Stone, making it appear to be a slightly quirky lawyer show. But there's much more going on underneath the surface. We find out that Eli's father suffered from the same kind of aneurysm, perhaps in the exact same place, and that those moments that most embarrassed Eli were the results of his father being enmeshed in hallucination or drunk as he tries to deal with the hallucinations that he cannot control and medical science cannot cure. Eli's understanding of his father is completely altered and he learns to love his now deceased father as his own aneurysm-induced visions cause flashbacks and insight to moments he has shared with his father. Anger and embarrassment give way to sympathy and understanding, and Eli discovers that his father tried to tell Eli how he was suffering and that Eli would eventually have the same affliction.

Eli also gains a friend in Dr. Chen, an acupuncturist he sought to help him end the hallucinations when he first got them. Stone and Chen have discussions about the nature of Eli's hallucinations—are they the symptoms of a debilitating disease or has Eli been selected to be a prophet. As Eli begins to make discoveries about his father, Chen reveals that he knew Eli's father and was told by him to help take care of Eli when Eli shows up for treatment.

So slowly and surely, Eli begins to convince the people around him that whatever is causing his visions is also showing him the future. The difficulty in believing this proposition is well played by the actors and writers of the show, but ultimately, Eli being correct every time has to win him converts. And yet Eli is torn; his visions help people and give texture and meaning to his own past, but they are ruining his career as a corporate lawyer and they are uncontrollable, afflicting him in the most awkward situations, and around people who don't know his condition. The latest episode returns to Eli's sole failure, a prediction of an earthquake crippling San Francisco, a prediction that was too big for anyone to believe and which forced Eli to cheat at a trial in order to protect people who were going to have their lives destroyed by having them evicted from their homes at the epicenter of the earthquake he saw coming. At the end of that first episode, the earthquake has not arrived and doubts creep in, both for Eli and the people who know him. But the vision returns, and Eli is convinced San Francisco is about to be ravaged by an earthquake.

Eli again takes extreme measures to protect the people, suing the city to close Golden Gate Bridge, ultimately losing the case but wining the attention of the mayor's office which takes him seriously. And he stands on a desk in the center of his firm, admitting to anyone who will listen that he is ill and that he knows they may not all believe him, but for their own safety, they need to get out of the building. Some leave, others stay behind. Then the earthquake strikes, and we see the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge.

I imagine for some people, this could be a "jump the shark" moment. But for me, this is when the show excelled. Suddenly it's clear that Eli Stone is a high fantasy set in modern times. Eli has a gift, an unwanted gift, but a magical gift that he uses to help those less fortunate than himself. And he has inherited that gift from his father, a man who couldn't use the gift so well but saw that his son would and apologized to him when he learned the burden it would be. And like those high fantasies, Eli Stone is about its main character maturing, actually running through the stages of grief as he deals with his illness which helps so many others. As Eli matures, so do the people around him; the lawyers who are sometimes caricatures of everything stereotypical about lawyers are becoming fully realized. The lawyer who was too young and too busy to properly defend a client years ago, comes back to that client and works with him to get fair treatment and aid. The corporate shill who is only in it for the money grows a conscience and, while still sometimes being a jerk, finds he can be a good person to those around him. And the senior partner, Jordan Wetherby, rediscovers through Eli his passion for law, not for just how much money it brings to him but for the good it can do in other people's lives.

I realized watching the last episode that we were watching a true serial, one that required patience (and maybe even some filler episodes) to get us to where the story wanted to be. And while my description of the Golden Gate Bridge falling appears to describe a ratings stunt, it actually is the culmination of a long thoughtful process. And I couldn't see what was coming soon enough to let people know this was something worth watching. Unfortunately, there is only one episode left this season, and I suspect Eli Stone will not be returning next season—the ratings are not very good, perhaps because it required patience to see where it was going. American television viewers are not renowned for their patience. So, I bring this show to your attention, probably too late. I can hope for another season, but if that fails, I would recommend finding a DVD set of it when it comes out. For Eli Stone offers its viewers hope, for growth and renewal. It has promise and works hard to deliver it, and I'm glad I got to se it achieved.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review. I agree the show is slow building - to the point that by the 4th episode I was ready to call it quits. The show felt like it couldn't find it's footing. I didn't think the stories about the other lawyers cases were anything more than filler. The show didn't seem to be able to decide if it was LA Law SF or Allie McBeal for Guys...until the Episode 12, Waiting for That Day, when the brilliant writing fell into place and made sense. This show has an enormous heart without pandering to the audience or clubbing us over the head with right and wrong. I am not a fan of musicals and could do without the weak and amaturish vocal performances. I figure, if I'm going to fantasize or have a vision about my office workers doing pop songs, they're gonna sound phenominal. Keep the actors, dub the voices (just like they did back in the golden days of MGM and Milli Vanilli). by the way, doesn't this show have a comic book connection?