Friday, January 25, 2008

Strike Survival TV Club: Cupid, "Pick-Up Schticks"

Spoilers for "Cupid" episode 7, "Pick-Up Schticks," coming up just as soon as I do the loser dance...

Whew. I remembered this as a dark one, but didn't realize how dark until I watched it again. This is one where the only person who comes out smelling good is Champ. Trevor's desperate, bullying and acting very much the lunatic and not the exiled god, Claire makes at least one, if not two big ethical violations, and the guest star of the week lets Trevor push him into doing a bad, bad thing. And yet, in the midst of this darkness may be the biggest laugh I ever got out of the show. Weird how well the comedy and the tragedy sometimes go together, isn't it?

So Trevor's starting to panic again about not getting back to Mt. Olympus, especially when the very desirable Helen Davis (Sherilyn Fenn, halfway between knotting the cherry stem on "Twin Peaks" and getting into a custody dispute on "Gilmore Girls") tries to make a move on him. Because of Zeus' "No shagging the livestock" rule (for those not up on your Greco-Roman myths, Zeus was infamous for nailing everything that wasn't already nailed down), if Trevor has sex with a mortal, he becomes one, permanently.

His state of mind isn't helped by all his glimpses of the happy, horny union he created between Claire and Alex. If it wasn't obvious before that he's in love with Claire, it is here, and if you read this episode as if Trevor was just a delusional human, his desperate need to escape is him twisting his fantasy to cope with his own jealousy. On Mt. Olympus, after all, he won't need to see Claire and Alex having a fun sexy time, will he?

Trevor's bitter desperation makes this a very bad time for him to meet Sam (Todd Field, back when he was an indie film actor rather than an indie film director), a nice, shy member of the singles group, and to hear Sam talk about Sure Score, a seduction technique that Claire describes as "drug-free Rohypnol." Under ordinary circumstances, Trevor's belief in true love -- and his understanding that his "mission" involves love and not sex -- would make him think of Sure Score as both useless to his cause and kinda gross. But hard-up, jealous and tightly-wound, he talks himself into the idea that it would have value in his mission, and in turn bullies Sam into using it on the barista for whom he has an unrequited crush.

While Trevor's trying to avoid Helen and pressuring the very decent Sam into doing something both know isn't right, Claire is having sex with Alex -- lots and lots and lots of sex. This is a very different Claire than we've seen before (and a different Paula Marshall): looser, happier, hungrier and more physical. (Two or three episodes ago, it would have been hard to imagine Claire strutting down the street and singing "Bad to the Bone.")

But as she mentioned back in "Heaven... He's In Heaven," she has a bad tendency to throw all of herself into a relationship, and she's so fixated on Alex and all the dirty things they can do to each other that she gets sloppy in other areas. She's not really on top of the Trevor/Sam thing, where under ordinary circumstances I think she would have spotted this happening as soon as Sam piped up about Sure Score in the group. Worse, she outs Trevor as a mental patient when Alex starts to get jealous of all the time she spends with another man. And when Alex -- who doesn't seem so swell in this episode, either -- lets Trevor know that he knows, then directly confronts him about Trevor's desire to be with Claire, it pushes Trevor so far over the edge that he decides to have sex with Helen and give up his godhood (or his delusion) once and for all.

He can't go through with it (there'd be no show if he did, after all) after Claire leaves a perfectly (or imperfectly, depending on your POV) timed message on his answering machine apologizing for her recent behavior and encouraging him in this new relationship. This leads to the bleakest moment of the series: Trevor in his underwear on the edge of the bed, babbling to himself about how he needs to go home already, while a freaked out Helen quickly gathers her things to go. (Piven really kills it in this scene.)

And just when we think things can't get any darker, or stranger -- after Sam has seduced the barista and then left her in a fit of self-loathing, after Trevor's meltdown and all the rest -- we cut to Claire in bed with Alex, telling him a story about her childhood, and the more she talks and the more she touches him, the more we realize that she's using Sure Score on him.

Now, Rob doesn't get into this in today's Rob Remembers, so we're on our own in deciding what Claire is or isn't doing here. The point of the scene could have been to show that the difference between Sure Score and a perfectly ethical seduction technique may not be that great. But from where I was sitting, it seemed like Claire, just as desperate in her own way as Trevor, afraid of screwing things up with this perfect on paper match, decides to give herself an edge using a technique she had read up on.

