Friday, January 04, 2008

Strike Survival TV Club: Cupid, "Pilot"

Welcome to the first installment of the Strike Survival TV Club, where we reject the junky replacement shows the networks are offering, both scripted (“Cashmere Mafia”) and not (“American Gladiators”) in favor of looking back at good shows from years past. We’re starting off with “Cupid,” and in case you missed the post yesterday featuring links to all the YouTube clips from the pilot (plus a script for the opening scenes that didn’t make it), click here.

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

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?


Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you're doing this, because this was my favorite show when it aired, and other than my ex, I don't know anyone else who watched it.

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.

Part of the key here for me is that, although those explanations WOULD be pretty sad, at least they're possible -- we always have that option, we can opt out of the fairy tale explanation and into Claire's model. It's a hard balance to strike, ostensibly presenting two possible interpretations while nudging towards one without cheating -- and I don't think it's a coincidence that I fell in love with this show so soon after giving up on The X-Files.

Another kind of "nice balance" is Piven's delivery of the Butterbean speech -- a big chunk of Ari Gold encapsulated right there.

What a great show. It's so nice to see that it's aged well, even if it hasn't been all that long.

Jefferson Burns said...


Thanks for doing these. I re-watched Freaks & Geeks when you did those recaps / reviews in the summer. However, I never watched Cupid, so I am getting the honor of watching these eps (bless YouTube!) for the first time and then reading these "Strike Survival TV Club" posts.

I certainly enjoyed the pilot of this show. I was familiar with the show back in the day, but was starting my sophomore year of college and with the college experience, didn't really hammer out as much television as I do nowadays.

I am hoping that this show can come out on DVD one day (I am assuming it is being held up with music rights?). I am a fan of the Piven, not only because we share the same Chicagoland dwelling, but this series, along with Entourage, shows that he is a mighty-fine actor.

Thanks for these and I look forward to more.

Alan Sepinwall said...

And it's just now, after re-reading the post, that I realized that Dave and Madeline were no doubt named in tribute to Dave and Maddie from "Moonlighting," one of the greatest bickering, Unresolved Sexual Tension duos of all time.

R.A. Porter said...

Alan, I've already expressed my Cupid love many, many times in the lead up to you picking your next trip in the wayback machine, but now let me thank you for helping spawn a new set of devoted fans of Trevor and Claire.

Sadly, I was unable to perform my very simple assignment of rewatching the pilot before class (the, uh, dog ate my mouse or something) so I'll have to watch and comment this weekend. It's been too long since I've seen the pilot for me to remember much but the glow from such a good show.

One thing I do remember was Trevor using the beer mug to shoot darts. It's not the only time in the series he'll do something extraordinary to indicate his great precision with projectiles, though it's still awfully impressive.

I'm really looking forward to "The Linguist", too. That was one of my favorites and I *still* remember a couple of great moments from it.

Nicole said...

This is the first time I've watched this show since its original run and it feels like yesterday. I still don't understand why ABC didn't give this a full season or two.

So much works, the chemistry between Piven and Marshall, the "is he Cupid or just someone damaged by love" issue and then the funny in between.

I am now excited to watch all the episodes and will have to control myself and not watch them all at once.

On a shallow note, I couldn't help but notice that the hairline seemed to be a bit less full than Ari's... but then the show momentum took over.

Theresa said...

I had never watched this show before, but strike desperation coupled with your spot-on taste nudged me in the right direction and I blazed through the first two episodes yesterday. Good stuff; I look forward to your continued commentary and for you to start on Sports Night.

Anonymous said...

Hate to be the first voice of negativity here, but I found this pilot too slick and stylized, in a generic TV sort of way. I'll stick with the club for now, due to my trust in both Rob Thomas and Alan (and my affection for the city of Chicago), but the ambiguity of Trevor/Cupid noticing the bead had moved while he was on the phone with Claire was the only moment that stood out for me.

Veronica Mars plunged me into a world all its own; this just kept reminding me I was watching a TV show. I did like the premise, and am glad to hear future couples are more interesting. I still found Piven to be his usual irritating presence though, which worries me.

Taleena said...

I have only ever seen this show on You Tube.

I must congratulate Rob Thomas on the well balanced ambiguity of whether or not Trevor is mental. I ultimately come down on the Cupid side of the equation wholly because of "Heart of the Matter", the one episode when Trevor's own faith is shaken to the foundation.

Anonymous said...

I was one of the people who watched Cupid during its TV run, and I was excited to learn in October via this blog that the episodes were up on YouTube. I managed to get through eps. 1-6 before work and the holidays intervened, and I was happy to see that the show holds up very well.

