March 3, 2008

Eli Stone

A Review by Michael Asimow, Professor of Law Emeritus, UCLA School of Law

In the ABC television series that bears his name, Eli Stone is a senior associate at a large San Francisco law firm. He appears to be a competent attorney and, until recently, was highly valued by the firm. He’s engaged to Taylor Weathersbee, the daughter of the senior partner. Taylor is also a lawyer at the firm. Recently, however, Stone has learned he has a brain aneurysm and his behavior has become highly erratic. He frequently has scary delusions at work, such as being drawn into WW II battles or being attacked by small planes. His acupuncturist hasn’t figured out how to cure the delusions but thinks Stone is in fact a prophet.

OK, that’s the premise. How’s the execution? In my personal opinion, the show is horrendous. The writing is clunky, the jokes aren’t funny, and the acting is terrible. Taylor looks more like a Barbie doll than a human being. I don’t believe anybody will care about Eli Taylor and his aneurysm, or any of the other characters, so the show fails to create the necessary empathy between viewers and characters. The delusion jokes (he dives under the conference table during a partners’ meeting to avoid being attacked) weren’t funny the first time around and are excruciating each time they’re repeated. (For balance, I do think the role of Eli’s secretary Patti is well written and acted, and quite funny).

I believe “Eli Stone” was inspired by the highly successful “Ally McBeal” series. If you liked Ally, you just might like “Eli Stone” because of the fantasy delusion scenes and the heavy use of contemporary music. But if you disliked “Ally McBeal” as I did, you’ll hate “Eli Stone”—both the character and the series—which has none of the winning characters, excellent acting, or overall quirkiness of the “Ally” series.

Now there’s the question of accuracy. Nobody expects a TV series or a movie about lawyers to be accurate. Pop culture is intended to entertain, amuse, and make money. The work of real lawyers is indescribably boring almost all of the time and nobody wants to see a TV show that accurately describes it. Sometimes entertainment has to trump accuracy. But there are limits. And this show transgresses them.

In the first episode, Eli switches sides in the middle of a product liability case when he realizes that the plaintiff is an old girlfriend. He represents her against his own firm, freely using the information he learned from representing the defense, and obviously without seeking the permission of the pharmaceutical company he’s been representing. The writers liked that gimmick so much they repeat it in the third show in which Eli suddenly starts representing the mother in a child custody case in which Taylor represents the father. Of course, everyone accepts these conflicts without blinking. Now if the writers asked Eli Stone to fly to the moon on gossamer wings while investigating a case, most people would say, hey, that’s really stupid. Lawyers don’t do that. And these conflicts of interest in the first and third episodes are in that category. They are so beyond anything imaginable that they are just plain stupid. And that’s without counting the second episode in which a workers’ comp case is tried to a jury.

I like lawyer pop culture, and wish I could find something favorable to say about “Eli Stone”—the show or the character—but I just can’t. I t seems pretty obvious to me that this show won’t find an audience and will vanish unmourned into that vast rubbish bin of failed and forgotten TV series. But then, I said the same thing about “Ally McBeal,” so what do I know?

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