Friday, January 11, 2008

Strike Survival TV Club: Cupid, "Heaven... He's in Heaven"

Time to talk about the third episode of "Cupid," "Heaven... He's In Heaven." And for an added treat, I've recruited "Cupid" creator Rob Thomas to participate in this trip down memory lane. My thoughts -- and Rob's thoughts -- on the episode coming up just as soon as I put "Walk the Dinosaur" on my iPod...

"Trevor, people die."

When you do a show whose lead character thinks he's immortal, sooner or later you need to address that. So "Heaven... He's In Heaven" devotes all three of its stories to the subject of mortality, even though that's not apparent at first.

Story #1: Our Couple of the Week are unusual for the show, in that they're not strangers who meet and fall in love, but a long-married couple who have fallen out of love and need Trevor to rekindle their spark. The Bennets (Harry Groener and Joan McMurtrey) still care for each other, but there's a distance in their relationship, one that's only grown larger as Mr. Bennet has taken to spontaneously bursting into Fred Astaire-style song and dance numbers throughout his day. (When we first meet him, he draws a crowd on a busy sidewalk hoofing it to "Come On, Get Happy.") He says it's just a better way to express himself; she's embarrassed and, because she's not as light on her feet, feels left out. Trevor, figuring he'll get credit from the gods for helping the Bennets, recruits Champ to give Mrs. Bennet dance lessons, but it's Claire who actually finds the words to bring the couple back together.

Story #2: Claire is being shadowed by Dr. Pat Stroud (Byrne Piven) as he's on the verge of hiring her to run a prestigious psychological institute. Just when everything's going swimmingly, she gets the bad news that her pilot ex boyfriend Jack -- The One That Got Away, and all that -- has died unexpectedly.

Story #3: While discussing Jack's death with Trevor, Claire tries to get him to confront his (new?) mortality. When she literally draws blood, he goes into a tailspin, panicked at the thought of dying before he can complete his mission and return to Mt. Olympus, his godhood restored.

Okay, so the mortality theme is pretty obvious in the second and third stories. But as Claire starts projecting her own grief about Jack -- both his death and the way their break-up turned her into the predictable killjoy she is today -- onto Mr. Bennet, we begin to realize that the dancing is part of a larger, death-fearing mid-life crisis. In the touching climax to the story, Mr. Bennet visits his wife at her job at a natural history museum and admits that he needs to feel more alive. She in turn acknowledges the need to compromise, and shows off some of the moves she learned from Champ. As they dance around figures of long-dead cavemen and dinosaurs -- proof of how long the universe will exist compared to our brief time in it -- he assures her, "We'll be roaming the earth a little while longer."

As with "The Linguist," this story's greatly helped by the presence of the right guest star. I'm guessing most fans of this blog know Harry Groener from his role as Mayor Wilkins on "Buffy" season three (or maybe from "Dear John"), but the great body of his work has been on the stage, often in musicals like "Oklahoma!," "Cats" and "Crazy For You." His two big numbers here -- his sidewalk intro, and then singing "They Can't Take That Away From Me" in his glassed-in office while his co-workers watch admiringly -- may not be as elaborately choreographed as the best of Astaire or Gene Kelly, but he nails the style and grace of those men. You understand why people might stop to applaud him, and why his left-footed wife might feel left out of this new phase of his life.

It also helps that the script repeatedly establishes that what the Bennets are suffering isn't a fight, or bitterness, but just the sort of strange entropy that can envelope any couple that's been together long enough. There's a scene early in the episode where Mrs. Bennet stops by her husband's office, trying to be as spontaneous as he's become, and his delight at the gesture only lasts as long as it takes him to remember that he has to go to a meeting. (She notes with resignation that they used to be so attuned that she always knew when his meetings were.)

Before I move on to the other two stories, it's time to introduce a new regular feature in the "Cupid" club, which I've imaginatively titled Rob Remembers. I asked Rob Thomas if he wanted to share thoughts on each episode as we covered them, and while he wasn't available to do the first two, he's hopefully in it for the duration. I can't promise this kind of bonus for every future series in the TV Club -- given all I wrote and said about "Studio 60," I'm guessing Aaron Sorkin won't want any part of my eventual "Sports Night" posts -- but we've got it right now. Take it away, Rob!

Interesting that I should jump in on this one.