Alan mentioned one of the key reasons why the show works: Claire and Trevor are both allowed to be right at different times, and sometimes even at the same time. This is important in any show where two people are regularly in conflict, but it seems to be a hard balance to strike in practice. (In seven seasons of "The Gilmore Girls," I don't think Emily Gilmore was ever allowed to be right about anything -- but I digress.)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for doing this re-watch! I’ve known Cupid videos were on youtube, but I didn’t realize you could piece together whole episodes so I never dug in.

It’s going to be fun to see all the episodes again, especially since, though I loved the show, I really don’t remember it that well.

I watched the pilot last night, and was really glad to see how well the show has held up, and I thought the music use was really well done. The ambiguity about Trevor/Cupid seemed perfect to me when I first saw the show, and the same held true last night. The show really struck the right balance between fantasy, romance, and potentially heartbreaking drama (ie Trevor’s embellishment to Claire’s story about Professor Hale)

Also, thanks for clueing me in on why Mr. Single Baseball Cap guy seemed so familiar (or maybe why Cooper on Private Practice seemed so familiar…since I’ve never watched Prison Break, maybe something in my way-back memory recognized him from Cupid.)

I’m looking forward to the next episodes, and the Sports Night rewatch, too!

Jason said...

Not sure if this is kosher or not, but it's not much less kosher than YouTube.

If you do a search for "cupid torrent 1998" and learn the ways of bittorrent, you can download the entire series in one fell swoop.

R.A. Porter said...

Okay. I'm turning in my homework late. I hope it's not a full letter grade off.

Agreed with the assessment that the guest couple isn't as interesting or memorable in the pilot as in many other episodes, like next week's, despite the good chemistry between Clark Kent and Mrs. Coach. Given the level of difficulty in setting up the principles and premise for this particular show, the fact that Rob Thomas could pull off even a so-so guest pairing is pretty remarkable. Helps that he crams dialog like AS-P and GGC at their best.

I'm especially glad Rob Thomas graciously provided that script fragment for the missing opening, mostly so we can see his extreme confidence as a writer. A sign of his sure hand is the way he handles actions and stage directions. Thomas has a few gems:
- Assorted extras from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest wander the halls.
- Dressed in rumpled, Italian suit, the man is regaling a pair of doe-eyed nurses.

One last thing that no one else has mentioned, and I'm pretty sure I didn't notice back in the day. It seemed to me there was a little confusion when Trevor responsed to Claire on the phone - "are you sure you want to do this?" Almost as though Trevor didn't know for whom the gods had moved the bead. The obvious reason for his confusion would be that he's not Cupid and deep-down was surprised, but another interpretation could be thinking the dinner invitation was he beginning of true love between the combatants instead of Dave and Maddie.

Just me?

Anonymous said...

Aww, what a blast from the past! This was one of my favorite shows and i was so disappointed when it was canceled. Good times.

Anonymous said...

Agree with Alan that the music in this show was generally great. Loved U2 at the end. And loved "Is you is..." Anyone know if that's the original Louis Jordan recording? Or a cover?

Anonymous said...

R.A. Porter, the hint that Cupid may have found his Psyche when Trevor was on the phone with Claire and noticed the bead had moved was what I was referring to in my earlier post. I'm with you on that. The rest of this pilot didn't really do it for me, but that was a nice moment, and made me think the show had real potential.

Simone said...

the first eight minutes for anyone interested.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I'm going to have to be the 2nd voice of negativity here - this was my first viewing of this show and aside from the Piven I'm not all that impressed. There's a reason Paula Marshall is a show-killer (lady's plenty attractive but can't act her way out of a paper bag) and while the irony of a token black character being an actor who refuses to be cast as the token black character isn't lost on me, it doesn't make the character's existence any less annoying.

However, pilots are notoriously awkward and I'm willing to believe the show could get better. After watching this one episode, I agree with the poster way back when who said that Donald Faison needs to play the lead should this show ever be re-made.

On the music topic: is that Snuffy Walden doing the score? It sounded very "Sports Night"-ish.

Anonymous said...

I loved this show when it came out and watching it again over the last couple of weeks (I cheated and read ahead, Alan -- I hope that doesn't get me in trouble) has been a lot of fun. Bittersweet, though, as I'm sad all over again that it's over and concerned about what a remake will do to the characters.

Thanks for reminding us to visit this world all over again.

afoglia said...

I would have responded earlier, but I forgot that Thursday was the big announcement. So I just watched it now. I had seen a bunch of episodes during the run, but I'm pretty sure I missed the first. (I did see and love the dancing one, which I think is third.) Although I'm a 31 year-old single male, who wishes his dry spell was a mere two years, I'm a sucker for good romance, and I'm going to enjoy this. In fact, I download the episodes back in the summer to rewatch some day. (I feel like I should save them for the weekend when I could go out to a bar immediately after.)

