Friday, January 18, 2008

Strike Survival TV Club: Cupid, "First Loves"

Spoilers for "Cupid" episode five, "First Loves," coming up just as soon as I buy some eggs...

I don't own an entire Lisa Loeb album, and yet she's been this weird recurring presence for important signposts in my life. Just as I was really starting to get my act together as a critic for the college paper, I wrote a whole lot about "Reality Bites," which prominently featured her first big hit, "Stay." Early in my relationship with the woman who would become my wife, "I Do" was on the radio so often that we half-jokingly began referring to it as our song. And now my daughter is obsessed with Loeb because she sang "Jenny Jenkins" on an episode of "Jack's Big Music Show."

Loeb's presence alone in "First Loves" would probably predispose me to like the episode. (That and the road trip format, given that my favorite movie is still "Midnight Run.") But Loeb or no Loeb, it's one of the series' highlights, an entertaining, formula-busting story that gives us insight into Champ, Claire and, yes, Trevor in sometimes surprising, sometimes moving, sometimes funny ways.

So Claire's singles group is hanging out at Taggerty's to cheer on Mike in some kind of music competition. His self-penned song includes lines like "Big love, baby, is what you need, big love, baby, doing the deed," and yet he still seems like the best contestant until a cute woman with horn-rimmed glasses named Sophie Gill (Loeb) takes the mic and impresses everyone with a wistful but ironic love song. Trevor interprets the lyrics as Sophie needing a good man, but Claire correctly interprets that she had a good man and lost him. As it turns out, Sophie and Champ are old friends (but only that), and she tells him that she signed a record deal but has been playing hookie like this instead of being in the studio "spinning pain and isolation into gold."

With the very generous record company hiring a limo to bring Sophie back to them (an awkward but necessary plot device), Trevor talks himself and Champ into coming along so they can stop and visit the man she loved and lost, her childhood sweetheart Paul Lister, whom she last saw when her family moved away at 13. And Claire, trying to prevent her superior, Dr. Greeley, from giving Trevor's case over to a fellow shrink who wants to try a new chemical castration drug on him, tags along so she can get a 24/7 view of Trevor and decide how dangerous he really is to himself and others. So they all hang out in the limo, trade stories of their own first loves (for Claire, a bad boy at summer camp; for Champ, the girl who got him into acting in high school) and very slowly edge towards Paul's house.

The episode is at once simple (just our three main characters plus a guest star swapping stories in the back of a car) and complex, with the interweaving flashbacks to Sophie, Claire and Champ's first loves and the specter of Trevor getting chemically reprogrammed by the oily Dr. Frechette.

Midway through the episode, Trevor overhears just enough of Claire dictating notes about the situation to mistakenly believe that she is the one who wants to dope him up. Because of that, he begins to get too aggressive in his attempt to reunite Sophie and Paul, which in turn makes Claire more inclined to go with the drug therapy option. Ordinarily, I disdain stories that involve some kind of misunderstanding that would be solved if the characters involved just had an honest conversation with each other (suffice it to say, I wasn't a "Three's Company" fan), but over such a short interval, and with the stakes this high, it works. There are times when this series tries to ignore the possibility that Trevor has deep mental problems -- or, at least, that Claire believes that he has them (though she finds the delusion relatively benign and somewhat charming) -- but it's a fundamental part of the premise, and something that needs to be addressed from time to time.

This story walks the usual comedy/drama knife edge. We see Claire amused by the fact that Trevor has conned a bunch of young women into believing he's Dave Matthews (at the time, Piven's hairline wasn't too far off), and we see Trevor deliver a rambling monologue about how Claire is a woman of numbers and he's a man of letters -- all 24 of them. (When she corrects him, he says, "Who else would take the time to count all the letters in the alphabet but the numbers lady?") But both of them are obviously afraid throughout: Trevor of having his personality and shot at returning to Mt. Olympus destroyed, Claire of having to so change the psyche of a man who, irritating as he can be, she so obviously likes and cares for. (Claire has her faults, but a lack of empathy for her patients isn't one of them.) The scene when Claire figures out what's been going on this whole time and hugs him is a really sweet, unguarded moment between two characters who are usually bickering.

