In the realm of influential TV writer-producers, Greg Berlanti is approaching David E. Kelley proportions. Both are superhumanly prolific: Kelley’s churned out L.A. Law, Ally McBeal, and about 378 other shows, while the younger Berlanti is either the creator or guiding hand behind such series as Everwood, Brothers & Sisters, Dirty Sexy Money, and now ABC’s charmingly wifty legal drama Eli Stone (debuting Jan. 31). Plus, both men are fond of inserting fantasy sequences and progressive politics into their projects.
But where Kelley tries to pass off mean jokes about unattractive or physically challenged people as ”daring” humor (he uses Asperger’s syndrome on Boston Legal less to enlighten viewers than to make them snicker), Berlanti is that rarity: a pragmatic optimist. His Everwood was an idyll about how a good doctor (Treat Williams) could become a good man, if only he scaled back his careerist self-interest. Now Eli Stone posits the notion that a fancy-schmancy lawyer (Smith‘s Jonny Lee Miller) can not only rediscover his soul, but become a soulful, not-humorless seeker of truth.
In the pilot, we learn that Eli has a brain aneurysm that causes auditory and visual hallucinations. He hears organ music and sees George Michael singing ”Faith” in his living room. Yes, the ex-Wham!-ster cameos, and yes, it’s a bit McBeal-ish. Yet Berlanti never turns Eli into a caricature or a collection of tics: He may be a buttoned-down shark, but we learn he got that way partly in reaction to his dad (Ed‘s Tom Cavanagh), an irresponsible alcoholic dreamer. Similarly, Eli’s fiancée (Species‘ Natasha Henstridge) may be a bombshell and the boss’ daughter, but she’s not an entitled brat: She is, from the three episodes I’ve seen, genuinely nice, which amounts to a revelation in prime-time women.
Eli visits an acupuncturist (James Saito) to cure his visions, only to be advised that he should heed them, because he may well be a ”prophet.” Our man ends up going to the Himalayas, where, amid snow and wisecracking sherpas, he tries to resolve his daddy issues and returns thinking ”I can’t spend 70 hours a week making rich people richer.”
Cornball? Yeah. But so what? Miller plays Eli as skeptical of his own sentiments, yet not incapable of feeling them. Berlanti surrounds his hero with a terrific cast, including Alias‘ Victor Garber as his bristlingly intelligent boss and Everwood‘s wittily prim Tom Amandes as a law-firm bigwig. And as Eli’s office assistant, there’s Loretta Devine from (well, whaddaya know) David E. Kelley’s Boston Public. With these superb supporting players helping drain away any potential drippiness from the show’s magical-realist trappings, Eli Stone proves as solid as a rock. B+