Somewhere in the entertainment universe, TV producer-writer David E. Kelley and "Angels in America" playwright Tony Kushner co-govern a small planet. It's a strange and wacky place, where the present tense is strewn with historical figures, where fantasies become living dreams, where spiritual yearning manifests itself in bold, wry collisions.
ABC's "Eli Stone," which premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 5, is a visitor from that planet. This new legal series behaves like a male version of Kelley's "Ally McBeal," but it also contains the strong Kushnerian moral conscience that "Ally McBeal," so celebratory of its shark-like lawyers, shunned. About an attorney who suddenly believes he is a prophet doing good on Earth, and who has visions of George Michael singing "Faith" on his coffee table, "Eli Stone" is a quasi-religious dramedy that deploys whimsy at a fever pitch.
How odd, then, that the show, created by Marc Guggenheim and Greg Berlanti ("Dirty Sexy Money") ultimately feels so unoriginal. Despite a good cast led by Jonny Lee Miller as Eli, and despite the happy San Francisco setting, "Eli Stone" is a bag of too-familiar tricks. All the hallucinogenic quirkiness - flashes of dancing lawyers and low-flying prop planes - is tired and tiring. After tonight's decent-enough premiere, the series falls into the sort of self-conscious surrealism (a dying man singing "Good Lovin' ") and absurdist, button-pushing legal battles (suing the Catholic Church to contest an annulment) that "Ally McBeal" did to death.
And "Eli Stone" is also burdened with an air of the formulaic sanctimony that has doomed Holly Hunter's "Saving Grace" to triteness, as our morally lost hero is shown the road to goodness like the folks on "Highway to Heaven." Sometimes, TV makes finding scruples seem as easy as listening to your GPS.
Eli is on the verge of faith early in tonight's episode, while living a materialistic existence devoted to "the holy trinity of Armani, accessories, and ambition," as he puts it. He works at a top law firm run by Jordan Wethersby (Victor Garber) and he is engaged to Wethersby's daughter, Taylor (Natasha Henstridge). But his life is thrown into chaos as he begins to see and hear George Michael, who makes a guest appearance. Turns out Eli has an inoperable aneurysm, which is diagnosed by his neurologist brother, Nathan (Matt Letscher), and that malady may be the cause of his flights of fancy. But still, his visions actually provide him with real information, as they lead him to use his legal powers for the forces of good. He must face the music and become a champion of the underdog.
Tonight, for example, Eli represents a woman who believes her son's autism was caused by a vaccine made by a pharmaceutical company. That company is being represented by Eli's firm, but that doesn't get in the way of his crusade. (The episode has raised controversy in the medical community among those who fear it will discourage parents from having their children immunized.) In the series' third episode - 13 were filmed before the strike - Eli helps a man whose wife remarried while he was in a coma. The show becomes obvious and sentimental as Eli keeps saving the little guy and triumphing over evil.
The characters are generally appealing. Miller is an easy-to-watch lead, with a gentle, boyish manner (and a very human comb-over). Loretta Devine is his loyal secretary, who makes quips about his visions ("Who is it this time, Cyndi Lauper?") and doesn't hide her dislike of Taylor. And James Saito adds a few welcome surprises as Dr. Chen, Eli's acupuncturist. But the concept of "Eli Stone" is too limited and repetitive. And the fact that we're suffering a shortage of scripted TV can't change that.