For someone whose only previous screen credits were a role as "Angry Woman" in an indie film and a guest spot on "The Nanny," Loeb acquits herself well when thrown into that limo with Piven, Marshall and Sams. As Sophie rattles off her list of doomed relationships with needy losers, the script keeps nibbling around the idea that Champ wishes she had once noticed what a good, handsome guy he is. Addressing that concept full on would get in the way of the twisty conclusion -- Sophie kisses the man she thinks is Paul, then discovers that he's Paul's formerly annoying kid brother Brian, who always had a crush on her and turns out to be the good guy for the adult Sophie -- but Loeb and Sams play well off each other.

Though the episode is largely about Trevor and Claire's doctor/patient relationship, it contains several teases throughout about the obvious potential for them to be so much more to each other. The opening scene (which we'll get back to in a second with Rob Remembers) has Trevor and Claire watching "Dawson's Creek" (not that you can really see what show it is) while Trevor complains in meta fashion about how the hero of that show talked way too much and took too long to figure out that he was in love with the smart, slightly icy brunette. When Sophie hooks up with Brian, we find out that he was such a pest way back when because he was attracted to her. And just in case we don't grasp the point, while the two of them have sex (in full view of a window looking down on the street), Trevor talks to a kid on the football team Brian coaches about the way that boys often tease and harass the girls they like. When he runs into the kid again at a nearby convenience store, the kid witnesses enough Trevor/Claire metaphorical pigtail-pulling to know what's what.

Now, once again, it's time for Rob Remembers, where the creator of the original "Cupid" (and the man who's attempting to revive the show with a new cast), Rob Thomas, gives us some behind the scenes dish about each episode:
A few fun facts about "First Loves."

The network was always on us about stunt casting. Our intention, when scripting, was to get an actress who could sing, rather than to attempt to do the opposite. But the network read the script, and they're standard reaction was, "Offer it to Madonna." This may only be a slight exaggeration. Every episode of Cupid, they would force us to try to stunt cast the anthological guest star. They had "Love Boat" casting in mind. We'd always spin our wheels offering it to people on "their" list. We'd get passes. Then we'd have to cast last minute.

Those of us on the show were happy about getting Lisa Loeb, though I doubt she was quite the draw the network would've liked.

A couple notes...

Trevor and Claire begin the show watching Dawson's Creek and commenting on the characters. I had just come off a year on Dawson's Creek and we shared a building with them. Things didn't end particularly well for me on the show, and I don't think they planned on having me back. There was a certain amount of unhealthy pleasure I took in poking at Joey and Dawson as a means of commenting on our leads. I'm a small person in that way.

Also, this was Hart Hanson's first episode for us. He was a Canadian writer. Cupid was his first U.S. job. He'd been offered other jobs on procedural, action shows, but I hired him off a particularly bizarre Ally McBeal spec. I ended up giving him 30 pages of notes on his first 60 page draft of the episode. We may have both thought at the time we'd made a mistake. His second draft, though, was exactly what I was looking for. Hart continues to be one of my favorite writers and people in town. He's now the creator, EP of BONES.

Finally, I had one major problem with the end of the episode. Lisa Loeb changed one of her lines. She's performing at the bar at the end of the episode, and this ironic, tough, alt-rocker sings the Turtles' "Happy Together." Her scripted line was "Trevor, this is for you. I used to be much cooler than this." She changed it to, "I never used to be this cool." Later, when I asked her why, she said it was because she thought the Turtles were cool, and she didn't want to put them down. Of course, the IDEA was that this jaded girl was singing a song that was hopelessly romantic. Instead, I had Lisa Loeb commenting on how cool the Turtles were.

Once I explained myself, she looped in the appropriate line, but we have to cut off her face during the line, and it was really an important line to me. C'est la vie.
A few other thoughts on "First Loves":

-I really like the look of the flashback scenes, which aren't quite black and white, but rather sepia-toned with only one or two colors popping out in each (the blue of young Sophie's shirt, the yellow of the camp uniforms from Claire's story, etc.).

-In past reviews, I've talked about the various pop songs that got worked into episodes. The instrumental score for the series was by the prolific W.G. "Snuffy" Walden, and the music for these flashbacks sound like a mash-up between his theme for "thirytsomething" and some of his score work for "My So-Called Life." (The aural similarities will be even more overt two episodes from now, which sounds like Walden just dusted off an old "thirtysomething" composition.)

-I really like Paula Marshall's dance at the end, which seems like a very uptight woman trying to be funky and not quite succeeding. I've seen her dance better in other roles, so it's definitely not an Elaine Benes situation.

-My favorite guy on Sophie's list of losers, the guy who "found the female orgasm unattractive."

