Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Revived "Cupid" Deserves a Better Fate than the One Met by the Original

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Considering that "Cupid" (ABC, Tuesday nights at 10:00 p.m. Eastern) earned the top spot in my spring list of new shows I was most looking forward to seeing, the expectation bar was set pretty high as I sat down to watch the pilot.

The list of pluses I saw with the program before actually watching it was extensive. I'm a fan of Rob Thomas (the creator of "Veronica Mars"), who is behind the resurrection of his show, which originally aired on a very different ABC 10-and-a-half years ago. One of the leads, Sarah Paulson, was also a star of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," a program to which, many of you know, I have a seriously unhealthy devotion, and the actor playing the title character, Bobby Cannavale, has shown that he can steal every scene he's in, whether it's in a little indie film like "The Station Agent" or a broad sitcom like "Will & Grace." "Cupid" is a one-hour dramedy that examines what makes people fall in love, the number one topic I explore in my own screenplays, and one that I am a sucker for in movies. And it airs on ABC, which is quickly becoming the broadcast network dedicated to high-quality, offbeat shows.

Throw in the great backstory of this being a remake of a failed, one-season, critically acclaimed program, and I had to wonder, How would "Cupid" ever live up to my expectations?

Well, it did. In fact my description of ABC's programming philosophy could just as easily be applied to the show: a high-quality, offbeat offering. And you can throw in funny, smart and, most of all, entertaining, even if it is a bit on the schmaltzy side.

Cinematic in approach, and making use of New York as a character (with on-location shoots more reminiscent of a movie than a television series), "Cupid" is the story of a man (Cannavale) who says that he is the Roman god Cupid, and that he has been banished to earth where he has to remain until he manages to wrangle mortals into 100 happy and head-over-heels-in-love couples. After changing the lights under the New Year's Eve ball to spell out the name of the lost love of an Irish singer-songwriter, Cupid finds himself in a New York psychiatric hospital (in the only slip-up of the hour, the hospital is a gorgeous building, with clean, inviting rooms and views that would make captains of industry jealous, probably the 180-degree opposite of what a New York City psych center would look like).

Practical relationship expert and successful author Dr. Claire McCrae (Paulson) is called on to treat Cupid, who successfully wins over everyone at the hospital, except Claire. (He leaves her office before their first meeting, only for Claire to find him in one of the wards leading the patients in a raucous rendering of "All You Need Is Love," a quick and effective declaration of his reason for being.) After months in the center, Cupid finally reveals his name to be Trevor Pierce, and the doctors agree to release him. Of course, he is just playing the game so he can go out and get started matching up his 100 couples. In a "Usual Suspects" moment, we later see that a giant sign behind the doctors deciding his fate has as the last words of its two lines "tremor" and "pierced."

It is up to Claire to monitor Trevor's treatment, and she invites him to attend her group therapy sessions dedicated to helping people find a mate. Not surprisingly, Trevor takes over the meeting, and the central conflict of the show is set up: Trevor believes in a grand vision of love, including love at first sight, and love that is filled with passion and heat. Claire, on the other hand, is more practical, blurting out while arguing with Trevor that “love is what’s left after the heat and the passion die.” Where he is bold, she plays it safe.

Trevor lives in a room over a night club that could only appear in a television show, but which has the effect of making you wish you could go to a place like it. Huge and yet open and inviting, and filled with beautiful patrons, the bar features such quirky features as a mariachi karaoke night (think a couple dueting on "Love Is a Battlefield," done in the traditional Mexican style). Trevor tends bar to pay his bills and uses the club to help with his matchmaking efforts, something that seems to end up helping bring customers to the club, vindicating the faith of the rough-around-the-edges but good-hearted owner, Felix (Rick Gomez). Less enamored is Felix's waitress, Lita (Camille Guaty), who thinks Felix shouldn't be taking in "strays." Felix's deadpan reaction to Trevor explaining that he is "Cupid" (Lita overhears him talking to Claire and reports him to Felix) is priceless.

Cannavale and Paulson both do a pitch-perfect job with their characters, with Cannavale infusing Trevor with enthusiasm and joy without spilling over into silliness, while Paulson plays Claire as pragmatic and logical without making her a downer. You can see Claire's internal battle, balancing what she believes with what she feels. She reveals her hand when she tells Trevor that he should stop helping the Irish singer-songwriter find the American girl he met in a Dublin bar for only 20 minutes, but for whom he has flown to New York to seek out, by arguing that she is trying to keep him from getting hurt. The wounded nature of Claire's character keeps her pragmatism and cool from becoming off-putting. And together, Cannavale and Paulson have the easy chemistry of a great romantic comedy team. They're like the Mulder and Scully of love, the believer and the skeptic. Their give-and-take is entertaining and engaging.

But while there is undeniable sexual tension between Claire and Trevor, the episodes of "Cupid" focus on a couple that Trevor is trying to get together. In the pilot, Trevor engages one of Claire's clients, Madelyn (Margeurite Moreau, who I remembered from the short-lived "Life as We Know It"), a button-down New York Post reporter, to do a story on Dave (Sean Maguire of "The Class"), the Irish singer-songwriter, and his search for his lost love. Before long, Madelyn and Dave are kissing on a Coney Island Ferris wheel, moving Claire to tell Trevor, "Chalk one up for mortal think." But when Dave's lost love shows up at a concert arranged by Trevor, all thanks to Madelyn's article, Dave leaves with her, breaking Madelyn's heart, but causing Trevor to take the upper hand in his battle with Claire. Of course, Trevor learns that his love isn't the woman he imagined, leading him back into Madelyn's arms, with Trevor's help, but only after he calls Claire for assistance. Trevor redeems himself after Dave is deported back to Ireland, showing Madelyn that she should go after him (as they're talking, he has quietly led her to a travel agency with a window display pushing trips to Ireland).

I really liked how Dave and Madelyn's story pushed along Trevor and Claire's arc, keeping me interested in all of the characters. And the episode was filled with clever lines (the pilot was written by Thomas himself), many as part of Trevor and Claire's verbal sparring. In one of their first sessions, Trevor tells Claire that Mount Olympus is a "non-stop, clothing-optional party. You have no idea,” with Claire snapping back, “I have a vague idea. You just described the Playboy mansion." When Claire tells Trevor not to intervene in Dave's love life, declaring, "Fifteen years of training has prepared me to help these people," Trevor responds, "And being the Roman god of love has prepared me for what? Being a judge on 'Blind Date'?" It's funny, even if the reference is painfully dated. Maybe it was a leftover from the original show (which starred Jeremy Piven and Paula Marshall, and which, sadly, I've never seen). I really liked when Trevor and Claire battled it out after he mentioned having followers. Claire responds, "You do not have followers.” After Trevor indignantly asks, “Oh really? Then how come there is a Temple of Eros in Chelsea,” Claire answers, “They sell trashy lingerie,” to which an undaunted Trevor snaps back, “It’s one of the sacraments."

In the end, "Cupid" is clever and fun, even as it is a bit sudsy. I have seen far too many programs like this one, with no obvious commercial hook to rope in huge audiences, die a critically acclaimed but audience-starved early death, especially on ABC ("Life on Mars" springs to mind). I really hope that is not the fate of "Cupid." Again. Despite my weighty expectations, I was exceptionally impressed with the show, top to bottom, and I hope it finds an audience. It would be a shame for Thomas to lose yet another quality show before its time.