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Monthly Archives: February 2011

“…you got these different stories, these quirky little stories, these fun stories.  They didn’t have to be an ‘event’.  They just had to be entertaining, fun, good, scary, dramatic, whatever… And we made ’em fast, and we made ’em cheap, and it was a great period of time.”
–Dan Curtis, producer of Dark Shadows, The Night Stalker, and Trilogy of Terror

Everything has to start somewhere.  In television these days, that means producers developing scripts for possible series, lengthy casting searches and production schedules, endless notes from the network (who is paying for everything, so they get a significant say), and HOPEFULLY the making of a pilot that can cost multi-millions of dollars.  All of this is on the longshot chance that a series deal will happen… so producers can find out if they can get MORE money to spend on a show that might get canceled in a month.

original movies for television

It’s a crapshoot, except Las Vegas gives better odds.  But it’s the system that’s developed through the years, for better or worse.  Of course, back in the late ’60s and through much of the ’70s, there really was a better way.  The concept of a “TV-Movie of the Week” provided both exciting fare and the possibility of a “back-door” pilot that could still see the light of day even if it didn’t lead to a full series.

NBC and Universal first came up with the idea of movies made directly for the television market in the late ’60s.  They crunched the numbers and figured out that they could make a 90-minute film (with commercials) for the same cost as what some movie studios were charging for the rights to air their previously released blockbusters.  A win-win for both Universal and the network, as it kept production cameras rolling on new projects that had guaranteed return; and saved NBC money in the long run, giving the network new, original programming every week with stars and directors that wouldn’t necessarily agree to be tied down to longer series contracts.

Robert Stack, Gene Barry, and Tony Franciosa from "The Name of the Game"

It also gave NBC a showcase for potential new series involving those that were looking into longer term projects, and a way to determine audience reaction to possible new shows.  The TV-movie Fear is the Name of the Game was the first of these to move from TV-movie pilot to series format, becoming The Name of the Game in 1968.  This also helped develop the relationship of NBC and Universal so much that Universal became the largest provider of programming to the network at one time, and (many years later) they actually joined forces and became one company.

And they weren’t even the best at this.

Cut to 1969.  The ABC network had long been seen as the brash young upstart in television circles, with a few decent series here and there but no real strength or consistency in presenting dramatic series.  Their previous successes had been in the comedic realm, with things like Batman and Room 222.  Looking for a way to become stronger and better recognized as a network, they began airing the ABC Movie of the Week.  Although they had previously been airing feature films as part of their ABC Sunday Night Movie, the Movie of the Week on Tuesday evenings was designed primarily for just the type of low-budget action and suspense movies that could possibly take ABC from being an afterthought in dramatic TV circles to a true player without breaking the bank.

“Back in the seventies, when the first television movies started to be made, you know they were ninety minutes, most of them in the beginning.  The Night Stalker was a ninety-minute picture.  We shot it for $450,000 in 12 days, give you some idea of how what happened in those days.  But it was fun, because the way you made a television movie in those days, the way you got one sold, totally different from today.  Today, it has to be ‘meaningful’, it has to be ‘socially significant’, it has to be ‘filled with stars’, it has to have… you name it.  C’mon, I get sick of the whole game, and everybody plays that game today.  To try to sell a television movie today is the most impossible thing in the world.”
–Dan Curtis

To give you a comparison, the current series Mad Men, on a cable budget, costs close to $3 MILLION dollars for EACH 47-minute episode (sans commercials), and they have standing sets they use repeatedly each week.  These TV-Movies had to either make everything from scratch or shoot on location (or both), so you had to find ways to save money.  This began what I call “the Die Hard system”.

Now, the theatrical film Die Hard wasn’t made until 1988, but it’s the best short-hand way to talk about what some of these films had to do in order to be both successful and profitable.  In a nutshell, the original Die Hard is about one man in a building, trying to stop another man in the building.  So, for the vast majority of the movie, the sets and location consist of nothing but interiors of that ONE building.  TV producers love this sort of thing, because the fewer sets they have to build and the fewer locations they have to move the production company to, the less money they must spend.

Nice little puppy?

Some of the TV-movies were almost archetypes of this style.  Trapped, starring James Brolin, featured a man who had been mugged in the bathroom of a department store… and when he woke up from the attack, his nightmares had just started.  The overnight security was a set of angry Dobermans, and there was no one else in the building.  The movie was all about how he was going to survive against these dogs until morning.  One location (the store) for all the action, no costs to actually build sets, one primary actor for the majority of the picture, and three dogs… no cast of thousands, no special effects, just drama and suspense on a budget.