-The perils of watching low-quality video versions of this stuff: there's a scene in the limo (the one where Claire explains how the summer camp fling was doomed when the second kiss wasn't as good as the first) where Trevor's massaging somebody's foot, and based on the body positioning and the image quality, it's hard to tell whether it's his own or Claire's. I'm going to assume it's his, because I don't think she'd let him go there, protective feelings or no, but the first time I watched the scene it was like the only thing I could look at.

Coming up on Tuesday: "Meat Market," maybe the funniest "Cupid" episode of them all, featuring a pair of "Private Practice" stars before anyone knew who they were (not that they share any more screen time here than they do on their current show). You can watch it here, here, here, here and here.

What did everybody else think?


R.A. Porter said...

Now that was a great episode. Slowing the action down but leaving Piven and Marshall's patter at full speed helped a lot. It also helped that there was really only one guest for the week taking time away from the three stars.

Every line in the opening meta-commentary on Dawson is great; I think my favorite exchange is
- They can't get together, Trevor. The show would be over.
- Oh, fine by me.

While it's possible Hart Hanson was rushed on that second draft and just cut and paste the part of Clare's line Trevor overheard, my suspicion is that it was in fact a clue to Trevor's identity. He's either a god, has an eidetic memory, or has acted so long he can instantly memorize and recall long, complex lines with unfamiliar words upon one hearing. I thought that was a pretty significant little throwaway.

One thing I found oddly amusing was the perfect, native Chicago accent on the actress who played Little Lisa. Unforced, barely perceptible, miles better than the faked one in "The Linguist". Now, young Sophie Gill should have had a Wisco accent instead, but they cast who they cast and I thought both she and the actress playing young Clare were excellent. Young Champ didn't get as much to do but smile and dance like a Pip, unfortunately.

Best line of the episode (maybe) was pee-wee QB1's "they sell eggs here." Such a simple, clever call-back worked perfectly to express the kid's and audience's feelings.

Finally, I think Rob might have been able to get away without relooping Lisa's line about the song. Her ad libbed "I never used to be this cool" could also be interpreted as an alt-chick saying she never used to be in with the in-crowd. Then again, no writer wants their lines changed...ever.

Alan Sepinwall said...

That's a good point on the memorization trick as another possible identity clue.

Anonymous said...

I thought Champ was supposedly a chubby kid? What happened to "What's wrong with Albert?" "Clearly you didn't grow up black and overweight in America."

Also, I'd noticed Hart Hanson in the credits and it rang a kind of bell: is that the name of the kid whose video camera catches Lynn Echolls going off the bridge in S1 of Veronica Mars?

I didn't really watch Dawson's Creek so I didn't get that that was the show they were talking about; that's hilarious.

I thought Loeb was kind of bland but she and Champ had the kind of nice easy chemistry you see with old friends. When he walked into the bar while she was playing I thought the story was heading into ex-lovers territory but I didn't perceive any sparks after that and I thought that was a good choice to make.

I really admired Claire's passionate defence of both her work and Trevor's right to be "himself," so to speak. And my favourite exchange (aside from the "they sell eggs here" that R.A. Porter mentioned) was probably: "How do you even know [Trevor] has a sex drive?" "I've seen him dance."

Anonymous said...

Yep, Hart Hanson is the amateur film director who gets the video of Lynn in Mars vs. Mars.
Fun to find out little bits like that from another show.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I thought Loeb was kind of bland but she and Champ had the kind of nice easy chemistry you see with old friends. When he walked into the bar while she was playing I thought the story was heading into ex-lovers territory but I didn't perceive any sparks after that and I thought that was a good choice to make.

There's one moment later on, where Champ is complaining about how Sophie sabotages herself whenever something good comes along, and it could certainly be read as him having had an unrequited crush while she was busy dating Unattractive Female Orgasm Guy.

Also, good catch on Flashback Champ's weight. Though we don't know how old he was when he was fat, the fact that he was still short in those scenes (meaning you couldn't pin the weight loss on the eventual growth spurt that would take him to his Jeffrey Sams height) suggests somebody screwed up.

afoglia said...

After the way you built this up in the discussion of "A Truly Fractured Fairy Tale" I was very disappointed. This episode seemed weaker, and less fun. Lisa Loeb is good, but not good enough to carry her story. And the twist with the younger brother was something I figured out from the second flashback. (I will grant that maybe I was supposed to.) And, like you, I don't like plots based on eavesdropping leading to misunderstanding (unless they become crazily, wackily, implausibly farcical, which is not the kind of show "Cupid" is).