Anyway, never saw the pilot before, and thought it was great. Loved the Trevor/Cupid ambiguity. If it was obvious that he was a real person, we'd feel sorry for him; if it was obvious he was a god, it wouldn't have the realism that makes us single people hope we can be one of his couples, and renew our faith that someone is out there.

Excellent show. I hope the remake is as good, and lasts 100+ episodes.

Anonymous said...

Since I barely remember watching this show when it first aired, it's basically new to me. The first thing I noticed was how similar it is to so many other "buttoned-down lady expert versus wild-and-crazy guy" plot line -- one that encompasses many screwball comedies (including "What's Up Doc" -- perhaps the Streisand references in this episode were also a deliberate callout to that) as well as shows like "Moonlighting." It's the charm of the main characters that really makes it work -- and I'll include Marshall as well as Piven in that assessment, because I think her slight woodenness actually works well for the role.

As for the couple of the week, their entire issue was something that could (and should) have been dealt with in a single conversation -- one that Claire actually encouraged them to have, not that she ever gets credit for the suggestion. It struck me as ridiculous that the guy simply left a note on the bed, then another one through a bear-o-gram -- hasn't he ever heard of talking? It was all just made-up business to build a conflict that wasn't really there. (By the way, it's amazing to see, though she was cute then, how much more attractive Connie Britton has become as she's gotten older.)

Of course, it would be nice to live in a world in which singles' support groups are full of really hot people, jobs instantly materialize the moment you need one, and bar karaoke sessions are led by a great band instead of muzak-y backing tapes. But situations like that only exist on TV, usually on shows created by David E. Kelley.

All in all, while it's no "Veronica Mars" at this point, I'd say the pilot made for a pretty decent start to the show.

Stef said...

This was one of my favorite shows when it aired. I believe it was on in my first year out of college, my first year venturing into really being a single adult. God, how much I wanted to *believe* in Cupid and all of his faith in love. Ten years later and still single, I would love to believe again. Thanks for making us watch this great show!

BTW, part 3 wouldn't load for me. Anyone else have that problem?

olucy said...

What a treat to watch this show again under any circumstances, writers’ strike or not. I couldn’t help notice that your first Cupid post directly follows your review of the almost universally loathed Cashmere Mafia and your reference to Sex and The City as a show that has aged the worst—and in record time—in the last 15 years. White SITC had its day in the sun, both shows are full of cynicism and this show is full of hope. Maybe not hip. But real romantic hope. And on top of that, it pulls off another coup: it was actually a really decent pilot. It managed to lay a lot of groundwork and still get the job done.

I only wish that Amy Sherman-Palladino had studied “banter” by watching this show and learning When.To.Stop.

An addition to actors we recognize from other shows: not only did Men in Trees’ Plow Guy play the obnoxious lout at the bar, but Theresa, the MIT bar owner played the first member of the single’s group we meet – the one Trevor said needed a “happy pill” and then sang that hilariously maudlin song during Open Mic. Now both of them are in a show about a relationship coach.

The most disturbing “clue” moment for me was hearing Trevor retell Claire’s sad tale about the professor who couldn’t wake up his true love. I kept waiting for him to break into a “gotcha” moment, but he never did.

I can’t wait to re-experience this great show. Thanks for drawing us all together.

Unknown said...


I, too, had that problem when I tried to watch Part 3 in Firefox. I tried it using Explorer and it worked right away.

Karen said...

And it's just now, after re-reading the post, that I realized that Dave and Madeline were no doubt named in tribute to Dave and Maddie from "Moonlighting," one of the greatest bickering, Unresolved Sexual Tension duos of all time.

I'm so glad it wasn't just me! I find myself wondering if all the names of the couples will be allusions to notorious couples in screen history. I'm going to be looking forward to this...

daveawayfromhome said...

I enjoyed the was-he-crazy-or-was-he-a-god angle too, and I kind of figured that at the end of the show's run he'd fall all the way for the doctor, consumate, and "lose" his immortality, and so we'd never really know if he was or not.

Anonymous said...

Taleena, the Heart of the Matter was a big one for me in terms of the underlying question of nut or god. And one helluva acting scene for Piven.

audie said...

thanx alan for letting us know abotu this show... i've always wanted to watch it but i'm glad i waited until now to watch it along with you.

i was too young to really appreciate it back then.. i was like 9. but let me tell you abc really lost out on this one.

it's really fresh and i love the whole romance in it.. makes me want to fall in love even more and i'm a jaded teenager haha. and the dialogue is sooo snappy and cute... and i loved reading the script so thanx for posting that. anyway i can't wait to watch the next one!

Anonymous said...

Late to the game here, but thank you, thank you, thank you for introducing me to this show! I was aware of it back in the day, but I guess that was back before I caught the Piven Love and I never watched.