Short Walk to Daylight was about a group of people in a subway tunnel who are cut off from help due to an earthquake, and their efforts to escape their fate.  It was a combination of disaster movies like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure on a limited budget and, again, one large set.  Just move the fake rocks and concrete around, and you’ve got a new section of tunnel to get through!  And if you think this sort of thing wasn’t both successful and memorable, check out the theatrical release of Daylight from 1996 starring Sylvester Stallone.  Similar plot, bigger budget, and honestly probably less successful because it depended on that budget for action sequences and special effects instead of telling a good story… which was all the TV-movies really had–storytelling.  And audiences ate it up.

The FIRST Original Wonder Woman

The success of the concept (both in terms of profit and viewership) encouraged ABC to extend their made-for-TV movie night to twice a week.  The original Tuesday night showcase gained a sister slot on Saturday for a time, and then the Saturday movies were moved to Wednesday (the better to be promoted on the Tuesday night entry, and to run the occasional two-parter).  The network even started a production arm, ABC Circle Films, to produce a percentage of these features “in-house”.

ABC also used these weekly slots to air pilot episodes for potential new series.  Numerous successful shows got their start as movie-of-the-week entries.  The list includes Marcus Welby, M.D., Alias Smith and Jones, The Six Million Dollar Man, and Starsky and Hutch.  TWO pilots for Wonder Woman also aired, but the first one starred actress Cathy Lee Crosby, while Lynda Carter replaced her in the second… who ever heard of a short blonde Wonder Woman?  Rival networks even adapted movies for their own series, as the mystery Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate became the blueprint for NBC’s series The Snoop Sisters a few years later.

Producers found another way to make an extra buck off these relatively inexpensive films, as many were released as theatrical films overseas.  Thriller movies and broad, almost slapstick comedies (such as Wake Me When the War is Over with Ken Berry and Zsa Zsa Gabor) made reasonable money “across the pond”, as the market for “budget” pictures had dried up in America… especially when you could watch a new movie (or two) every week on television!

It was also a place for younger, not-yet-tested craftsmen and women to hone their talents without risking major movie finances.  One of the biggest early successes was the 1971 TV-Movie Duel, an unusual picture starring Dennis Weaver as a man who absent-mindedly cuts off a semi-truck driver along the highway… and spends the next 90 television minutes in terror as the unseen truck driver and his menacing rig stalk him on the roads, leading to a suspenseful and dramatic finish.  This was the first film directed by a very young Steven Spielberg, already showing flashes of brilliance in taking a film that has long stretches with absolutely no dialogue and still keeping audiences on the edge of their seats.

More heartfelt emotional stories also found a place here, with movies like 1971’s Brian’s Song.  It told the real-life story of Chicago Bears football players Brian Piccolo and Gayle Sayers, and dramatized their friendship at a time when race relations were seldom discussed on television (and if they were, it was usually about the negative and not the positive).  Piccolo was white and Sayers was black, and in their story it didn’t matter… what was important was Piccolo’s struggle with cancer and his friendship with Sayers.  The movie was not only hugely successful, but it helped become a turning point on television, starting a better representation and portrayal of minority characters and human relationships on the small screen.  And although that particular journey isn’t anywhere near done, at least the first steps were taken.

More steps advanced with The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, in which actress Cicely Tyson gave a bravura performance portraying the 100-year life of a woman who had seen the sociological change of the African-American experience over her lifetime, and the various forms of persecution and grudging acceptance along the way.  Tyson won an Emmy for her 1974 performance, and the TV-Movie as a genre was now seen as just as relevant and vital as any serious drama series.

Another groundbreaking film was That Certain Summer, which starred Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen as a homosexual couple struggling with how to tell loved ones about their relationship.  It was 1972, and the first time the subject had been addressed sympathetically on television.  The movie was nominated for seven Emmy awards.