This was the first episode that I didn't write. It was an episode written by Jeff Reno and Ron Osborne, the executive producers who had come from MOONLIGHTING who were brought in to run the show. Networks, as you know, don't trust writers who haven't climbed the ladder to be in charge. At least not initially. Early in the season Jeff and Ron and I had a good working relationship which is tough under those circumstances. We fell into a system that suited everyone. I would break and be the "in charge" person on half the shows; they would break and be the "in charge" entity on the remaining half. We'd give each other notes.

The episode started pretty radically -- 12 straight pages of banter between Trevor and Claire.

We all had a gut feeling that having Trevor and Claire going at it on screen was the show at its best, but this was essentially one scene of two people talking very fast. It made the studio and network nervous, perhaps deservedly, but I was very pleased with the writing and the performances. I recall that Jeremy had a lot of difficulty on those sidewalk scenes remembering all that dialogue and was pretty frustrated.

The issue that I had regarding the episode was the fuzzy line between fantasy and reality. Harry Groener was breaking into song in the middle of the episode. I kept asking, "Is he really doing this?" "Do other people see him?" "Is this his imagination?" I knew we were already operating with a somewhat fantastic premise. I feared we were putting a hat on a hat by then, in our third episode, asking people to go along with this quasi musical episode.

I really do like the episode. To this day, however, I believe that it would've been better in a Season 2 when we'd earned the right to break our own rules.
For what it's worth, I never had the believability issues Rob had with the Bennet story. I took it as face value: that he was really dancing, and that in brief spurts, it put smiles on the faces of people on their lunch break, or colleagues in the middle of a long work day, or whatever. The episode never really addresses the long-term implications of this -- I imagine at some point, Bennet's boss was going to complain about all the man-hours being wasted on these performances and the audience for same -- but in these brief spurts, it worked.

If there's a story here that probably could have waited for a hypothetical Season 2, it would be the Claire plot, which tries to trade on the death of a character who we've never met, and who's first mentioned as Claire finds out he's gone. Had Jack been an occasional topic of conversation in the early episodes, and then we found out he died, I think they might have had something good. But by giving us the info dump at the exact moment we're supposed to feel Claire's grief, it didn't really work.

It did, however, lead to the delightful and somewhat poignant Trevor story. Whether you believe he's a god or just a delusional man, the prospect of death is the same, and Piven did a great job on his first largely non-comic storyline of the series. There are, as would be appropriate in a story like this, a number of ambiguous quasi-clues to his identity, like the shot of him sitting on the roof of a Chicago skyscraper that's probably not open to the public, and especially the moment where he gets injured at a construction site and has a vision of what he thinks is Zeus -- "Maybe part of your punishment here on Earth is to learn about mortality," Zeus tells him. "Mortals don't do it just to bump body parts. Sometimes they do it to thumb their nose at death." -- but what turns out to be a homeless man, played by David "Buster Poindexter" Johansen. And in the end, the Trevor and Claire stories dovetail nicely, as he learns to accept the terminal condition that is life and then invites Claire to literally dance on Jack's grave.

A few other thoughts on "Heaven... He's In Heaven":

-In case you hadn't figured it out by the man's jawline and last name, the late Byrne Piven, as Dr. Stroud, was in real life Jeremy's father, a fixture in the Chicago theater scene for most of his life. It was his long friendship with Dick Cusack that brought Jeremy and John together long before they were both in "One Crazy Summer."

-This episode features the first appearance of Melanie Paxson (then Melanie Moore) from the Glad commercials and "Notes From the Underbelly" as Claire's assistant, Jaclyn. Just as Champ's most important function on the show (even in an episode like this where he helps out with the Couple) is giving Trevor someone other than Claire to talk to, Jaclyn is, in her various appearances, less secretary than confessor for Claire.

-This episode features some of the series' best use of the Chicago location, between Claire and Trevor's extended river walk-and-talk, the skyline in the background of Bennet's office dance scene, and the shot of Trevor on top of that building.

Coming up on Tuesday: "A Truly Fractured Fairy Tale," featuring adventure on horseback, princesses and their P's, and more of Zeus the bum. You can watch it here, here, here, here and here.

What did everybody else think?


David J. Loehr said...

...given all I wrote and said about "Studio 60," I'm guessing Aaron Sorkin won't want any part of my eventual "Sports Night" posts

Especially after enjoying an episode written by the inspirations for "Ricky and Ron" on "Studio 60."

And thank you for highlighting "Cupid." I didn't get a chance to see any of the episodes originally except for this one, so it's been fun catching up so far.

R.A. Porter said...

First things first: Rob, if you're reading these comments, thanks for sharing your thoughts and remembrances.