Whatever the reason, this is the only episode so far that made me uncomfortable by the end. That's not a knock, by the way. I think "Pick-Up Schticks" is very effective at what it's trying to do in showing the side of Trevor's world that isn't so happy-go-lucky. Just as episodes like "A Truly Fractured Fairy Tale" (which isn't remotely as well put-together as this one) are useful in reminding us that Trevor won't always make a match, episodes like this are important in keeping open the possibility that Trevor's as sick as Claire thinks he is. I'd have a better time watching "Meat Market" or "First Loves" again and again, but Trevor on the edge of the bed, on the edge of sanity, is one of the images I'll always remember when I think back on this show.

And it's time once again for Rob Remembers, where "Cupid" creator (past and, hopefully, future) Rob Thomas gives a behind-the-scenes look at each episode:
Interestingly, I liked this episode much better when I watched it this week than I remember liking it at the time.

I remember what made me cringe when we shot it -- the Sure Score scenes. I don't think they were particularly well-written and we really went overboard to underline that these guys were losers -- the military uniform on the leader was just one example of overkill. Those scenes became painfully on-the-nose, and they took me out of the episode. I really felt how badly we'd misfired later when I saw the movie MAGNOLIA. I didn't much care for the film, but in it Tom Cruise was essentially teaching a brand of this uber-male, make-women-your-prey philosophy, and I thought he was spellbinding. Did he win the Oscar for that role or merely get nominated? I seem to remember Michael Caine winning that year, but I could be wrong. I digress...

Interestingly, we had to be extremely careful with those scenes as not to encroach on the empire we were lampooning -- something called Speed Seduction if I remember correctly. ABC was very concerned as those people were apparently quite litigious.

My biggest regret was to have Claire break doctor-patient confidentiality so cavalierly. If I had to do the episode over again, I would've either made it an accidental slip or I would've really backed Claire into more of a corner in order to excuse it. We took a lot of flack from fans for that, and it was probably deserved.

I suppose I was pleased, however, with some of the fallout from Claire's error. I love the Trevor/Alex confrontation scene. I think the Trevor/Claire/Alex scene at her home is one of those scenes I'd put on a reel to show off what made Cupid work. Jeremy and Paula are great in it. I'm particularly proud of the "un" runner. The scene that we went back and forth with the network about was Trevor's meltdown when he decides he can't have sex with Sherilyn Fenn. The network thought it played too real. They thought he looked genuinely crazy, and they preferred him in lighthearted, "television-crazy" mode. We trimmed a bit out of it, but fought hard to keep the bulk. It was important to both Jeremy and me that the show could go in that direction.

There was also an argument about his motivation there. The network didn't understand why, given Claire's blessing, her apparent lack of jealousy, Trevor would then opt out of having sex. The reason, I argued, was that if she didn't care for him romantically, then he didn't want to be stuck here "on earth."
Some other thoughts on "Pick-Up Schticks":
  • While everyone else is busy going down the morality rabbit hole, Champ is involved in a fairly pure, chaste courtship of his upstairs neighbor. It fits thematically with the rest of the episode, in that Trevor keeps trying to corrupt things by turning their apartment into a shag pad. But what's interesting is that, at the rock bottom of his depression, as he prepares to sleep with Helen and give up everything he believes he is, Trevor still has it in him to rectify things with Champ and the neighbor, by offering him a copy of Lord Byron's "She Walks in Beauty" -- real magic words, as opposed to the hypnosis of Sure Score -- for Champ to read to his girl.
  • Maybe it's because I was 25 with the mentality of someone 10 years younger when I first saw this episode, but the moment when Trevor goes out on the balcony to do dumbbell curls -- a payoff to the "forearms like Popeye"/masturbation joke from earlier in the episode -- produced whoops and whoops of laughter from me at the time. My wife, who was just starting to date me at the time and watched each episode with me, says it took a lot of trust on her part to keep the relationship going after witnessing that spectacle.
  • Even if we didn't have Rob here last time to unravel the conclusion of Nick's flirtation with the Kate Walsh character, his continued presence at the singles group is proof that he's not still dating her. Again, once characters from the group find love, they don't come back.
  • As I said back in the "First Loves" review, Snuffy Walden's score for this episode sounds like an unused "thirtysomething" composition, and it gets kind of distracting in spots.
  • In the montage near the end, we see Sam successfully hitting on a different waitress. Given the lacerating speech he delivers at the Sure Score meeting, I'm assuming he was just flirting with her the old-fashioned way, but I could be convinced otherwise.
  • Nice throwaway moment where Helen, stalking Trevor, bumps into him as he's arranging for two local joggers to alter their routines just enough to bump into each other and maybe pair off.
Coming up on Tuesday: the series reaches its midway point -- and its high point -- with "The Heart of the Matter," which you can see here, here, here, here and here.

