“Eli Stone,” it turns out, is 2008-speak for “Ally McBeal,” which represents both a good and bad thing. The ABC series — whose protagonist is either a modern-day prophet or suffering the hallucinatory effects of a brain aneurysm — indulges in amusing flights of fancy, segueing from a dancing baby to dancing lawyers. Those quirks, however, can be a little too precious at times, and the show wraps this life-changing scenario in a conventional legal franchise that feels more like a throwback than a leap forward — as if cribbed from David E. Kelley’s well-worn yellow notebook.
Created by Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim (“Brothers & Sisters”), the series does have an engaging star in Jonny Miller and a willingness to tackle spiritual issues, but it’s as if selling the show required keeping one foot on the floor — grounding Eli’s journey with advocating-for-the-little-guy court cases. In that respect, the program brings to mind CBS’ “The Guardian,” whose hard-charging corporate lawyer also had an awakening that inspired him to champion underdogs.
Granted, the wakeup call for Eli (Miller, fresh off CBS’ blink-and-you-missed-it “Smith”) is a bit more ostentatious than most, as a session of frolicking with fiance Taylor (Natasha Henstridge) is interrupted by a musical serenade from George Michael (“Faith,” appropriately enough) that only Eli can see.
As an up-and-coming attorney, Eli thought he had it all, he muses in voiceover, “and then I heard the music.” Suddenly, he’s being guided by visions, switching sides to represent the plaintiff in a seemingly hopeless product-liability suit and risking his standing with the firm’s imperious overlord (Victor Garber, who gets to show off his musical-theater chops in episode two, clearly better served here than by his last turn as a big-shot lawyer in Fox’s “Justice”).
Initially dismissing him as slightly daft, Eli’s doctor brother Nathan (Matt Letsher) soon detects a cerebral anomaly that might explain the episodes he’s experiencing. At the same time, a wry acupuncturist (James Saito) comes to a different conclusion, suggesting Eli could be a prophet — an appraisal buttressed by the fact his well-choreographed spells keep leading, often circuitously, to breakthroughs in his cases.
Berlanti and Guggenheim certainly have fun playing with the formula, and the musical interludes are highly entertaining, containing some of the whimsy that “Pushing Daisies” exhibits; still, it’s a formula nevertheless — one that renders “Eli Stone” engaging but not fully involving, particularly once the vision/trial/puzzled-looks-from-colleagues ground rules are established, based on a sampling of two subsequent hours.
On the plus side, ABC has 13 installments at its disposal as scripted TV does its own slow fade, with a truncated season of “Lost” as its Thursday-night lead-in. At least initially, though, “Eli Stone” doesn’t pursue its premise with the kind of gusto its hero is counseled to apply to his life, which is enough to make you wish those responsible for the show had a little more faith of their own.