The evolution of Eli Stone

1 Feb

This is a Guest Blogged piece written by new bloggers from Hollywood Spectrum.

For those who don’t know (I wish I were one of you), there is a TV show about to premiere called "Eli Stone". It was likely going to be a pretty run-of-the-mill premiere. Possibly, it was going to be a total non event.But, the plot includes autism. Not only does it include autism, but it involves a lawyer doing what has never happened in real life-he win’s a case about how mercury in vaccines caused autism in a child. This led to a number of news stories, internet discussions and blog posts.

Well, after the initial press on this, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) sent a letter to ABC/Disney asking them to pull the show since it could erode confidence in vaccines.  Somehow this was characterized as big-bad AAP trying to bully ABC/Disney.  Now, Disney is a company that has revenues of nearly $9B per quarter.  Yeah, AAP was twisting their arm by giving them free publicity.

Did anyone really believe that ABC/Disney would pull the show?  I mean, really, they just got a lot of free publicity for what was likely to be a pretty forgettable show.   How can I say this was going to be forgettable?  Because the original script was something worth forgetting.  Consider when Eli Stone visits a Chinese acupuncturist (who somehow brings about visions in Stone).  The good Dr. Chen was given such amazing lines in pigeon English as:

"You go regular doctor? Dr. Chen not MRI."


"I have patient, you come back half hour."


"No good hate dead people. Relah. Think good memory father. Dr. Chen help ungrateful son" 

OK, so, the dialogue was lame.  And, believe me, this isn’t the only example.  A whole blog post could be devoted to it, but this is an autism blog not a TV critic blog.  Maybe Dr. Chen is  supposed to be "comedy".  But, is it OK to stereotype for comedy?  If so, how about stereotyping (incorrectly) autism for drama.  Let’s look at how about the "autism" part of the script is portrayed. Here is their stage direction for the William character from the script:

William doesn’t smile. His autism doesn’t permit it.

What?!?  Autism "doesn’t permit" smiling?  So, people who smile aren’t autistic?  That should bring down the autism "epidemic"!  Just reject the diagnosis for all the people with autism who smile.  My guess is that it would be a pretty rare condition then. 

In the original script, the fight is with an insurance company who won’t pay for the treatments of the young "William", who is autistic.  The first mention of the word "autism" comes when the mother is describing this situation:

My son has autism. He needs Risperidone every day..

Whoa.  Was that about mercury?  Nope.  It’s about Risperidone.  Yep, instead of mercury causing autism, the story was about how the fictional kid needed an off-label prescription for an antipsychotic drug and the insurance company wouldn’t pay.

How does that jive with the writer’s idea of autism?  Well, the mother describes the value of Risperidone as:

After a month on the drug, he actually smiled.

For the record, Risperidone is pretty serious medication.  It has been shown to benefit some people with autism.  But, "smiling"?  I guess that scripts don’t need science advisor approval before being approved.

Somewhere between first and, let’s face it, lame final draft and premiere, the story shifted to vaccine/mercury caused autism.  A story line guaranteed to generate controversy.  A story line guaranteed to get publicity.

It’s too bad.  Yes, the reliance of the original script on Risperidone might have caused some consternation amongst the autism community.  Yes, the stereotype of the kid "whose autism prevents him from smiling" was lame at best, damaging at worst.  But, insurance coverage for autism is a big deal right now.  A good presentation of how insurance companies deny claims for autism could have actually helped people and families with autism.

10 Responses to “The evolution of Eli Stone”

  1. Lisa February 1, 2008 at 15:34 #

    But… but… but… This was the premiere of a show about how faith and belief in the unseen is really at the heart of being a good human being. Insurance compensation for a pharmaceutical product which has been okayed by the FDA to treat autism doesn’t exactly tell that story!

    Honestly, I think they did a super job of choosing the right debate for the show. Eli and the entire jury must decide that nothing can ever truly be known for sure… and STILL award the plaintiff millions of dollars.

    After all, ABC isn’t in the business of helping families coping with autism. They’re just trying to make TV that people will watch. And I’m betting they were quite successful last night!


  2. isles February 1, 2008 at 17:31 #

    I thought the most odious aspect of this show was the insinuation that autism mothers are pure and good and smart, whereas anyone involved with vaccines is an avaricious sociopath.

