Test Pilot #37: Cupid
Debut date: September 26, 1998
Series legacy: Intriguing high-concept (but not too high-concept) premise cut down not once, but twice in a decade
Welcome back to Test Pilot guys and gals! With that extra-special Joss Whedon Theme Week behind us, it’s time to fall back into the typical, but still lovely rhythms of the feature. Today, we continue our fun exploration of one television’s most discussed subjects: One-season wonders.
Most series crash and burn before a prospective second season, but there are some that stick in our mind many years after cancellation. There is a large fascination with television series that only manage to produce a single season (often at a short order at that) before they are chopped down by “the man.” We are compelled by the possibilities and the what could have been for programs that projected all sorts of promise and upside but were never actually able to cash in on either. This theme hopes to explore some of the most celebrated one-season wonders and consider what, exactly, made audiences latch on to them so spectacularly.
I know I often say that “today’s case is very interesting” or whatever, but guys, today’s case is pretty interesting. In 1998, Rob Thomas brought Cupid to ABC and it lasted 15 episodes.* Like all the series we are talking about in this theme, fans grew attached to it, especially as the years passed and Thomas gained more exposure for his work on another series gone-too-soon, Veronica Mars. Then, 10 years after the first series ended, Thomas brought Cupid back to ABC, starting over with basically the same characters and the same premise. All that changed (more or less) were the actors and the location (from Chicago to New York). Cupid 2.0 lasted just seven episodes and really never got much of a push from ABC in the first place. It was dead. Again.
*Here’s an insane tidbit: The 1998 version of the series aired on SATURDAYS at 10 p.m. It wasn’t moved there after a poor start. It started there. I can’t even begin to process that. The business has changed dramatically in a decade-plus.
It’s very, very rare that something like this happens in the television industry. The only other example I can think of right now is Parenthood, which started as a film and then was turned into a television series soon after the film’s release, but the series failed and then NBC decided to try again a decade later. But theoretically, Parenthood had some name-brand recognition behind it (or at least that’s what I’m assuming NBC thought at the time). Cupid did not. It was a series with a small following from the beginning and yet, it made it back to life. Why? That’s what I hope we can discuss a little bit today as we journey through Cupid 1.0 and also consider 2.0 as well.
Joining me today is Anthony Strand. Anthony is here for his second go-around with Test Pilot after helping out with The Comeback in November. For those of you that don’t remember, Anthony is a North Dakota native, but now makes a living doing archival and map-related work at the University of Missouri. Anthony’s also a contributor to ToughPigs.com, and used to have a blog that he hasn’t updated in three years.” He often thinks about getting back in that habit, but life keeps getting in the way. You can, and should, follow him on Twitter. Anthony, tell us how you feel about Rob Thomas’ Cupid 1.0:
Man, what happened to Jeremy Piven? He used to be so likeable!
Watching the Cupid pilot in 2012, it’s impossible for me to avoid wondering that. Like most humans, years of Entourage-adjacent interviews and appearances have left me with a strong resentment towards the sight of Jeremy Piven’s stupid face* (and make no mistake – I am talking about appearances, not the series itself. I’ve seen two episodes of Entourage total. It’s Jeremy Piven the interview subject I can’t stand these days, never mind the actor.) I watched all of The Larry Sanders Show over the past year or so, and that intense, burning dislike actually helped my enjoyment of his character there – like so many people on that series, Jerry’s a terrible person and the audience is encouraged to despise him.
*Also, Piven seems to be in a transitional hair phase here. He’s not quite as bald as he was on Larry Sanders, but balder than he is now. The man just keeps getting younger and younger.
Going into this episode, I was worried I’d feel the same way about Trevor, who claims he’s Cupid and needs to unite one hundred couples before he’ll be allowed back on Olympus. That’s a great hook for a series, and I was a big Veronica Mars fan, so I wanted to trust creator Rob Thomas’s instincts in casting Piven. I also saw and enjoyed a couple of episodes of ABC back in 1998. But I was just a 13-year-old kid back then – what did I know?
Initially I did find him off-putting. There’s a moment towards the beginning when Dr. Claire Allen (Paula Marshall, aka “Not Carla Gugino”) reminds him that they’re “Doctor/Patient” and he replies “Yes, and it’s one of my favorite games to play. I’ve got hernia!” At that point, I was worried Cupid was going to be nothing more than the Smug Jerk Show, but I warmed up to him pretty fast. By the time he started talking about the personality quirks of the various gods on Olympus, Trevor had completely won me over.