For a series of movies that had originally been designed as “fast and cheap” productions, the genre of the TV-movie had become much more prestigious… and that may have ultimately led to its downfall.  Many fewer TV-movies are made today, and the idea of the 90-minute television presentation is almost unheard of.  As Dan Curtis said, the small number of productions that do see the light of day tend to be those which can be promoted as “events” instead of just “regular television”, and many of the movies that had been made back in the heyday of this style wouldn’t stand a chance of being produced in the current environment.  Even the idea of the TV-movie being a showcase for potential pilots has gone by the wayside, with pilots for series these days either costing incredible amounts of money (the two-part pilot for Lost is reported to have cost over $10 million itself), or with shows only budgeted to shoot a “pilot reel” instead of a full episode, with the idea that the film would be “fleshed out” if the concept was bought as a series (Castle, for example, was sold this way).

As a result, most pilots for shows that don’t make it to series runs are never seen by the public at large, ironically meaning that the very viewers that networks are wanting to impress never get to see all the possibilities available.  And yet, some of those original TV-movies were so good that talk of remakes continues today.  Trilogy of Terror II was released theatrically in 1996, as the original movie had become a cult hit (and currently available on DVD).  A remake of Brian’s Song was produced in 2003, and a reboot of The Night Stalker series aired in 2005.

“These things hold up.  They hold up, they’re just as good today as they were then.  Absolutely just as good… because of the storytelling.”
–Dan Curtis

There’s a legacy of popular shows that first aired in this form.  Almost 20 series got their start as ABC movies, plus more than a few series on other networks like The Waltons on CBS and Ellery Queen on NBC began in similar fashion.  (A previous article on Ellery Queen is here.)  Television history simply wouldn’t be the same without this particular style, one that has vanished on networks today.  It’s a shame, though.  There’s a place for standalone storytelling, as well as trial balloons for potential new series… it’s too bad that there’s no place to see them like this anymore.

Next week, I’ll cover one of the shows that got its start on the ABC Movie of the Week… until then, I’ll just leave you in suspense, the way some of those great TV-movies did.  See you then!

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

Time for another piece on a topic rather than a specific show.  This week, an almost lost style of presentation that gave birth to many of the hits (and misses) of television series history.  They became so popular an Emmy category was created for them, and yet today they’ve become rarities on network television.  Five quotes:

“And we made ’em fast, and we made ’em cheap, and it was a great period of time.”

The overnight security was a set of Dobermans, and there was no one else in the building.

…who ever heard of a short blonde Wonder Woman?

…starting a better representation and portrayal of minority characters and human relationships on the small screen.

“They hold up, they’re just as good today as they were then.”

Give me a little extra time, and I’ll take you back to an amazing variety of drama, mystery, and comedy under one umbrella, and even a potential series or twenty along the way.  Settle down with a bowl of popcorn and this week’s Friday @ 8/7 Central.

–Tim R.

“When I was a child, my parents knew I wasn’t going to grow up, so they decided I should grow first.  They put me out to sea to work as a cabin boy.  But I missed my childhood.  It’s during childhood you learn the important things in life — the wonders of life should never be missed or hated.”
–Simon McKay, also known as The Wizard

David Rappaport as Simon McKay, The Wizard

There’s a certain wonder and innocence that can be lost as we grow up.  Children know it, but some adults forget it far too easily.  It’s that magic that comes with being able to see the world with new eyes every day, to be amazed at what far too many people take for granted… and to remember that, in the best kind of world, there’s no place for cynicism when there’s a much better way.  Sometimes we just need reminding of those types of things.  That’s the job of The Wizard.

A breath of fresh air, The Wizard aired on CBS in the Fall of 1986 and featured David Rappaport as Simon McKay, possibly one of the most unique heroes of any prime-time series.  While he wasn’t possessed of any otherworldly magic spells or anything like that, he was possessed of the most magical gifts of all–a tremendous heart, an inquisitive mind, and an inventive imagination.

Simon had been one of the chief scientific minds for a US government spy agency and an expert on weapons and other systems, but dropped completely out of sight for half a decade… only to resurface as a toy maker, creating amazing scientific gadgets and granting wishes to children.  The agency occasionally calls on Simon for help, but Simon will only cooperate on his own terms, as there are some things he just won’t do.  His focus is now on helping people with his creations and his intellect, not on the covert and competitive nature of countries and spies.  If he can do what he wants and, at the same time, help on an occasional mission, everyone’s happy.  Well, almost everyone….