    Obviously you have to set up conflict or you don’t have a drama. But really, I’d like to think people are smart enough to process a little more nuance than that.

    The truth, of course, is that companies that make vaccines are staffed by moms and dads who give those vaccines to their own children and love that they’re doing the work that has brought childhood mortality down to almost nothing, at least in the US. It’s also true that a whole lot of autism moms get their facts from the likes of the hack “journalist” David Kirby and are so caught up in what they perceive to be a glamorous quest for vindication that whatever critical thinking skills they might have had go right out the window.

  3. Eleanor February 1, 2008 at 20:13 #

    My understanding is that risperidone for autism is no longer an off-label use, so the original premise for the show may have evaporated. (Not that I think it is every likely to be seen as a cure-all for autism, much less miraculously make non-smilers smile. More like make them drool (tardive dyskinisia).

    That said, I would be equally unlikely to watch the show regardless of whether it was based on stupid ideas about risperdal or stupid ideas about “mercuritol.”

  4. Kathleen February 1, 2008 at 22:45 #

    First, Dr. Chen was revealed to be a deliberate stereotype– that he created — to attract acupuncture clients. (The character’s real name was something like Frank Kablowski.)
    Second, it’s completely unrealistic to think that a network drama would cover a storyline about how insurance companies deny autism claims.
    Third, rather than quibbling about whether the show properly cited medications, perhaps we should be thankful that it generated some conversation and publicity about autism and its causes.

  5. Tom Schwegler February 2, 2008 at 01:28 #

    I for one enjoyed the show, I found it to focus more on the concept of faith. On the one hand you had a technological, medical explanation on the other hand you had a knowing without physical proof. The storyline was echoed in Eli’s aneurysm as well as the boy’s autism.

    As for the hack journalist comment above regarding David Kirby, his peers found his work compelling enough to award him the 2006 investigative journalism award.

  6. Sullivan February 2, 2008 at 01:37 #

    On the one hand you had a technological, medical explanation on the other hand you had a knowing without physical proof

    sums up a lot of the problems in this situation. A lot.

  7. Joeymom February 2, 2008 at 03:57 #

    Change it from “risperidone” to “speech therapy” and have the kid communicate at the end. I’d have been all over it.

    But no. They had to be jerks.

  8. Ms. Clark February 2, 2008 at 10:01 #

    The story line didn’t do anything to help real live autistic people. It may lead to more autistic children being forced to take dozens of pills a day and being exposed to many IV infusions of toxic chelation drugs and even bizarre fluids like “vinegar and garlic” to get imaginary “heavy metals” out of them. More parents will likely be ensnared by anti-vaccine idiocy and thus leave their babies and children unprotected against potentially deadly diseases. People who refuse vaccinations for no good reason also weaken their communities’ herd immunity thus leading to more people with weak immune systems to be harmed.

    Autism did not need this kind of “publicity” and the people involved were not interested in the lives of autistic people or the fallout that this stupid show created. Like more autistic children being convinced that they are nothing more than victims of poisoning and in need of curing by quack therapies… oh, and if they have divorced parents, that they are responsible for their parents’ divorce. Public health sure didn’t need this kind of idiotic attention given to it, either.

    If you think that ABC and Berlanti and Guggenheim have abused their power and access to audiences via airwaves you can file a complaint here
    with the FCC.

    They give instructions on several ways of filing a complaint.

  9. Orac February 2, 2008 at 14:05 #

    I for one enjoyed the show, I found it to focus more on the concept of faith. On the one hand you had a technological, medical explanation on the other hand you had a knowing without physical proof.

    And that was exactly the problem with the show. “Faith” that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism won out over the science that shows that it does not. Lovely message. Perhaps murderers nailed by forensic CSI-style science could start using that argument: “Your honor, I know that science shows me to be guilty as sin, but you can never really know for sure. Have faith that I didn’t do it.”

    Yeah, that’d fly real well.

  10. Phun Yet February 5, 2008 at 21:19 #

    When, oh when, will the agnostics in Hollywood quit being hypocrites and give us a show in which a rational adult moves away from “faith” and “believing without proof” toward a mature, reality-based understanding of the world?

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