It helps that Piven has a terrific partner to play off of in Paula Marshall. Claire is designed to be unlikeable at first. She’s uptight, by-the-book, and – when they first meet – 100% certain that Trevor’s completely crazy. She shouldn’t be much fun to watch, and she wouldn’t be with just about any other actress in the role. But Marshall brings a warmth and sweetness to her performance from the very beginning. And even when she’s loudly protesting that Trevor’s being crazy, you can see that she’s amused by him underneath it all. Basically, she’s Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, and Trevor is Katharine Hepburn.
The series feels very much like a classic Hollywood romantic comedy in general, and it has a lot of fun playing with the expectations of the genre. For example, about ten minutes into the pilot, a judge declares that Trevor has been cured of his delusion and he’s free to go. Now, obviously he isn’t actually cured at that point. Claire and Trevor exit the courtroom, and then Trevor shrugs and immediately starts talking about his assignment again. She feigns surprise for a moment, but moves on pretty quickly to tolerating him. The viewer knows it’s a technicality, and so does the series. She’s going to be putting up with his shenanigans for years, hopefully.
Of course, they can’t come to a complete understanding by the end of the pilot, but the closing scene nicely sets up their points of view for the rest of the series – he’s trying to “cure his homesickness,” and she’s gathering material for her book. This allows them to keep their respective beliefs about Trevor’s identity. I suppose Thomas planned to eventually solve the issue of whether Trevor was crazy or not, but here I like that we don’t know. For now, at least, Trevor reminds me a lot of Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. It doesn’t matter if he’s Cupid or not. All that matters is that he believes he is.
Well, to be really convincing, Trevor also needs to be able to actually match people with their true loves. Fortunately, the series sets him up with a number of venues for future stories – During the pilot, Trevor becomes a regular in Claire’s singles therapy group, he gets a job in a bar, and he moves in with an aspiring actor named Champ* (Jeffrey D. Sams, later of Veronica Mars), whose acting gigs might provide story fodder as well.
*Champ doesn’t get much to do in the pilot, but in his one big scene, he gets a speech about how “I don’t want to play the black actor game,” which sets him up as a character with a lot of potential.
The pilot also offers Trevor’s first successfully matched couple – some guy named Dave (George Newbern) and some woman named Madeline (Connie Britton). The pilot is mostly focused on setting up the Trevor/Claire dynamic, so Madeline and Dave’s courtship isn’t very well-developed. In fact, it’s based mostly on exchanging favorite items in obscure categories such as “comic book ad” and “conquistador.” Whatever affection I have for those characters comes from the casting – those actors grew up to be Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights and Superman on the animated Justice League, respectively. Of course I’m happy to see them! (That said, it took me a while to accept that Britton’s dream guy could possibly be anything other than a level-headed high school football coach.)
We’ll never know how Cupid would have played out if it had reached its 100th couple and been forced to resolve the issue of Trevor’s divinity. But as it stands, there are fourteen episodes, the first of which is terrific and features a guy in a bear suit holding a boom box. I definitely plan to watch the rest in the near future.
And now, my quasi-veteran thoughts on Cupid:
When series get canceled, we have a lot of different reactions. If we are emotionally invested in the characters or we’ve changed our Twitter avatars in support, chances are the cancellation evokes some anger and sadness (as it should). But as someone who at least tries to think about these things differently or put them in a larger context, cancellations often make me ask a lot of questions. My first question is almost always “What went wrong?” as in, “Why did people not watch this series?” Obviously, those are good questions to start with in light of cancellations, but they often lead to solid explanations. Timeslot problems. Bad pilot. Horrible casting. Premise too gimmicky (or not gimmicky enough). Not a good fit for the network.
Most of the time, series probably deserve to be canceled or end up being canceled for one of those reasons and although I might be upset with a specific case or outcome, I get it. I understand why the audience didn’t come or why the network didn’t want to play ball anymore. Television is a business, blah blah blah.
But re-watching the Cupid 1.0 pilot (I checked out a lot of the series before the second version hit airwaves a few years ago), I’m reminded of how frustrating this business can be. Taking all emotional investment or taste out of it, I think I will forever be confused as to why Cupid wasn’t a more popular series. The premise is great, and not in an obnoxious TV nerd kind of way. This is a supremely consumable premise with a built-in structure, mystery, Unresolved Sexual Tension couple and even a bit of name recognition. This is the kind of story that could only really work this well on television and its one that Entertainment Weekly cover stories are made for.
I get why audiences didn’t latch on to something dark and weird like Profit. Hell, I even understand why they didn’t snuggle up to Freaks and Geeks or Undeclared. But this? Perfect middlebrow television. Rock-solid, fun and infectious.
