Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Mercurial Lawyers

ABC has a new series that starts off by taking on one of the more controversial issues in medicine: did mercury in childhood vaccines cause autism?

The drama, “Eli Stone,” scheduled to be broadcast at 10 p.m. on Jan. 31, centers on a lawyer who begins having visions that cause him to question his life’s work defending large corporations, including a pharmaceutical company that makes vaccines.

The title character of “Eli Stone,” adopting the message of his visions to fight for the little guy, takes his first case: suing his former client on behalf of the mother of an autistic child who believes a mercury-based preservative in a vaccine caused her son’s autism.

Television hasn’t always shied away from taking on controversy, but it’s not often that they do so at the risk of pissing off sponsors.

The issue is a potentially delicate one for ABC. Eli Lilly & Company, which developed thimerosal, and the two companies that now make the bulk of childhood vaccines used in the United States, GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi-Aventis, spent an estimated $138 million for advertising on ABC last year, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, though little to none of it was spent advertising vaccines.

Representatives of all three companies expressed dismay about the series, of which they said they were unaware until called by a reporter.

Nancy Pekarek, a spokeswoman for GlaxoSmithKline, said the episode raised public-health concerns. “If parents watching this fictional series make that incorrect conclusion about a link” between vaccines and autism “and as a result choose not to vaccinate their own children, the consequences could be devastating,” she said.

At the risk of harking back to Drama 101, it’s not always about the subject of the drama but the underlying message that matters, and autism and mercury is the catalyst for the clash of characters. But it’s not often that a drama seemingly nips at the hand that feeds them. Caveat: I don’t know enough about the mercury controversy to state an opinion, but I’m hoping that someone will enlighten me…and tell me what they think of Eli Stone‘s take on it.

On another angle, I find it ironic that a lot of politicians and interest groups rail against trial lawyers and how evil they are…yet programs about gutsy lawyers taking on the big dogs and defending the innocent have been staples of drama for a long, long time: Perry Mason and L.A. Law come to mind, as do hundreds of others. Even Shakespeare made a smart (and cross-dressing) lawyer and a riveting trial scene the climax of The Merchant of Venice. So while trial lawyers and their antics may make an easy target on the stump, they are some of our favorite fictional characters because they really do epitomize the basic elements of drama and life in microcosm, and there’s not much more theatrical in real life than a courtroom trial, complete with costumes, props, and a captive audience.

And when they get in trouble, the folks who carry on about runaway juries, outrageous lawsuits judgments, and activist judges, start speed-dialing the biggest and baddest lawyer they can find.