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Friday, April 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 36.0° F  Fair
Arts

TELEVISION

The soul of a heel
A bad lawyer changes his ways in Eli Stone

Miller stars in a potential classic.
Miller stars in a potential classic.
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In Eli Stone (Thursday, 9 p.m., ABC), the title character (Jonny Lee Miller) is a lawyer at a top San Francisco firm that specializes in screwing the little guy. His heartless ambition has brought him wealth, status and the perfect(ly awful) fiancée. Then a funny thing happens. Eli begins hearing music that no one else hears: George Michael singing "You gotta have faith." He tries to ignore it, but he can't ignore a vision of Michael singing the song in his living room. Meanwhile, a downtrodden woman he's screwing over on behalf of a big corporate client begs him to change sides and represent her. Assuming that his visions signal the need to change his evil ways, Eli accepts.

From this description, you might guess that Eli Stone is one of those faux-inspirational TV series that take themselves too seriously. When you tune in, you'll be relieved to find that it's mostly comedy, with the would-be corny moments undermined by irony. But just as you get comfortable laughing, the series knocks you upside the head with a deeply moving climax.

In short, we have a potential classic on our hands. Most of the credit goes to the script, which is at once a droll character study, a thrilling courtroom drama and a rich philosophical inquiry. Will the writers return to produce more episodes, or will the strike cause Eli Stone to die on the vine?

You gotta have faith.

Bridal Fever
Saturday, 8 pm (Hallmark Channel)

While most of us live in the 21st century, the Hallmark Channel cranks out romances as if it were 1961. Marriage-obsessed Gwen (Andrea Roth) might as well be Sandra Dee, panting after a man in a pre-feminist universe. Her only concern is finding a husband, and she explicitly rejects Gloria Steinem's motto: "A woman needs a man the way a fish needs a bicycle."

And not just any man will do. He must have a square jaw, a fullback's body and the kind of bland heterosexual suavity that Rock Hudson used to convey before being outed. Helping Gwen find Mr. Right is an idiotic romance novelist (Delta Burke) who calls everyone "dahling" - yet another demeaning female stereotype.

Modern-day women need Bridal Fever the way a bicycle needs a fish.

Super Bowl alternatives
Sunday

It's a sure bet that most of America will watch the Super Bowl on Sunday (5 pm, Fox). What interests me is the programming other people will watch. Spike TV offers a particularly fascinating case, given that its audience is guys who like guy stuff. The Super Bowl is the premier guy-oriented broadcast, so who's left to watch Spike on Sunday?

The answer isn't pretty. Spike runs a day's worth of shows like When Animals Attack (4 pm) and When Good Pets Go Bad (6 pm). Is the network catering to a demographic that feels football isn't violent enough? And would these people watch the Super Bowl if ravenous lions were set loose after kickoffs?

Welcome to the Captain
Monday, 7:30 pm (CBS)

A normal guy moves into an apartment building full of kooks. Could there be a less original sitcom premise?

But Welcome to the Captain distinguishes itself from the pack. For starters, it's shot on film with no laugh track. The large cast is brimming with talent, from unknowns to a comedy legend (Jeffrey Tambor) to a legend (Raquel Welch) heretofore unknown for comedy. The pilot doesn't shove the jokes down our throats, but pulls us gently into its absurd little world.

Josh (Fran Kranz) is a writer-director who's struggling with a script and breaking up with his girlfriend. A buddy convinces him to move into Hollywood's El Capitan to start a new chapter in his life. The warning signals go off immediately when Josh meets a blabbermouth attendant (Al Madrigal), a busybody who once wrote for Three's Company (Tambor), and a sex-starved actress (Welch) who wants him to write her new erotic thriller. But he also meets a cute acupuncture student who, despite leaving a needle in his head, convinces him to stay at El Capitan.

By the end of the episode, you understand why the filmmakers don't provide a laugh track. They trust viewers to provide one of their own.

The New Adventures of Old Christine
Monday, 8:30 pm (CBS)

I watched the premiere of this sitcom in March 2006, disliked it, and haven't been back since. But I've decided to give the show another chance as it resumes with new episodes. Hey, that's just the kind of guy I am - charitable.

Even I have my limits, though, and in this case it was about a half-hour. The episode is frantic without being funny, sex-obsessed without being sexy. Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Christine is as neurotic as her Elaine on Seinfeld, but without that series' redeeming brilliance. And neurosis without brilliance is about as annoying as it is in real life.

Christine is ready to get it on with her boyfriend (Blair Underwood), but things keep getting in the way. And these "things" are contrivances that distracted writers probably thought up just before the strike. On the night of the big date, Christine's brother drags her to the morgue to identify a cadaver he's about to dissect. Later, when she tries to have sex, she can't help thinking about death.

I was thinking about death too, only because it was more fun than thinking about The New Adventures of Old Christine.

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