What did everybody else think?


daveawayfromhome said...

Claire using the Sure Score on Alex disturbed me. I assume that this was part of a long-term set-up for something that never got filmed, or at least I hope so. To have her simply using the technique to manipulate Alex doesnt do Claire much credit.

Anonymous said...

They played two songs by Bobby Bare Jr.! That alone earns a lot of good will from me, but I admit these last two episodes have been much stronger. I'm glad the network let them show Trevor's meltdown.

Let's not forget that Claire manipulated Alex into sex at the start of the episode too. Seems to me a fairly common thing in the midst of a relationship, though I'm hardly an expert on the ingredients for long-term success.

R.A. Porter said...

Yah, Claire was very, very creepy in her final scene. I really appreciate the way Paula Marshall seemed to let only the tiniest hints of her desperation not to lose Alex slip through the scene. At least that's how I saw it.

The chemistry between Sherilyn Fenn and Jeremy Piven has always really struck me, so I think that made his breakdown even more painful. Not only is he pining over Claire, but here's a perfectly wonderful girl who he could be with yet can't. If Trevor is delusional, that scene speaks volumes.

I've always wondered if casting Fenn was considered stunt casting at the time, or if it was a coincidence that her guest turn brought together three of the stars of the criminally under-appreciated rom-com, Just Write. It took awhile before Jeffrey Sams could stop playing a bartender.

Eric said...

Minor Threadjack: the Writers Guild deal with Lionsgate that went down yesterday means that Mad Men can go back into production! (And Weeds.)

Anonymous said...

I am so hot and cold on this show. Did not watch it when it originally aired. Sometimes the dialog is so good and sometimes the cliches are just painful to hear. However, Jeremy Pivens is always a pleasure to watch.

I have to say, Claire really creeped me out in this episode. As the show went on I became more and more convinced that she was the one with the twisted thinking problem, not Trevor. And this was before she used the Sure Score on Alex at the very end. I'm not sure if the series creators meant this to be an exploration of who is really messed up in our culture--but I'm starting to see it that way. Claire is one messed up therapist and this was a very creepy episode.

I watched the next episode, "Heart of the Matter." That took the bad taste out of my mouth. Jeremy Pivens was amazing in it. I'm looking forward to the discussion next week.


Anonymous said...

TC wrote:
"As the show went on I became more and more convinced that she was the one with the twisted thinking problem, not Trevor."

Reading that comment gave me the oddest mental image... that the whole series is just a psychotic delusion by a woman in a mental hospital who thinks she's a famous relationship expert! hee hee...

Bobman said...

Even if Claire hadn't used the "drug-free Rohypnol" on her beau at the end, she really came off as desperate and borderline crazy in this episode, and Alex would have to be crazy not to see it. This is my first time through this series, so I'm both curious how it will play out and frustrated to know that a lot of other plotlines probably won't play out at all due to the series early departure from the world.

And not that it needs saying again, but Piven's scene in the bedroom was fantastic. I really liked that they had the balls to give a big nudge toward "insane" over "actual God" for at least one episode.

Anonymous said...

Claire is one messed up therapist

It's a television truism that psychologists and psychiatrists are even more emotionally messed up than their patients. See: Frasier and Niles Crane, Lilith Sternen-Crane, Jennifer Melfi, that couples therapist from Mad About You... although I do love Tracey's idea of the whole series being Claire's delusion.

Piven was fantastic throughout the episode and he and Fenn had great chemistry, although I found Helen's mild stalking of Trevor as disturbing, if not more so, as Claire using the Sure Score technique on Alex.

