John Walker's Electronic House

Eli Stone & New Amsterdam

by on Apr.21, 2008, under Television

As both these shows reach the end of their limited runs this week, and both are currently on the bubble for renewal, it seems only appropriate to reflect on them both and work out why one worked so extraordinarily well, and the other disappointingly didn’t.

Simon asked me why TV was so good at the moment, and the only answer that sprang to mind was a realisation that the idiocy of “the pitch” might be helping shows at this point. Having to present your idea for a new programme to a broadcaster is often horribly hindered by being required to distill a complex and carefully plotted plan down into a soundbite that will catch someone’s attention. However, recently it seems that saying, “X but with Y” is providing enough new twists on safe formulas that imagination is surviving the pitch meeting. So while high-concept programmes like Lost and Heroes might be supposed as opening doors to broader fantasy ideas, instead they seem to be inspiring more subtle manipulations of trusted formats. So there’s these two examples. Eli Stone: X = a courtroom drama where a dedicated, high-powered lawyer defends the little guy, Y = but he’s a prophet, seeing visions that direct his work. New Amsterdam: X = a homicide detective who doesn’t follow orders and always catches the killer, Y = but he’s 450 years old and immortal until he finds his one true love.

So let’s start with the bad news, New Amsterdam. In reading the concepts above, it’s certainly the more ludicrous of the two. But as an idea, it has plenty of potential. Each episode becomes a compilation of whatever current case he’s investigating, and something else that reflects it, that happened to him at a previous time in his long life. Then there’s the running seam of his meeting a doctor and nearly dying, and believing she may be the One who will grant him mortality.

So why didn’t it work? It just doesn’t know how to tell a story. Each episode’s murder mystery is so remarkably formulaic that even trying as hard as you can to not guess the culprit is impossible. It’s, well, the only other person we’ve been introduced to other than the current suspect. Then the flashbacks – they’re just awful. While the previously cancelled Journeyman was especially guilty of having incredibly lame indications of the year he was in appearing in the background, Amsterdam’s are nails on a blackboard. His ludicrous adoption of the decade’s memorable fashion, and apparent ability to entirely change career, family and personality every ten years, made it excruciating. It also fractured each episode into two half-told stories, barely leaving room for the confusingly accelerated, and then abruptly aborted love story. But most weird was the show’s apparently racism. Each episode seemed to pick a different ethnic background to horrifically portray, from the cruel Indian family forcing marriage upon their oppressed daughter, to the cartoon presentation of the mafia. Black = poor, and the only black member of the cast was Amsterdam’s old-age mixed-race son, who worked in a bar and apparently lived as a servant/wise conscience to his immortal father. The episode that covered how Amsterdam met his son’s mother, and appeared to think it was confronting issues of racism in early 20th century America, was patronising and abysmally told.

It remains frustrating, since it had lots of potential to be interesting, and Amsterdam himself was a fun character, who never gave any thought to telling people he was present at events in history. His up-front nature led others to assume he was either being silly, or lying. It was refreshing that he didn’t tie himself in knots trying to maintain his current persona. But unfortunately, the writing just wasn’t there, and I’ll be astonished if it gets picked up for the Autumn.

Eli Stone, meanwhile, remained a constant joy from beginning to end. I found myself feeling like I should apologise for liking it so much last time I wrote about it, and I feel the same tug again. But no! No I won’t! I’m not going to apologise for loving a show about a good person doing good things, and things working out really well as a result.

The programme got all its tragedy out of the way at the very beginning. Eli is diagnosed with a near-inoperable brain aneurysm, breaks up with his fiance, and loses the respect of his colleagues because of his visions/aneurysm, all in the first two or three episodes (of the thirteen). From then on, while Eli struggles greatly with his situation – is he a prophet of God, or a madman – the results of his actions are almost universally positive. While one case in particular sees him sink low – bribing a judge so sure he is that his vision is true, and it failing to be so – even then the results of his actions have a positive effect on those around him.

Eli Stone is a show about a man who takes his cases based on visions he doesn’t trust, and the resulting changes to people’s lives. It’s also a show about his seeing WW2 battles in the firm’s boardroom, feeling earthquakes in his office, and watching George Michael perform live in his front room, or his colleagues and friends suddenly bursting into song and dance. It’s borderline a musical with the number of songs appearing, and the joyfully daft routines. It’s also a show that’s given me a complete change of heart about George Michael, whom I suddenly regard with a new-found respect based on his performances in his many appearances. But none of these things are the core message of the programme.

Eli Stone is a show about how one person can change the world. Eli’s changes in attitude and behaviour inspire everyone around him. The last episode of the season gives all the major cast members a chance to describe to Eli (in a manner) how he has changed them. He never preached to anyone, nor campaigned to his bosses to change the firms approach. He never “evangelised” his link with God. Instead, he just reacted to it, and his person and his actions deeply affected those around him. It’s inspiring.

It’s also incredibly funny, and fantastically happy. The final episode very smartly puts an extremely brief montage of highlights from the brief series near the end. It’s obviously only there to remind those commissioning next season’s shows quite how much they did, how fun it was, and how moving it could be. I hope they take notice. I really hope this show gets a full season. There’s so little that’s optimistic and enforcing, because it’s so incredibly hard to do without being cloying or sickening. It turns out the solution is to have your cast sing and dance, and have George Michael appear every other episode – you can forgive people for not having figured that out before. But someone has, so they should be given more time to demonstrate why it works.

3 Comments for this entry

  • Pentadact

    The last episode of Eli Stone was unique, I think, in having both Richard Schiff and Victor Garber in it – basicallly the two best TV actors ever. And no matter how many times they do it in Eli Stone, Victor Garber singing will never stop being the funniest conceivable thing.

  • Iain "DDude" Dawson

    I have got to say, if there is one person who I can trust for television based opinions, you do seem to be very good at helping me choose what shows to watch. You are so right about Reaper, so right about Chuck, and it seems so far, so right about Pushing Daisies. It is especially good considering so many of these shows are poorly advertised when new to TV.

    Because, of course, I do have to wait a bit for things to come around onto British TV. And then ITV miss out the second episode of PDaisies due to terrible scheduling, and I have to look online for it anyway. But that is my anger, and this was meant to be a comment of thanks.

    Thanks for being so accurate in advising me what to watch. Now I cannot wait for Eli Stone to come to the UK.

  • elimonte

    Just a petition to show how much we enjoyed the first season of Eli Stone and would like to see more episodes. If you area fan of Eli Stone, please sign it today.

    Every signature counts.

    Thank you :)