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Television review

'Eli' could use some help in season 2

Eli Stone (Jonny Lee Miller) clarifies the source of his visions in the new season. Eli Stone (Jonny Lee Miller) clarifies the source of his visions in the new season. (ABC)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / October 28, 2008
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Many TV viewers are focusing on political and financial news this fall, and not on the weekly dramas and comedies. You know, what with the critical presidential election and the failing economy and all that. So it's probably not the best time for ABC to be reaching out for new viewers for "Eli Stone," a series that strays pretty far from the real world. You could call "Eli Stone" a legal drama, but then you'd have to call "Pushing Daisies" a crime procedural, and that would be silly.

"Eli Stone" is a legal fantasy, complete with song-and-dance sequences and surrealistic visions, and it stands with one foot in "Ally McBeal" and the other in "Joan of Arcadia." After the show got modest ratings last season, ABC surprisingly decided to bring it back for a second chance with even more of an emphasis on the spiritual and supernatural. Last season, we wondered if lawyer Eli (Jonny Lee Miller) saw truth-telling visions because he had an aneurysm; now we know he's truly a prophet, with a direct line to God courtesy of an imaginary therapist (played briefly but appealingly by guest star Sigourney Weaver). We also know that Eli's father had the same gift.

And "Eli Stone," which airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m., on Channel 5, has become an almost good show this season. Miller, yet another Brit playing American on American TV, remains a likable lead, as a lawyer in the process of letting his compassion and intuition overcome his greed. Victor Garber, as his boss and former father-in-law-to-be, is a warmer presence now that his character has become a do-gooder under Eli's influence. As Eli's guru, a former Grateful Deadhead turned spiritualist, James Saito is still pitch perfect. And the series as a whole has a much better sense of itself, and a more confident tone, since Eli, his colleagues, and the viewers all understand that the guy is in fact a visionary. The coyness of season one is gone.

But the show, cocreated by Greg Berlanti, nonetheless falls short of being destination television. Most importantly, the concept of divine intervention is no longer unusual on TV, after the likes of "Touched by an Angel" and "Saving Grace," and "Eli Stone" brings nothing new to that table. The higher power that informs Eli helps him do nice things and catch bad guys, and little that's more complex or interesting. At least the show doesn't fall back on "Touched by an Angel" schmaltz; wry David E. Kelley-like whimsy is its stock in trade, such as when Katie Holmes appeared to Eli as a come-hither chanteuse last week. Still, the God-as-do-good-guide theme feels formulaic.

Also, too many of the supporting characters are poorly drawn and forgettable, including Eli's coworker Maggie (Julie Gonzalo), his former fiance Taylor (Natasha Henstridge), her new boyfriend (Sam Jaeger), and Eli's brother (Matt Letscher). They imbue the show with blandness around the edges, instead of bringing the promise of future development. Looking ahead, Eli could use better and more challenging company on his quest for righteousness, and for ratings.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

TELEVISION REVIEW

ELI STONE Starring: Jonny Lee Miller, Loretta Devine, Matt Letscher, Victor Garber

On: ABC, Channel 5

Time: Tonight, 10-11

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