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Can we accept our tragic fate and then put it behind us to ponder mysteries bigger than death? With light and open hearts? You might call that the question for all men. Or you might call it the premise of “ Eli Stone,” a funny, serious midseason replacement seen Thursday nights on ABC. Eli (played by Jonny Lee Miller) is a golden-boy associate on the cusp of partnership who quips that his Holy Trinity is “Armani, accessories, and ambition.” Until he starts having visions. And not of unmasking the killer on cross, a la Perry Mason. No, the pictures in Eli’s head send him diving to avoid a crop-duster, storming a Nazi-held hillside, and, his prime phantasm, finding George Michael singing “Faith” in his living room. Why is Eli seeing things? His doctor blames a just-diagnosed hereditary inoperable brain aneurysm. (The medical situation is breezily set forth: Eli might die tomorrow; he might live for 50 years. Let’s move on.) His acupuncturist says that maybe the messages are being sent by something more powerful than twitchy brain cells. Maybe, you gotta have faith. The latter is nothing Eli wants to hear. But the visions only go away when he listens to and tries to unravel their message. So with nervous wit, reluctant courage, and musical accompaniment by George Michael, Eli starts to rewrite his life plan. Time and again, his hallucinations force him to grapple with the concept of justice. How do we use law to reach the right end? How can we strive for good in a courtroom? How do we even recognize justice in an imperfect world that allows for only imperfect justice? And what if you’re not Eli the lawyer-prophet but just a guy losing his mind? Kudos to the show’s writers for its wry legal humor, multilayered story telling, and smart eschewing of happy endings. Nobody leaps down the courthouse steps in victory. Episode 1 (which sparked a mini-firestorm over its portrayal of the debunked connection between autism and childhood vaccines) did produce a generous settlement but no miracles for an autistic child. For his other clients, Eli wins, at best, some breathing room. And that may be all he can hope for. Prophets are not always honored in their time, warns his acupuncturist. Or, as Eli redefines it, “When I die, [my clients are] going to win on appeal.” His legal efforts follow one common, albeit subtle, theme: Most of the time, he manages to help a boy in trouble. Maybe that’s no coincidence, since Eli’s visions are also forcing him to think about his late father — a man who saw things too, but, lacking a medical explanation or a supportive acupuncturist, turned to alcohol. The writers haven’t chosen to skirt all clich�s. So far, Eli has not defended a big corporation. He has stood up for that autistic child, Latino farm workers, an Iraq War veteran, and a man just out of a coma. And not everything works according to Hoyle (or Blackstone). The real ethical jaw-dropper: In two cases, Eli meets his client because his firm represents the other side. In one case, he was the lead lawyer for the evil business. The firm grants him permission to take the plaintiff’s case. The judge signs off on the switch. No one thinks to ask the firm’s original client about it. But, but .�.�. But everybody stumbles. Eli Stone at least has found the right path.
Elizabeth Engdahl is deputy editor of Legal Times .

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