ICYMI: How Eli Stone‘s First Season Made a Case for Having Faith in Network TV

TV Features Eli Stone
ICYMI: How Eli Stone‘s First Season Made a Case for Having Faith in Network TV

From the moment the first promo for NBC’s new jukebox musical-drama series Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist dropped, the door officially swung wide open for people to remember (and, in true ICYMI fashion, wonder if other people remembered) a series in an extremely similar vein: ABC’s Eli Stone. Premiering during the infamous 2007-2008 TV midseason, Eli Stone starred Jonny Lee Miller as its titular character, an ambitious rainmaker lawyer whose whole approach to life and his career changed when he suddenly started having fantastical and musical (and aneurysm-caused) hallucinations—ones that may have actually been visions from the almighty up above. Perhaps the most memorable part of the series and Eli’s visions (though Eli and other characters question that possibility, the story itself was quite firm in its belief that Eli was, in fact, a prophet of the Lord) was the George Michael of it all. You see, not only was every episode of the series named after a George Michael song, the impetus of Eli’s visions (and a good number of them, especially in the form of the musical-based ones) came from a hallucination of George Michael performing “Faith” for an audience of one Eli Stone.

Going back to the comparison between Eli Stone and Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist: While the latter notably hasn’t hitched its wagon to one musician specifically, the obvious light-hearted jukebox musical-drama setup brings forth comparisons. Especially with the case of the cast singing all of the songs themselves, which wasn’t the case for Netflix’s one-blink-and-you’ll-miss-it series, Soundtrack, where actors would lipsync the original recordings of its song choices. Unlike Glee or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, neither of these series are musicals first, though Zoey’s is perhaps more concerned with the musical aspect than Eli Stone ultimately was. Plus, there’s the fact that Zoey’s musical condition seems to be the result of technological mumbo jumbo—a CT scan merging with a literal music playlist—which gives her the ability to read people’s minds through song. Stone’s condition manifests itself in both musical moments and fantastical imagery (like his world turning into World War II, or the beach, or a dragon following him) and is, in fact, in favor of a higher power. While both series are earnest interpretations of a specific genre, dedicated to having a little heart in a world that’s forgotten it, Eli Stone was also clearly dedicated to a much larger-than-life concept.

When Eli Stone began, Eli “had it all.” He had a great career at prestigious San Francisco law firm Wethersby, Posner & Klein; an also-great fiancée in Taylor Wethersby (Natasha Henstridge), daughter of his mentor and boss, Jordan Wethersby (Victor Garber); a company car that he dorkily called his “Millennium Falcon.” He had status. But he also had a strong relationship with his older brother Dr. Nathan “Nate” Stone (Matt Letscher), and together they had a bond over their resentment of their late, alcoholic father Jeremy Stone (Tom Cavanagh). But then, Eli “heard the music.”

That’s where a few auditory hallucinations centered around George Michael’s “Faith” came in. While an initial brain scan by Nate showed that Eli was “fine,” the music didn’t go away, so Eli took a recommendation from his assistant Patti (Loretta Devine) and went to see her acupuncturist, Dr. Chen (James Saito) in Chinatown. During the first of many acupuncture sessions throughout the show, Eli was able to have a flashback that both explained the initial importance of George Michael to his psyche and connected him to Beth (Laura Benanti), a woman who hoped to enlist his legal services. (Of note: This first case of the entire series hinges on Beth’s belief that a vaccine—really, a specific preservative in a specific vaccine—caused her son’s autism. It also ends up being true. It’s truly wild to witness, not just through a 2020 lens, but simply in the fact that it is the first case of the show. It’s definitely a different form of coming in hot—not to mention where the show was heading next.)

However, his erratic behavior continued, and finally Nate realizes it reminds him of their father’s, which leads him to get a second opinion on the brain scan. That is how Eli learned that he has a brain aneurysm that would be dangerous to operate on—a revelation that also reframed the way both brothers looked at their father and his behavior. It was eventually explained to Eli—with a little help from Chen, who also happened to be a theology expert—that he inherited these hallucinations from his father. Season 1 of Eli Stone centers around Eli attempting to come to terms with all of this, while also doing everything he can to do good, continue to practice law, and not end up with the same fate as his father. If this all sounds like a lot, thankfully, the first four episodes of Eli Stone opened with a voiceover of Eli explaining to different people—who usually didn’t care one iota—his particular circumstance. It was an early marker of the type of show this would be: not-quite-so self-serious as a series about a prophet of the Lord might be, even though it certainly liked to hit the heartwarming and sentimental buttons with every episode.

