General thoughts on the series and spoilers for the first episode coming up just as soon as I compliment a woman’s shoes...
“We have been raised on fairy tales, and we have come to expect one of our own.”
–Dr. Claire Allen
–Dr. Claire Allen
This isn’t the opening line of “Cupid,” but it’s the most important. Before there was “Pushing Daisies,” there was “Cupid,” ABC’s first attempt at doing a genre-bending contemporary fairy tale. “Cupid” may not have the day-glo colors or the precious names, and it’s more blatantly anchored in the real world, but it has its own kind of magic.
This is the most likable Jeremy Piven has ever been. Paula Marshall, too, for that matter. (I know other TV junkies cringe when she pops up on a new series, but these 13 episodes bought a whole lot of goodwill from me.) There are dashes of comedy, drama, romance and even, at times, fantasy, all bumping up against each other but never really in conflict with one another. It manages to have its cake and eat it, too, with the way Trevor and Claire are both so often shown to be right; it’s smart about how relationships involve both the fairy tale and the compatibility test. And it’s fun.
I don’t want to get too deep into plot recapping with these discussions, both because I’m assuming that you’ve watched the episodes before you came here, and because the show tends to be less about story than tone. We meet people, Trevor tries to fix them up, he and Claire banter, Champ shows up to be exasperated and, nine times out of 10, we get a taste of true love by episode’s end. But for completeness’ sake, I’ll do a quick synopsis before going deeper into the episode.
Since “Cupid” is a love story – or a series of love stories – it makes sense that we start with a girl and a boy. So meet Claire Allen, therapist, columnist, author, and all-around relationship expert. Now meet Claire’s newest patient, who’s either a mentally-ill man named Trevor Hale who believes he’s Cupid, or who’s actually Cupid, banished to Earth without his powers until he can unite 100 couples in true love. Claire’s fascinated with Trevor, both as a patient and as a possible book subject. Trevor’s amused by Claire, whose clinical ideas of romance are diametrically opposed to his own, and he can use her singles support group to make matches.
And since “Cupid” is also an anthology, with a new Couple of the Week every week, we have to meet another girl and boy. So meet Madeline, lonely flower shop owner, who had a “The Way We Were” romantic fantasy a year before Carrie Bradshaw made it all cool on “Sex and the City.” And meet Dave, lovelorn ad guy, who would be perfect for Madeline except for one thing: he’s married. Kind of.
I’ll deal with Dave and Madeline, one of the series’ least interesting Couples, in a bit, but the most important question about the series at this stage is a simple one: who is this guy? Is he nuts, or is he Cupid?
The series never offers a definitive answer because it doesn’t have to. Until Trevor brings together his 100th couple, he’s as human as you or I. While shows with the Will They Or Won’t They? question can’t drag their feet forever (though some try, like “Ed”), the Is He Or Isn’t He? question could have gone on a long time without getting annoying.
Besides, the show clearly wants you to believe in Trevor, because what fun is it if Claire’s right and he’s just crazy? As I said above, the show doesn’t make their ongoing debate about romance an unfair fight, but deep down we all want to believe in the fairy tale to some extent. There are “clues” to Trevor’s identity throughout the series that could be interpreted either way, but it’s always more entertaining to assume that he’s really Eros. The pilot, for instance, offers up two clues: Trevor’s amazing dart-throwing ability, wherein he can hit a perfect bullseye while his back is turned to the board and his only guide is a reflection in a beer mug; and the fact that one of the 100 buttons on the string he hangs in his apartment appears to move over on its own accord after Madeline agrees to give Dave another chance. You could assume that Trevor is just a brilliant dart player (I’m sure there’s a video up on YouTube of someone doing a similar trick), and that he moved the button himself but doesn’t realize it because of his psychosis, but that just seems sad to me.
A lot of the credit for that goes to Piven. “Entourage” is the biggest role of his career, but it only showcases the abrasive side that any writer/director can bring out of him. As Trevor, he gets to be selfless (albeit for selfish reasons), charming, friendly, and, at times, just plain nice. A lot of that’s in Rob Thomas’ script, but not all of it. It’s why I had such a hard time figuring out who might play the role in the remake Thomas was working on before the writers strike hit. How many actors out there can simultaneously play leading man, fool, best friend, irritant, tragic figure and comic relief? How may could handle the rat-a-tat dialogue that occasionally moves faster than the stuff Lauren Graham used to have to say on “Gilmore Girls”?
