While I don’t recall ever watching the original run of Rob Thomas’ Cupid back in 1998 with Paula Marshall and Jeremy Piven, I admit that I am the kind of person who would be drawn to such a premise. I love Greco-Roman mythology and I enjoy seeing modern adaptations and spins on it, and offering my “I’m friends with a Classics professor so I totally know what I’m talking about” judgments on whether or not those adaptations succeed. (Although the CW’s Valentine, about Greek gods living in L.A., just didn’t seem to pique any level of interest in me at all. Nor in anyone else, apparently.) So being that I don’t recall ever watching Cupid in the 90s – which I realize now was probably because it was airing on Saturday nights, which just means ABC wanted it dead from the beginning and that I was also probably too busy going to sleepovers, being dared to call boys I liked and read them bedtime stories, to tune in – I figured I would give the reboot a chance.
And you know what? That show totally doesn’t suck.
The generosity accorded to Rob Thomas to reboot his formerly failed series by ABC, however, was not as generous in its feelings toward this show as I am. The original run of the series produced 15 episodes, and aired 14. This run was only 7 episodes, intended as a try-out for fall, because that’s how television producers work these days. ABC killed a few great things this year, one of which might rhyme with “Smushing Lazies,” and I think that left viewers a little mistrustful of anything new ABC had planned to debut in the spring. In the Motherhood, while admittedly not great, was interesting simply for the fact that it was a female-led show about an issue that nearly every woman on the planet can relate to (if she isn’t currently a mommy, she certainly had one once), and had a lot of potential to grow and further explore the current parenting climate (which in the last ten years has switched to the kind of stay-at-home-and-do-everything-right-and-organic-and-be-totally-involved-and-honest-with-your-kids idea embraced by Jessica St. Claire’s character) in relationship to other models (the working mom, the cool mom who raised her kids counter to any advice and everything turned out just fine). But it never quite found its footing and so failed its try-out. Better Off Ted is lucky its quirky mcquirkfest survived. Cupid should have.
Why am I so gung-ho about this show? For one, I think Thomas found the right lead in Bobby Cannavale and was smart to move the show from Chicago to New York. Cannavale is good-looking in an Italian Mama’s Boy sort of way, and incredibly affable. It makes perfect sense that he would be the kind of person strangers would invite into their lives if he offered to help them, and it makes perfect sense that he’s the kind of person clever enough to manipulate social situations to facilitate his matchmaking. In short, if Bobby Cannavale asked me to fly to NYC from New Orleans to cater a party as his Trevor Pierce (renamed from the original Trevor Hale) did in one episode where he reunited a Cajun caterer with her high school Iraqi war vet sweetheart, I probably would. As for the move from Chicago to NYC, NYC is often a space that invites fantasy in many popular stories. I’ll name only one example here that should serve as the paramount one: Miracle on 54th Street. It’s a city with its own mythology and a long history of being a dreammaking place: for immigrants, for actors, dancers and musicians, for artists and also for writers. It’s also a city in which people move and mingle with others numerous times a day, but promotes the isolation of modernity in that while its denizens inhabit mutual spaces, they don’t often connect with each other. I buy it as a place a god would try to turn into matchmaking central, especially because his therapist’s single’s groups prove to be an integral part of how the show’s main and peripheral characters, and how they are all trying to break away from the isolation of modernity and connect with others. There was talk in the production process that Cupid would relocate to Los Angeles, and while Francesca Lia Block has convinced me that L.A. can be a space of magical realism, I don’t think it would have worked nearly as well as New York did.
Furthermore, I like the idea of a show that believes in the concept of true love. We live in an age where the CW exploits people’s relationship issues on national television with Hitched or Ditched, where we look at the tabloids every day to see if John & Kate are going to fall the fuck apart (uh . . . yeah, that’s probably going to happen since the couple has a very special “announcement” pending; and I hate that I don’t watch that show and know about this), and where hookups have somehow replaced dating. We all know that the divorce rate is high, and we all know that my home state has leveraged a terrible and oppressive measure against its non-heterosexual residents that bar them from even daring to challenge that statistic with their same-sex relationships. When I look at the divorce rate and the disappearance of date culture, it seems like a good number of us have given up even trying to sustain a partnership; that we prefer to be alone, save for a brief interaction every now and again that we don’t have to put any further energy into. While I wouldn’t say that having a life partner is right for everyone, I certainly like having someone to watch TV with every day. It makes me feel like this big, giant world is less lonely. That isolation of modernity thing I was talking about? Having someone to go through life with certainly makes me feel less isolated.
So when I see so much negativity toward relationships in the reality television world and in the real actual human world, I can’t help but be smitten by a scripted show that tries to remind us of the good parts of being in a relationship with someone, and how fun it can be to take that plunge. Cupid may only be a string of meet-cutes, but it’s also about love overcoming obstacles. None of the matches Cannavale’s Cupid makes in the 7-episode run are easily procured, and, somehow, through his crazy/divine providence, he is able to unite these couples in the promise of everlasting love. I’ve already mentioned the Cajun caterer and the Iraq veteran, which came to a bittersweet ending as the vet announces that he’s getting stop-lossed and sent back for a third tour of duty, something he planned to avoid by running away to Canada and never coming back – only to change his mind and do his tour of duty, knowing that if he lived, his Cajun caterer would be worth coming home to in order to live out their days under the willow trees in their hometown in Louisiana.