Perhaps this comes down to what kind of show we want "Cupid" to be, borderline fantasy, like "Heaven..." and "Fairy Tale" or more realistic and grounded like this episode.

Also, I think a lot of this show would have worked better later in the show's run. It's too early to make the meta-jokes about Trevor and Claire in the opening, and the threat of chemical lobotomization would have more punch if we knew Trevor more than 4 weeks.

Bobman said...

Well, talk about a coincidence : I can't remember the last time I heard the name "Lisa Loeb". I watch this yesterday, and there she is... and then last night, Conan has her as the musical guest!

pgillan said...

I think the line "I never used to be this cool" actually works better. Part of being a jaded, ironic hipster is embracing the uncool as cool. Therefore, the more uncool something is, like singing a Turtles song, the cooler you are for doing it. Hence "I never used to be this cool": never before have I had the nerve to do something this uncool.

Cinemania said...

This is the first episode of Cupid that really worked, that didn't suffer from inconsistencies of tone or writing, that didn't seem like a decent show striving to be better than that but not quite sure of itself yet, from start to finish.

And having downloaded a slightly higher quality version of the show, I can tell you Alan that Trevor is definitely massaging Claire's foot in that scene in the limo, and it is pretty damned sexy.

Bobman said...

And having downloaded a slightly higher quality version of the show, I can tell you Alan that Trevor is definitely massaging Claire's foot in that scene in the limo, and it is pretty damned sexy.

You may want to take a second peek at that Dan; he's rubbing his own foot, and then he starts stretching out and you can see him obviously grabbing his own leg. Check out about the 29 minute mark.

It's definitely a funny illusion though :)

audie said...

this maybe unintended.. but when trevor mentioned he was a man of letters.. all 24 of them.. he could've meant the GREEK alphabets. as there are 24 letters in it. and he did mention from the "alpha to omega"

although.. he's supposed to be a roman god, but then again zeus showed up soo.. yeahh. haha.

Anonymous said...

A couple of odd things I noticed:

One was the size of the cell phones back then. Cracks me up every time I see them.

Also, loved seeing the comics rack in the convenience store. Rob, assuming you're reading these comments, when're we going to see you writing some Marvel books. You certainly seem to be a fan, and it's got to be a great way to spend some time during the strike.

Anonymous said...

I spent the weekend catching up on the first five episodes. It was a bittersweet experience. I remember watching, and loving, this show 9 years ago and to revisit it was wonderful. However, the disappointment of its short life returned. I'm also distracted by my curiosity and skepticism; I can't imagine two other actors that are more perfect in roles of Clair and Trevor than Paula Marshall and Jeremy Piven.

Any ideas, Alan? Who would you like to see in the lead roles in the new version? Are you as disappointed as I am that they're moving the setting from Chicago to LA? I wonder what the chances of the new version being able to 'stunt cast' Marshall and Piven as a love connection?

Cinemania said...

Just re-watched it, and wow, Bobman, you're right. Quite the interesting optical illusion there, the angle of Piven's leg matching the direction that Marshal's body is turned, plus they're wearing very similar coloured pants, which adds to the confusion as well. But that hairy foot has got to belong to Piven.

Anonymous said...

Way behind here, but I just wanted to point out the line that killed me.

"Sequitur, please."

I have to remember to use that.

Stef said...

I'm about a month behind - oops! - but plan to cram a bit this week. It is Valentine's week, after all!

I liked this episode a lot, but it was the first time that I thought all the medical jargon stuff was kind of weak. The pseudo-lobotomy-medication threat just seemed way too extreme. Maybe there are doctors out there who are that quick to jump to severe treatments, but luckily I haven't met any.

I'm also having a hard time imagining ANY actor inhabiting the role of Trevor quite like Piven does. It'll be interesting to see the casting if there is the reboot.

Anonymous said...

I'm late to posting comments, as I'm just starting to catch up with the series over this weekend.

In regards to Champ being a chubby kid--I thought that the joke was supposed to be that he didn't like being called "Albert," not because he was chubby growing up, but because of the Cosby show "Fat Albert." Anyone else remember that show? They recently re-made it into a movie (not that I would ever admit to having seen it--it looked bad based on the trailers).

R.A. Porter said...

Anon: That's why he didn't want to be called Albert, as a fat black kid. *Because* of Fat Albert.