Friday, February 01, 2008

“Don’t whisper yell at me!”: Eli Stone

I’m currently going through the ‘Everwood is amazing!’ phase that I think many (though not enough) have experienced, and that may be clouding my judgement a bit on Eli Stone, co-created by Everwood creator Greg Berlanti. Recently Berlanti’s first show began syndication on British television and I have been watching it all the way through (right now I’m in the middle of the third season, undoubtedly the best so far). That show pulled off a blend of comedy and drama, of pathos and theatricality, that I have not seen before on television. It’s not a perfect show by any means, but its no-holds barred honesty in all situations, and its ability to create great drama out of real-life situations, makes it unique. That relatable quality of humanity has been evident in much of Berlanti’s writing, not just Everwood but also Jack & Bobby and his time on Brothers & Sisters. It is sorely lacking from Eli Stone, his latest creation.

It’s telling that when I first started writing this review, I couldn’t make a positive comment without wanting to add a contrary addendum. The cast is appealing, especially Johnny Lee Miller, a charismatic lead; but few make a big impression besides him and Beth (Laura Benanti) who’s charming if a little sanctimonious for my taste. The dialogue is generally sharp, but uninspiring (Eli’s final courtroom speech, too obviously written, falls flat.) The plot zips by at a nice pace, though a couple aspects feel underdeveloped, even unnecessary: Eli and Beth’s past connection, and his belief that he might be a prophet. The latter feels like an unnecessary supernatural spin on what should just be played as a simple attack of conscience. Finally, there’s a distinct lack of originality in the script. Berlanti and co-creator Mark Guggenheim are both smart guys good at finding dramatic potential in challenging areas, whether it’s basic human conflict (Berlanti) or broad fantasy (Guggenheim, a comics veteran). Together, their aesthetics should have produced something surprising, or certainly less typical than another show about a lawyer with a big imagination (yes, you knew the Ally McBeal comparison was coming).

I don’t take the entertainment value of Eli Stone for granted – it’s mostly engaging and never boring, which is an achievement in itself. Also, like I said, the cast is strong even if some of them didn’t get a lot to do. Eli’s fiancée (Natasha Henstridge) is fast becoming far removed from his newfound idealism, suggesting rich potential for further conflict there. Eli’s family are still kind of blank slates, but his brother’s couple scenes were among the best of the pilot. Patti, Eli’s assistant, is also a nothing, but Loretta Devine is kinda funny. Most in need of deepening is Jordan Wethersby. In the pilot he’s just an evil corporate suit, essentially a walking cliché and a dull one at that. My expectations for the character are upped significantly by the casting of Victor Garber, who’s too brilliant to be wasted. Also, could we have some more of his equally slimy sidekick, played by Everwood’s Tom Amandes? That guy is too funny to just stick in and not properly utilise.

Eli Stone has the right ingredients to become something great, and if the slow starts of past Berlanti shows are anything to go by I’m confident it will find its feet. My hope is that it will find more original ways to generate drama while continuing to debate issues through its characters. Simple crisis in favour of knowing wackiness. A troubled guy trying to reform himself is a relatable concept; coupling it with the idea of him being a prophet, however, gives the sense that these writers are trying too hard.

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