Spoilers for the second episode of "Cupid" coming up just as soon as I take the car to the bar...
Before there was Andy Stitzer, 40-year-old virgin, there was Jennings Crawford of the 35-year-old variety.
After premiering with one of the least-inspired Couples of the entire run, "Cupid" comes back with "The Linguist," featuring one of the best: Tim DeKay as the aforementioned Jennings, a virginal scholar whose upper-crust accent and bearing aren't exactly what they seem; and Jessica Lundy as Kate, a blue collar cafeteria cook who aspires to so much more than her Superfans accent would seem to allow.
We meet Jennings at a dinner party that's a regular thing for Claire and her equally pretentious grad school buddies. (Thomas' script has the good sense to not make them total cliches; immediately after all of them denounce the vacuous state of network television, they begin discussing the latest episode of fictional cop show "Sunset and Vaughn.") Jennings wows Claire with his best party trick, where he listens to her describe the story of "Red Riding Hood" and uses that to correctly identify most of her biographical details. Claire, seeing an opportunity to get to the bottom of Trevor's identity, invites Jennings to her singles group to try the stunt on her favorite patient -- only Jennings surprises her and everyone else by announcing his virginhood to the entire room.
I've long been a fan of DeKay. He and Ally Walker were pretty much the only reason I stuck with "Tell Me You Love Me" (yet another series where DeKay played a guy who wasn't getting any), and he does a bang-up job as the repressed, lonely Jennings. His cultured affect seems a put-on at times, but that turns out to be the point, as he reveals to Kate that he comes from south Boston and developed the accent and mannerisms to fit in better when he went to Harvard.
I can't speak to how well DeKay does the Southie accent, nor Lundy the Chicago one -- most of my friends from both cities don't have anything close to the stereotypical regional dialect -- but it adds a nice twist to the "Pygmalion" riff. (Thomas doesn't even try to deny the source material, having Jennings and Kate's dialect lessons conclude with a "The grain in Champaign falls mainly on the plain" joke.) This isn't a snooty blue blood trying to raise some poor urchin up to his level; it's one changeling teaching his trick to a kindred spirit.
The faculty cocktail party scene, where Jennings drops all his affectations to tell Kate that she's "wicked awesome" with "a hot bod" and Kate in turn sticks with the speech patterns he taught her, is one of my favorite of the series. What sells it, I think, isn't just Jennings risking the ridicule of his peers by ditching his camouflage, but the moment where Kate herself gives in to his wooing and asks, "Are we goin' somewheres?" in her own normal speaking voice. It's not always easy to play "melting" as an emotion, but Lundy really does it right there. (Jennings' gratuitous Springsteen shout-out helps, though the Boss was no doubt prohibitively expensive, so we get Chrissie Hynde on the soundtrack, instead. More on that below.)
Because our Couple are so well-drawn, and because the regulars were strongly established in the pilot, they're able to take more of a back seat in this one. Claire's still trying to find out who Trevor really is, and Trevor has his usual assortment of snappy one-liners -- my favorite is when he tells Kate and her friends that he and Jennings both got thrown out of the Pet Shop Boys -- but this is one of the more strictly anthological episodes. I wouldn't want this every week -- the Piven/Marshall repartee is the show's best hook -- but when the guest roles are this strong (in writing and casting), I've got no problem with it. Just as the Greek gods allegedly sent Trevor down from Mt. Olympus to learn the value or true love again, this is an optimistic show that was produced in a very cynical time; how can we learn about the purity of love if we don't get extended glimpses of it?
Some other thoughts on "The Linguist":
-The opening title sequence, set to a version of The Pretenders' "Human" (albeit not the version that's on the "Viva El Amore" album), makes its first appearance, and of course, Hynde and company pop up again when "I'll Stand By You" plays over the "wicked awesome" love declaration.
-I have to say, I remember Claire as being much more of a pill than she's thus far been as I've rewatched. When Jennings makes his shameful confession, for instance, Claire (temporarily, at least) loses all interest in her reason for bringing him to the group and tries to help him out. And while she fixes him up with the snotty Glenn Miller fan, she doesn't realize at the time that she's messing with his thing with Kate. (Trevor had just told Claire that he had failed in his own fix-up attempt.)
-Not that it should be a surprise, since this is a show about a guy whose mission is to fix people up, but this episode features the first of many scenes where Trevor somehow manages to hit on a woman (in this case, a cute co-ed) and then immediately turn her over to his pet project. Jennings panics and blows it, but the girl seemed genuinely willing to transfer her attraction from Trevor to his friend.
-We already knew that Jennings had put together a file on Trevor, but that final shot of him sticking it in the back of his file cabinet can be looked at one of two ways: something that the show could have returned to down the road when Thomas and company decided to confront the matter of Trevor's identity; or a very low-budget homage to the final shot of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
-Speaking of Trevor's identity, the closest thing we get to a clue this time out is Jennings admiring the pile of unhealthy food on Trevor's plate, and Trevor explaining that he can eat whatever he wants without suffering the effects. Didn't Bill Murray say something similar about being a god when he was stuffing his face midway through "Groundhog Day"?
-Vis a vis the early scene where Claire comes to group late to discover that Trevor has turned it into a Dionysian revel, do you think Piven tries to get it written into the contracts for his various roles that he gets to show off his biceps at least once?
-Champ would become a more useful member of the cast in episodes to come. Here, though, he's still a third limb, and so we have to spend time introducing the concept of "Sunset and Vaughn," which is filmed in Chicago, so that Trevor can almost ruin, then greatly enhance, Champ's chance at getting a part on it. None of that is nearly as entertaining as the revelation that Champ nicknamed himself after his first dog, and that his real name is Albert. (Explaining the change, he says, "You obviously didn't grow up black and overweight in America.")
-As he did in the pilot, Trevor sticks Claire with a meal check. I don't remember that as a running gag; I'm going to have to keep an eye out for that in future episodes.
Coming up on Friday: "Heaven, He's In Heaven," featuring a Piven family connection and a whole lotta dancing. You can see it here, here, here, here and here.
What did everybody else think?