The Believer

Photo: Richard Cartwright/Courtesy of ABC (Henstridge, Miller); Bob D'amico/Courtesy of ABC (Gonzalo); Illustration by Henry Janson

According to Eli Stone, the hotshot San Francisco lawyer whose vivid hallucinations may be coded messages from a higher power, some clarity would be helpful: “God needs to be a little less oblique.” This, of course, has been a plaint of saints and sinners ever since our species first looked into its own entrails. Why must oracles reply in riddles? How come the undead so often sound like Carlos Castaneda? What if we threw the I Ching in the wrong direction? From Calista Flockhart in Ally McBeal to Jennifer Love Hewitt in Ghost Whisperer, thin young women in very short skirts hear voices, see visions, and get hysterical. All of this could have been avoided with plain English. As Little Baron Snorck von Chulnt explained in Louis Zukofsky’s comic novel Little, “If you want me to understand, you’d better speak in a different anguish.”

Eli (Jonny Lee Miller) is mostly mystified. A graduate of Stanford Law who once clerked for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Eli believes himself to be composed equally of “Armani, accessories, and ambition.” He spends 70 hours a week winning cases for his corporate clients (“making rich people richer” is how he puts it), and hopes eventually to marry Taylor Wethersby (Natasha Henstridge), the sleek blonde daughter of Eli’s law-firm boss, Jordan Wethersby (Victor Garber). Meanwhile, he lives in an apartment the rest of us cannot afford, where you’d think he would be safe from the discrepancies the rest of us experience, until his lovemaking with luscious Taylor is interrupted—first by the sound, and then by the sight, of George Michael singing “Faith.” (Later apparitions will include a boys’ church choir singing “Freedom,” an accident victim freshly arisen from a three-year coma to sing “Good Lovin’,” and a biplane that stalks Eli down on the cross streets and up in the office towers of San Francisco.)

There is one Cop Rock–style sort of production number in every episode of Eli Stone, but only one. Not all feature George Michael in person—taking one energetic turn will be Garber himself, a Broadway song-and-dance man before he enlisted as Jennifer Garner’s spooky father on Alias—but many of Michael’s songs are referenced. This baffles me as much as it does Eli. But when Eli sees Michael’s name spelled out in blocks by an autistic little boy, he is all of a sudden moved to represent that boy’s mother in a suit against a pharmaceutical company whose flu vaccine may have contributed to the autism. Never mind that the New York Times felt it necessary to deplore this plot point in a February 2 editorial about mercury preservatives. (Sloppy science in a TV serial! Imagine that.) Never mind, either, that the pharmaceutical company is already a client of Eli’s own firm. Never even mind that Eli’s hallucinations are diagnosed on the one hand (by his neurologist brother) as by-products of an inoperable brain aneurysm, on the other hand (by his Chinatown acupuncturist) as evidence of his having been chosen, like Moses, as a prophet, and on a third hand (by Eli himself) as unresolved Oedipal issues.

What matters is that Eli Stone manages each week so far to float its hallucinations, its production numbers, its litigations, and its do-gooder causes (against Big Pharma for causing autism, against Agribiz for causing sterility, in favor of immigration even if some of it’s illegal) on a high and churning tide of charm. Its executive producer, Greg Berlanti (Everwood, Brothers & Sisters, Dirty Sexy Money), actually seems to like his characters, and a buoyant cast of talented actors (Miller, Henstridge, Loretta Devine) seem to enjoy dog-paddling in their dishabille. As a long winter’s night of mean-minded reality shows closes down, we need this mix of class war and wishful thinking.

Eli Stone
ABC. Thursdays at 10 p.m.

The Believer