That combination of an earnest story for a larger-than-life concept makes even more sense in hindsight considering the creative minds behind Eli Stone: Marc Guggenheim and Greg Berlanti. Now both best known for their development and helming of The CW’s Arrowverse, the two had also worked together before when Guggenheim wrote for the Berlanti-created Jack & Bobby, as well as the Berlanti-executive-produced Brothers & Sisters. Berlanti, before he was known as the most prolific producer on television, was best known as writer and producer of a couple of TV’s most earnest teen dramas: He wrote for Dawson’s Creek (and served as its showrunner for, arguably, its two best seasons, 3 and 4) before moving on to create the most earnest WB series of all time, Everwood. He then went on to executive produce what could be considered the adult contemporary version of those shows in the form of ABC’s Brothers & Sisters. The 2007-2008 television season found Berlanti as a driving force behind two more ABC shows, the satirical melodrama Dirty Sexy Money (which he executive produced) and the quirky (and another adult contemporary version of his WB work) Eli Stone.

Eli Stone was able to air a full first season (13 episodes), but then only a truncated nine when it was brought back for Season 2 and canceled within a month (ABC later burned the rest of those episodes off in the summer of 2009). And, to tell the truth—and this is something I usually wouldn’t say in an ICYMI feature—the series potentially would have been better off had it just ended with its first season, i.e. canceled even earlier than it was, instead of trying to capture lightning in a bottle once more with its sophomore season.

But Season 2 did happen. Season 1 of Eli Stone executed a high-concept—and a relatively light one—well, especially in a time just before television achieved complete and utter burnout from network television’s attempts to make the next Lost. (While Eli Stone had mystery in terms of trying to decipher Eli’s visions along with him and why, exactly, he would be chosen by God in the first place, it was not driven by that or by the idea of being big event TV in the slightest.) Season 2, however, was a reminder that high-concept meant the status quo of Eli Stone had to change. It had to get bigger, even though the series’ appeal was its small-scale charm for such a large-scale story.

And while George Michael wasn’t completely integral to the series and its musical identity—as the first season relied on other oldies too, just much as the second season did—the complete lack of George Michael in that second season genuinely hurt the show’s creativity identity. That lack of identity is not what a show that concluded its first season with such a definitive direction—and a great rendition of “Feeling Good”—should have heading into its second.

I wouldn’t say that every show featured on ICYMI is necessarily a perfect show (except for maybe this one), and for all its successes, Eli Stone’s first season certainly wasn’t perfect. Its biggest issue came in the form of Eli’s love interests, Taylor (an interesting character on her own and with Eli) and Maggie (an overall confusing character, played by Julie Gonzalo). With Taylor, the series struggled to truly explain why she and Eli weren’t right for each other, until over halfway through the season when Taylor refuses to believe Eli’s hallucinations are visions and Maggie immediately accepts that as fact. Eli Stone never makes Taylor an evil witch stereotype, but it intimates it without having a solid reason for doing so. Maggie, who is 5 years younger than Eli, is asked to stop calling him “Mr. Stone” as an attempt to nip the awkwardness and inappropriateness of the will-they-won’t-they relationship between a first-year associate and a senior associate in the bud. It doesn’t, especially considering how naive and bubbly Maggie is written throughout the series, and it’s even worse of a look in retrospect that Eli ends up pursuing the far less complicated, younger woman.

But Eli Stone’s most notable issue in its second season was its attempt to up the quirk on the already quirky, speed up a timetable that was already accelerated in its first season, and engage in stunt casting. George Michael was an important part of the show’s story in the first season so his appearance made sense, but Season 2 had two big, questionable guest spots: first with Sigourney Weaver as Eli’s therapist/God, whose divine reaction to Eli having his aneurysm removed was to give it to Nate and almost kill Jordan in the premiere (yes, Season 2 began with confirmation that God is, to quote Supernatural, “a dick”); and then Dawson’s Creek alumnus Katie Holmes (circa peak-TomKat tabloid fodder era), who arrived as a character named Grace Fuller (seriously), and ends up possibly being Eli’s soulmate.

Admittedly, Eli Stone never achieved the critical acclaim or cult following of its network season cousin Pushing Daisies, even though the premise alone was something original for the time, and both the tone and subject matter was perfect for Guggenheim and Berlanti as the creative forces behind the show. Both series both had impressive casts, but with Eli Stone, a good portion of them—from series regulars to recurring characters to even just one-episode guest stars—have now popped up as substantial figures in Guggenheim and Berlanti’s Arrowverse. Eli Stone’s brother and father have even played the Big Bads in both The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow.

Ultimately, Eli Stone had a little something for everyone, whether you wanted your competent legal drama, your blue skies dramedy, your musical, your surreal and fantastical version of the real world, or just simply to see a likable cast every single week. Especially Victor Garber. Really, the Victor Garber of it all should be the beginning and end of my argument in favor of Eli Stone.

Eli Stone is currently available to stream on ABC.com

Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, IndieWire, and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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