We love to admire pilots with overly-complex character work or similarly-deep “mythology,” but there is a lot of value in a pilot like Cupid. Its premise is both simple and engaging, where you are immediately invested in the mystery that is Trevor Hale. Is he Cupid? Is he crazy? Does it matter? Those are all simple, but effective questions to power a hundred episodes of television. And as Anthony touched on in its portion, this is a fantastic Jeremy Piven performance. I’ve seen every episode of Entourage and seen many of Piven’s film roles in this era, and I think he’s been better than we now give him credit for since he’s so clearly a douche and reveling in his douche-dom. But still, this is his definitely his best work.
As Trevor, he brings the now-typical Piven smarm and acerbic tongue, but it’s the quieter moments, like when Trevor honestly engages with Dave at the bar or when he pours his heart out to Claire on the phone, where he actually shines. Rob Thomas’ script is very good and it provides Piven multiple opportunities to create a very complex character from the outset, but still, the success of this pilot is almost entirely on Piven’s shoulders and he nails it. Trevor is simply a great television character. He is engaging and funny, but caring, and has this personal baggage that could be real or part of a possibly even more compelling façade.
The pilot has other strengths, though. Thomas’ script finds a really solid balance between cynicism and romanticism amid the constant conversations about how love does or does not exist in contemporary society. Paula Marshall’s Claire could come off as a major wet blanket (especially when paired with Piven’s Trevor) and the monologues about divorce rates and broken homes could grate, but they don’t. Most writers have the tendency to make the will-they-or-won’t-they couple overly antagonistic towards one another at the beginning, which leads to a whole lot of bickering that’s supposed to codify television’s version of foreplay. Cupid avoids that for the most part. Claire is obviously skeptical of Trevor and his intentions, but she’s also immediately intrigued by him in a way that doesn’t manifest in constant arguing. They banter, sure, but it’s not hostile at all.
And finally, the story engine allows Cupid to be a fun little anthology series about love and coupling (in the way that Love Bites tried to be, I guess). The pilot couple, Madeline and Dave, aren’t as interesting as some of the later pairings, but they have some solid moments together (most notably when Dave realizes that Madeline also loves the Chicago White Sox and basically immediately falls in love). Later, this becomes even more prominent, as many of the couple stories are legitimately great and moving.
Cupid is everything you want from a broadcast network pilot. Why, then, did the series fail? I hate to go this route, but I think this one has to be on the network. In the late 1990s, ABC was a mess. The network had no real brand identity and certainly didn’t have a quality development strategy. The first few years of the Disney era did not go well, and this was even before ABC scored bit with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? And then immediately ran it into the ground. But you know why ABC ran it into the ground: the network had nothing else. When you combine a network in dire straits with a seriously laughable timeslot or two (I believe the series was moved around a couple of times), you get 15 episodes and out. That’s what happens.
And although it is just as misguided as it is easy to blame the network for a series failure, the fact that ABC asked Thomas to take another run at Cupid a decade later plays like an admission of failure to me. When ABC came to Thomas again, it was in much, much better shape, riding the waves of success that Lost, Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy brought to them, and just as important, the network had an identity. Cupid made perfect sense for ABC’s target demographic of young, but not super-young women (the Trevor-Claire banter was tailor-made for ABC’s jaunty THIS IS FUNNY music) and so, Thomas went to bat again.
The quality and simplicity of Thomas’ idea is only further reinforced in Cupid 2.0 because he barely changed a thing. The premise is exactly the same. The 100 couple rule is still in effect. The unresolved sexual tension is still there. The anthology feel is still there. Even the no-look dart shots are still there. Unfortunately, the spark of the original is not there. Bobby Cannavale is often fun as Trevor, but doesn’t bring the same kind of depth that Piven did (I know, I can’t believe I typed that either) and even though Sarah Paulson is actually better than Marshall as Claire, things just aren’t the same. Cupid 2.0 seems to focus both more on the couple of the week who are unfortunately even more boring than their first iteration and more on the witty, wacky humor. 1.0 had a certain grasp on emotion and depth, and 2.0 plays more like a gimmicky sitcom.
I’m not sure who is to blame for Cupid 2.0’s failure. It lasted only a half-dozen episodes and clearly wasn’t as compelling as the original, but ABC never seemed totally invested in making it work anyway. Whereas the original’s slightly more-serious tone would have fit well on ABC in 2009, it appears the network asked Thomas to “make it funnier and wackier” so it could fit alongside something like Ugly Betty.
Ultimately, ABC knew that Thomas’ idea was fantastic. He wouldn’t have gotten to trot it out twice otherwise. But perhaps what makes a great idea doesn’t make a great or appealing series, no matter how obvious it seems to me. It’s rare that you get two times to screw up one of the better premises in recent television history, but ABC made it happen with Cupid.
Series legacy: Great idea with all sorts of potential, but for whatever reason, it just didn’t work