Sunday, September 07, 2008

Heavenly Intervention in the Courtroom

One of the best things about last year’s Writers’ Strike is it forced the networks to take a few chances with programming, thus giving offbeat series like Eli Stone a shot they might not have gotten in a more traditional TV season. A show about a corporate lawyer who, due to a brain aneurism that gives him hallucinations, andmay or may not be a prophet as a consequence, most likely would have disappeared after a few episodes in an ordinary season. That’s assuming it would have even been aired in the first place.

Eli Stone did air, though as a “mid-season replacement” in the heat of the Writer’s Strike, premiering Thursday 31 January 2008 at 10P EST, and maintaining that slot through a 13 episode run that ended 17 April 2008. It wasn’t a ratings juggernaut in that run (then again, what was?) but it attracted a following substantial enough to secure it a second season on the new ABC fall schedule. (Premieres 14 October, 9p EST.)

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Watching the DVD release of Eli Stone: The Complete First Season, it’s easy to understand why ABC picked the series up for a second season. Imagine all those Frank Capra movies you grew up with placed into a 21st century context, where good guys don’t always win in the end, put in the requisite romance, add a few musical numbers and ratch it up a bit with some cool CGI effects, and you have a reasonable backdrop for the series. What really makes it compelling, though, is that beneath all that razzmatazz, Eli Stone touches a universal core of the human heart.

Rather than produce yet another courtroom procedural, creators Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim opted to utilize the setting as a larger stage in the quest for self-realization. When we first meet Eli Stone (Jonny Lee Miller), he’s a cutthroat trial lawyer on the fast track, devoid of any semblance of conscience. That’s before he sees George Michael performing in his kitchen at a most inopportune time. It’s a hallucination, of course, brought on by an undiagnosed brain aneurism. It could be something more, according to his acupuncturist—he could be receiving these visions as divine inspiration, and may, in fact, be a prophet.

Prophetic visions or not, Stone’s hallucinations usually have a bearing on this current case, and often his personal life. That they happen to usually include Broadway-class musical numbers is merely incidental. And that his concept of God bears an uncanny resemblance to George Michael shows that the series never takes itself gravely seriously. Unlike antecedents such as Aly McBeal or Cop Rock, intertwines Stone’s musical hallucinations in such a way they actually enhance what might be an otherwise dry plot. Since we share his hallucinations (or are they prophetic visions?), we relate to his plights, whether it’s taking on unlikely cases, sacrificing his true love for the greater good or dealing with the pesky tumor that may kill him at any given moment.

Eli Stone: The Complete First Season is a rarity among TV series DVDs. Largely because the season plays out as a series of mini-movies minimally linked by ongoing plot threads, each of the thirteen episodes stand on their own as stories unto themselves. They’re dramatic without being preachy, comedic without falling back on pratfalls and touches on mortality without being morose. The acting and direction are superb, especially for a show that was a mid-season replacement in the heat of the Writer’s Strike. Think of it as a courtroom procedural if directed by Terry Gilliam, where fantasy and reality play out on the same canvas.

Unlike a lot of TV boxed sets, Eli Stone has the aura of a labor of love. It’s presented in 1.78:1 aspect and Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound, and the reproduction is crystalline. Of course, there are bonus features, including the obligatory bloopers and deleted scenes. Thankfully, this set also has features that actually enhance the viewing experience, including pieces on how and why the show was created in the first place, an explanation of the Eli Stone-George Michael connection, a shot on how the CGI effects figured into the story and a look at the economy of the sets, hosted by co-star Natasha Henestridge. There’s an extended pilot episode with audio commentary by the show’s creators.

Season Two promises to open a new chapter in the ongoing story of Eli Stone. Regardless of how that goes, Eli Stone: The Complete First Season stand on its own as a hallmark in the evolution of television. It manages to be a quiet spiritual journey of one man without slipping into the abyss of religiosity. As such, it opens new avenues of conversation. And it does so with a smile and a wink.

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