(I had to go back four or five times to transcribe all of his rant to the guy hassling Claire at the bar, he talks so fast and yet clearly. For the record, it’s “You ever watch ‘Fame’? You know what I have in common with Bruno, Leroy and Coco? I’m gonna live forever. Are you gonna live forever? See, it would saturate my pleasure glands to rip your skin off and make ponchos for the kids. So keep your paws off my shrink here, cause I’m a frustrated taxidermist and I’d love to go deep on ya. We on the same team, Butterbean?”)
And as Claire, Marshall has to be able to constantly scold and disagree with Trevor without seeming shrill and joyless. There are moments here and there in the series where she comes close, but she and Piven have that kind of chemistry you can’t plan for – one of my many regrets about the show’s short run is that they never got to do the inevitable Trevor/Claire doomed romance arc – and so their bickering is less about her than about the sparks that fly when they get in a room together.
Like I said above, Madeline and Dave are one of the more perfunctory Couples, despite the presence of the always-awesome Connie “Mrs. Coach” Britton and the likable enough George Newbern. So much time in the pilot has to be spent setting up the regular characters (also including Champ, Trevor’s actor/bouncer roommate) and the concept that these two often seem an afterthought. They’re both nice people who are a little lonely, and the only conflict in their story (news of Dave’s marriage) happens three-quarters of the way through and is resolved almost immediately (Dave explains that he’s a few months away from being legally divorced).
Still, they do have that one lovely moment when Trevor sends Dave over to act out Madeline’s fantasy on the dance floor, though even that’s kind of problematic. After all, Madeline just revealed it to a roomful of people, most of them at the bar. She has to know that somebody told this guy to do it, and while he’s handsome and nice and the moment itself seems powerful to her, I kept thinking of the gag in “Tootsie” where Jessica Lange tells Dustin Hoffman (in drag) her ultimate fantasy for how a guy would hit on her, but when Hoffman (not in drag) tries it out on her word-for-word, she throws a drink in his face. I would, at the very least, have liked for her to comment on it during the dance or afterward on that first date.
That quibble aside, the dance scene touches on an important and recurring “Cupid” theme: that our ideas of love have been so shaped by the popular culture we consume. A later episode will feature a man who decides to turn himself into Fred Astaire to seem happier, and another has a woman fall in love with the image of a rugged, Marlboro Man-esque guy on a billboard. While too many pop culture references can become self-indulgent, I think it’s apropos here, and often leads to some of the show’s best moments.
This is already getting long, and I want to turn the discussion over to everyone else, so a few other quick thoughts on the pilot:
-As I’ve been rewatching these episodes, it’s been fun to see younger versions of people who would go on to do bigger work down the line. In addition to Britton, there’s Ty Olsson (Plow Guy from “Men in Trees”) as the target of Trevor’s Butterbean rant, and Paul Adelstein (Kellerman from “Prison Break” and Cooper from “Private Practice”) as the singles group guy in the baseball cap. He’ll go on to be a semi-regular on “Cupid,” and eventually get the name Mike.
-Getting back to the dart trick for a second, it’s funny the way memory works. With the exception of “Heart of the Matter” (if you’re already a fan, you know which episode I’m talking about, and if not, you’re gonna love it), I haven’t seen any of these episodes since their original broadcasts nearly a decade ago, and I always had it in my head that Trevor made the bullseyes blind, which seemed a more blatant “He’s a god” signpost. The beer mug reflection muddies that somewhat.
-In retrospect, Champ’s line about how he won’t go to any audition that says “Black actor” is funny, because the next season, Jeffrey Sams joined the cast of ABC’s “Wasteland” after the show caught a ton of heat for having such the most lily-white cast in a season where the networks were getting hammered about the lack of diversity. I’m guessing the audition for that role wasn’t racially-neutral.
-I like that Madeline and Dave bond over being White Sox fans. Given the Chicago setting – which becomes a vital part of the series’ look as it moves along – the easy choice would be to have them pull for the Cubbies. I could see how, if I were a Sox fan in a city dominated by the other team, hearing a beautiful woman start reciting Frank Thomas’ statistics would make me fall hopelessly in love.
-Claire’s return visit to the psychiatric board is another semi-clue, in that it suggests Trevor invented his name on the spot based on the “tremor” and “hail” lines in the quote on the wall. But it’s interesting that this RT Hale character’s backstory (including tragic anti-fairy tale moment where he can’t wake up his (drugged) sleeping beauty) could so neatly explain our Trevor.
-I almost always approved of the show’s musical choices, with the use of U2’s “Love, Rescue Me” over Dave and Madeline’s reconciliation the first of many spot-on tunes.
Coming up on Tuesday: “The Linguist,” which you can find at YouTube here, here, here, here and here.
What did everybody else think?