The crackle of the banter, as usual, is great in the opening. I think the line that tickles me the most is one that Paula Marshall delivered in a nicely understated manner: "you've caught me at a bad time, Trevor. I'm here." I've always hated the show-killer label being applied to her because she's just so damn good. She can swing between prickly and feather-soft in the space between two words, making her the perfect foil for Jeremy Piven's rat-a-tat-tat delivery.

I always thought - and this episode with Piven Pater is the perfect time to say it - that this show deserved special guest appearances by some other Piven Theatre Workshop alums (*cough* Cusack *cough*) who might have provided a nice ratings boost. I know it's just TV, but I didn't think it right that John Cusack never appeared with John Cusack's Best Friend™. Nice to see Jeremy's dad smirking at his boy's shtick, though.

I know the Bennets aren't in a fight or supposed to be bitter, but that first scene with them together didn't work for me when it originally aired and still doesn't today. I can't help but see Mrs. Bennet as a little bitter when she says her husband embarrasses her. As the episode continues, I become much more sympathetic to her point of view, but too early she complains about Harry Groener singing and dancing. To me (and this is because I find him so damn graceful,) she just seems a bit shrill by being embarrassed. Of course, it makes her scene with Champ and her final dance with Mr. Bennet more moving, so maybe it's worth her being a little off putting up front.

Agreed that Jack is born, killed, mourned, and discarded too quickly to really register, but even with those limitations I hurt along with Claire. More of Paula's great softness at work.

And my last comment is on yet another great line, Trevor in group:
If everyone put themselves out there into the world a little bit more, I'm laying odds you'd be laying more than odds.

Great, great wordplay.

Nicole said...

I bought the first scene of dancing the streets because HG's performance is good enough that anyone but the most cynical city dweller would have to appreciate it.

It's also great to read Rob Thomas's thoughts about this great series. I hope after the last one he can share his thoughts on where he intended this to go, at least for the first season.

I also have to admit that I whipped through all the episodes last weekend, so I will probably have to rewatch the later ones in a few weeks time.

Myles said...

Special thanks to Rob for his thoughts, and here's hoping that we maybe get a few tidbits on where the proposed revitalization of the series might be heading, even if they're ever so sneakily inserted.

Since it's the beginning of the term, I've been watching ahead a little...or, okay, a lot. The episodes have been quite enjoyable, but this one didn't really click for me - I think I share Rob's concern about the singing and dancing, as the "whimsy" of the series was never that pronounced before this point. I am now intensely curious to know which episodes were broken by Rob, and which by the other producing team.

Anonymous said...

Man, I wish I was enjoying this show half as much as everyone else so far. I'm trying, I really am. But this was one of the talkiest episodes of TV I've ever seen (I suppose "heard" is more accurate). As a huge fan of Rob's work on Veronica Mars, I'm actually glad to hear him say the other guys were the main forces on this episode. The network's concern about opening with so much dialogue was legit-- I started zoning out, and rarely was sucked back in.

There are some lovely moments scattered here and there, and some nice ideas underlying it all, but most of the good stuff gets buried under mounds of "see, here's your problem..." dialogue. I guess a show about a therapist is always going to risk being too talky, but I'm hoping they find more visually expressive ways to convey meaning in later episodes.

Nicole said...

In response to "on the dole", I had the advantage of watching the entire series (such as it was) back when it first aired and so that nostalgia is probably elevating my view of some of these early ones. This episode is not one of my favourites, but it's just nice to see these characters again. I don't want to raise your expectations too much, but so far it's not as good as it gets.

Mapeel said...

I liked the Royal Wedding coat rack nod, and the dancing on the grave (which made the Tim Curry/Dead Dog Record Wiseguy arc pop into my head).

Anonymous said...

This was the first one I really loved. Possibly because I agree with Mr. Bennett that life would be much better as a musical. Also (Sorkin fan here) I have no problem with endless walk-and-talks so long as the repartee is witty, and I thought Piven did a lovely job as the god coming to terms with mortality.

I'm still having a problem with Marshall, though. She's so... mannered, is the only word I can think of. Missed Paula licking her lips? Wait five seconds, she'll do it again. Missed her gesticulating awkwardly? Wait 20 seconds. I don't remember her being this tic-y on Sports Night, but there are shades of it in her appearances on Veronica Mars. Maybe it's playing a counsellor role that brings it out in her?

Anonymous said...

So, were Jeff Reno and Ron Osborne as impossible to deal with as "Ricky and Ron" on Studio 60, or is Sorkin just a thin-skinned crybaby? (I realize the two are not mutually exclusive.)