But perhaps my favorite of these divine matches came in the final episode, featuring adorable Broadway ingénue Kerry Butler as a working-class masseuse from South Boston in love with a man above her station (whom she broke up with because he never let her meet his family because of her wicked pissah of an accent). Cupid’s therapist, Claire, tries to find out his origin by hiring a linguist (one of her patients, as well) to listen to him speak and determine his origins. The “using linguistics to discover Trevor’s origins” plot was recycled from the show’s first incarnation, but the My Fair Lady angle was entirely new to this version of the series. But Cupid performs a bait-and-switch, setting up Kerry Butler with illocution lessons in exchange for massages, during which she forms a friendship with the linguist over several delightful My Fair Lady-esque diction lessons. Butler’s character is almost ready to give up, and declares that it doesn’t feel right to her to hide herself just to impress a guy, at which point her linguistics tutor reveals that he, himself, has been lying for most of his life. He, too, is from South Boston, but wasn’t taken seriously on his first day at Princeton because of his accent and worked very hard to eliminate all traces of his working-class roots from his speech. After sending Kerry off to meet with her ex at a fancy, uptown party, Trevor realizes in talking to the linguist that, perhaps, he’s been guiding Miss Butler toward the wrong beau and disguises the linguist as a waiter to crash the party and tell Kerry how he feels. After making a scene in which Butler’s intended’s parents reprimand “the help” for being so clumsy, Kerry throws off the upper-class accent she’s worked so hard for and embraces who she really is, as well as the Henry Higgins who reminded her of that.
If I had one complaint about Cupid, it would be that Sarah Paulson’s Dr. Claire McCrae never quite felt real enough – and not for Paulson’s lack of trying. She’s a great actress, with a lot of range, and if you want to see how great she can be, please watch her arc as a Pinkerton on Deadwood and her completely stunning comic performance in Peyton Reed’s 1960s screwball romance send up, Down with Love, in which you will also be treated to Ewan McGregor’s delightfully Ewan McGregor-y Southern accent. Paulson never got to break through her material here, and always seemed too stiff to fit into this world, which is only justifiable in the fact that her awkwardness in the role highlighted the irony that she, single and totally uncomfortable with people, should be in charge of teaching people how to find love through commonality. I think, if the show had gotten more of a chance, Claire would have eventually felt more real as her own walls started to break down and we learned as much about her as she does about Trevor Pierce.
I’ll miss this show, and I’m sad that we live in a world that’s unaccepting of its existence. But I’ll cherish that “My Fair Massuese” episode, if only because linguists are awesome and the following line is one of the best things I’ve heard on television recently:
“Nothing says ‘Thank You’ like the phonetic alphabet on cupcakes!” – Kerry Butler
A few points of interest:
1.) I adore Sarah Paulson, but between this and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, she’s gaining quite a few detractors. She’s not to the point of being an absolute show-killer just yet, but her dedication to her craft, which allows her to make very interesting decisions with very intense and sometimes unlikable characters, tends to give her a bad wrap, at least on television. But I can assure you that she’s one of the most versatile actresses of her generation, including her deeply strange performance that I saw in 2005’ Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie, also starring Jessica Lange, Christian Slater and Josh Lucas.
2.) I started noticing this right around the time that Kidnapped, Six Degrees, The Black Donnellys and 3 lbs. were all canceled in the same television season, in that unless a show was a Law & Order or a CSI, any show that filmed in New York was about 90% guaranteed to be canceled. And this year, that trend came back in a big way. With no exception this year, no show that premiered in the 2008-2009 television season and was shot (not just set) in New York was renewed for another season. (And Castle doesn’t count, because it’s shot in L.A.) This would include Life on Mars, The Unusuals and now Cupid. (And last year’s Lipstick Jungle, which moved on into this year, couldn’t survive either. But hell, at least it got a second season unlike the majorly similar Cashmere Mafia.) A part of me wants to say it’s the distancing location that seems to turn many non-New York viewers off, as if these shows take place in a world far too unlike the viewers’ that it simply doesn’t pique their interest. But, more than anything, it’s the fact that it’s so goddamned expensive to shoot in NYC, so even when ratings are doing okay, the networks use the expenses as an excuse to shut down production. I’m amazed Gossip Girl got renewed for a third season, since the ratings are so abysmal, but it’s definitely a pop cultural flagship for the network, so canceling it would just make the CW lose more viewers.
3.) While I loved almost every episode of this show, my favorite, simply from a dramatic perspective, was “Left of the Dial,” in which a down-on-his-luck radio deejay tracks down his favorite caller and starts a relationship with her and her two children. It was the sweetest, least negative and most realistic episode of Cupid’s altogether too short season, and it’s a shame that not enough people stuck around to even watch the episode.