Re: the Claire/Alex stuff: if Claire is trying to hold on to Alex by seducing him it must be purely subconscious. In "Heaven..." she blamed herself for holding on too tight when her pilot boyfriend left - you'd think she'd wary of being too clingy again. I prefer to think that it's just been a really long time since Claire's gotten any and she's doing whatever it takes to make sure she gets lots now.

Anonymous said...

OK: I just finally sat down and watched this episode; I think I missed it when the series originally aired, because it's one of the very few I don't have on tape and nothing in it seemed even remotely familiar to me!

A couple of comments on what Alan wrote:

First: you seem to think there is something inconsistent about Cupid not being able to have sex when Zeus did it all the time in mythology. But this apparent inconsistency is addressed in the dialog. Champ notes the inconsistency, and it's explained later in Claire's apartment. Trevor drops the intriguing line comparing Zeus to "manimal" and says "one bad experience with Catherine the Great, Zeus cuts the rest of us off!" Hmn... puts an interesting spin on that old story about Catherine dying while trying to have sex with a horse!

Regarding Alex's behavior: Yes, he does come off quite nasty in this one, and it's not the only time in the series that he does. He seems to relish twisting the knife into Trevor. I've always read Alex as being jealous: Alex knows that Trevor is in love with Claire, and knows that Claire has some level of attraction to Trevor, though neither of them have admitted it to themselves. Their relationship makes Alex insecure and jealous, even though he knows Trevor is certifiable.

Regarding Rob's argument with the network about motivation: Argh, it shows the worst of what people say about they say about network executives. Are they really such scum that they can't imagine that there is something in the universe more desirable than a night of meaningless sex? Whether you believe he's a god or a lunatic, he genuinely believes that he would lose eternal paradise if he had sex with this woman. Seems like ample motivation to me.

And a little trivia to throw in: he's not credited, but one of the guys in the Sure Score class is Gregg Binkley, who is frequently seen on My Name Is Earl as gay Kenny James, the first person Earl helped. He never speaks, which is why he's not credited, but he's the wussy little guy in the huge-framed black glasses.

FYI: Big thanks to the person who put this on BitTorrent! I'm very impressed with what high quality you got with such a low bandwidth! I will try to seed it as much as possible, particularly whle this "Strike Survival Club" thing is going on!

audie said...

you should keep on posting your reviews of cupid. i don't have much to offer because you and rob are so thorough but i do enjoy reading them so i'll try to contribute more.

anyway, i was really caught off guard how claire used that method on Alex. I honestly didn't see her as desperate, more like starved for sex.. but i guess that would be desperation huh?

anyway, jeremy priven was friggin riveting in his insanity scene.. it was the first time i thought he could really be delusional. i felt so bad for his love interest though, they had something really good going on and she was such a cute girl. i didn't really like the way she exited but it seemed right now that i think of it.

Alan Sepinwall said...

First: you seem to think there is something inconsistent about Cupid not being able to have sex when Zeus did it all the time in mythology.

No. I got that Trevor was calling Zeus a hypocrite. I was just trying to explain, for the benefit of those not up on their Greek mythology, that Zeus had a rep as a horndog for humans.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this episode, though I agree it’s very dark, and no one really comes off looking good. I don’t really remember this episode from when it originally aired, and I was surprise how dark the show’s creators allowed it to go.

The scene with Trevor practically coming apart in his bedroom was very powerful, and though it can be seen as a nudge toward the “insane” side of the “Cupid vs insane” debate, it was also played in such a way that it could have worked as a depiction of someone intensely homesick, in a foreign land, desperate that he may never see home again. Also, Trevor’s ability to find the one thing that would help Champ woo his lady (undoing the damage Trevor’s sleazy approach had done) seemed to hint that Trevor’s cut out for this kind of thing – with a skill and intuition about romantic matters (when he’s not freaking out) that one could imagine Cupid would have.

I agree that Claire was really unpleasant this episode – her intensity in the relationship with Alex (and her seeming manipulation of him) was unsettling. The way Claire was presented in previous episodes, I’d imagined her as someone who was hurt by love and needed encouragement to loosen up, wade back into the romantic pool and have fun. This episode showed that she’s more complex and dysfunctional than that.

I loved Trevor’s fix-up of the ‘joggers’ – his observation, insight, and a little persuasion may have put those two in the right place at the right time.