I don't have anything else to add, except: Hi, Rob! [blushes, pisses pants]

olucy said...

I found Mr. Bennett's emotional crisis to be sympathetic but, like r.a.porter, I didn't connect with the couple overall. Just as I'm sitting there thinking "why doesn't she just take dance lessons?" Trevor and Champ propose dance lessons. Not that dance lessons are going to save their marriage, but making an effort does go a long way toward showing someone you're willing to work at something.

In the end both Claire and Trevor are right, again, which is nice. The dance lessons DO pay off, and Mr. Bennett gets Claire's message, even if she's very transparently projecting her own baggage on him. I like that he grasps onto the idea of being left behind.

Great commentary, Alan. I think I actually enjoyed this ep in retrospect more after reading your post than I did while actually watching it. I enjoyed how the themes blended together. The look on Trevor's face when he sees the blood on his finger was nicely played.

Even though we're only into Ep 3, I'm wondering if Claire has any really close friends. She's confiding to her assistant, who does seem to be her assistant, and not a close girlfriend. Which is kind of sad. She seems to know a lot of people and has a wide social network, but no best friend.

The scene with Trevor dancing with Claire in the graveyard was so lovely. I'm not a big fan of musical eps, but this week two of my fave shows--this and 30 Rock--had musical numbers which were wonderful. I've been lucky to see Groener perform on Broadway, and he is a fantastic performer. He was a delight to watch here, and they managed to include just enough music and dance without overdoing it.

On the "is he or isn't he?" side of things, two eps have opened with Trevor running up behind Claire on the street. Unless he's stalking her, which is just creepy, he always seems to know where she is!

olucy said...

Also, loved Rob's commentary - thanks so much for including it. So Piven was frustrated with so much opening dialogue. That would explain why they keep walking across the bridge but the Marina Towers continue to be behind them for several shots. I wonder how many times they had to stop and reshoot.

The photography and locations in this ep were fantastic. The Chicago Board of Trade has a statue of the god Ceres on its roof--you can see it stand out against the skyline or sunset--so I enjoyed seeing another Chicago building with another god perched on its dome.

The Chicago Cultural Center stood in nicely for Mrs. Bennett's place of work. Are there other Chicagoans here? Does anyone know what building has the vantage point of Mr. Bennett's office (looking at that section of the Chicago River/bridges). Was that supposed to be the Wrigley Building or was it just trick photography?

jcpbmg said...

this was actually my least favorite episode so far. I just found the whole Trevor/mortality storyline to be so predictable, and besides it was never explicitly inferred (or stated) that he thought he was immortal, just that he was waiting to go back to heaven, and as a result I just found the entire storyline to e unnecessary.

Also, I never noticed this before but Snuffy does the music for the show, which is an automatic plus in my book.

R.A. Porter said...

jcpbmg: Not to nitpick, but Trevor certainly had indicated his belief in his immortality before. From the pilot:
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?

(Thanks to Alan for doing the transcription with much work in his recap of the pilot.)

olucy said...

Agree with r.a. porter. Trevor has maintained his immortality from the get-go.

And he'd not be returning to heaven (a spiritual place). He'd be returning to Mt. Olympus (a mythological place).

But I'd agree that it's my least favorite so far, too.

Anonymous said...

olucy~ Glad I wasn't the only one who recognized the Cultural Center standing in the for museum. It's one of my favorite places in Chicago and as soon as they pulled back on the dancing, I recognized it. I also got a chuckle out of the Marina Towers always in the background. I'm loving recognizing Chicago landmarks in this show.

jcpbmg said...

thanks for clarifying ra porter and olucy. I remember Trevor saying those lines however I just really didn't think he was being serious.

To be honest I'm having a pretty hard time taking anything Trevor (really Piven) says seriously as I always just perceive him to be exaggerating to try and make a point. I guess we could calling in the Ari Effect.

Stef said...

Yay, thanks for confirming my guess that that was the Chicago Cultural Center! I've only been to Chicago once, for a conference last year, but I was really surprised at how beautiful a city it is and I'm loving all of the great locations in the show. It's so nice to see a show that really uses its location, rather than just lots of backlot stuff.

Everyone's pretty much covered my comments, since I'm coming in so late to this one. But I enjoyed this episode overall, and it only took me a few minutes to accept that HG's dancing would *not* result in him turning into a giant Big Bad and eating the whole town. :-)

And thanks Rob, for everything. Looking forward to your comments!