“When the best intelligence agencies in the world can’t find someone… he’s vanished.  But Simon McKay turned up.  He won’t say where he was, and at the moment that doesn’t matter.  I don’t care if he is one of Santa’s elves… he’s also the inventive genius of our time.  So you make damn sure you don’t let him fall in the wrong hands.”
–instructions to Alex Jaeger on his new role as Simon McKay’s bodyguard

Simon and Alex

Some want Simon’s creative mind for nefarious purposes, and that’s where Alex Jaeger (Douglas Barr) comes in.  He’s assigned by the agency to protect McKay and his genius from those forces which might try to use him against others.  Alex feels (at first) like this is some kind of punishment.  He’s more of a confrontational type, the brawn to Simon’s brains.  They develop an alliance and a friendship over time, and Alex starts to learn from Simon what the wonder of life is all about.

“Why sail away in search of adventure… when it lives right here?”
–Tillie Russell

Tillie Russell, Simon's friend and helper

Simon is also aided by Tillie Russell (Fran Ryan), his housekeeper and long-time friend.  Spending her life on the sea, Tillie knew Simon when he was a youthful cabin boy, and the two are reunited after Tillie runs into trouble.  When she suspects the new owner of her ship is involved in some illegal and dangerous smuggling, Simon and Alex come to save the day.  Tillie then decides to jump ship and join her old friend Simon and her new one Alex, leaving the seas to watch over both of them like a mother-hen.  Of course, that doesn’t stop them all from finding trouble… or from trouble finding them.

Between helping those in need with Simon’s amazing inventions or occasionally being called on to help the government in some unique way, the lives of Simon, Alex, and Tillie were never boring.  While the adventures of the trio may have taken them from the lost city of El Dorado in South America to the streets of Hong Kong, many of the most surprising things happened in Simon’s own workshop.  He built radio helicopters than were controlled with just a person’s thoughts, and magnetic yo-yo’s that could do tricks without strings attached.  His gadgets could pull apart steel bars (allowing them to escape imprisonment by the bad guys) and replace live animals with robotic dogs as seeing-eye companions for the blind.  Surprisingly, although this show sounds a bit like a fantasy, it definitely was not.

“The company that builds some of these models also makes robotics for handicapped people.  We’re doing fiction and here’s fact just beyond what we’re doing.”
–David Rappaport

Did the show seem fantastical?  Perhaps at times.  But most everything was based on real science with a dash of added wonder, giving The Wizard an imaginative feel.  The show tried very hard to straddle that line between “over-the-top” and “heightened reality”, making a unique viewing experience for all.  Perhaps the most unique feature was the star of The Wizard, David Rappaport.

“You’re getting in over your head, Simon.”
“Alex, most things in life are over my head.”
–Alex and Simon as they plan another escapade

Rappaport stood only 3-feet 11-inches tall, hardly the typical television hero.  The title role of The Wizard was specifically created for him after producer Michael Berk had seen his performance in the movie Time Bandits.  (Rappaport’s musical ability was incorporated into the series, which showed McKay’s use of playing the drums as a means of focusing his thinking.)  Rappaport was also given significant creative input into the series, making certain his character was seen as more than just a curiosity.  Simon McKay was a role model, someone who could be looked up to no matter what the height of the people involved.

searching for the best

Rappaport believed strongly that the world could be a much more positive place, and that television and the media had a responsibility to portray those kinds of adventures.  Simon McKay was shown as a force for good, but not through muscular strength or physical prowess.  His power was through his mind and imagination, and through his thirst for creativity and adventure.  The goal was never a character’s desire to punish those who did wrong, although that was sometimes necessary.  The goal was to create in each and every person the sense of wonder available in all of us, to encourage a way of looking at the world without cynicism and negativity.  This world-view of Simon McKay is what made The Wizard a very special and amazing show, one that is well-remembered twenty-five years later.

“Anyone can be a fool five minutes in a day.  Wisdom comes from knowing when not to exceed the limit.”
–Simon McKay

Television isn’t usually like this, and audiences in general weren’t the most sympathetic.  Selling the show was difficult, because it just wasn’t the typical show, and therefore not the most popular either.  It appealed (like most shows) to those viewers who were already somewhat disposed to the ideas presented, and while the fan following it developed was very devoted, The Wizard also had the misfortune to be initially scheduled as part of a weak CBS Tuesday line-up against three of the top fifteen shows on television (Who’s the Boss?, Growing Pains, and Matlock).  With a new time-slot, the show might have had a chance to survive… except the time it was ultimately moved to turned out to be Thursdays against the top two shows on television (The Cosby Show and Family Ties).  All the hopes, dreams, and good ideas in the world weren’t going to gather large enough audiences quickly enough….

British-born Rappaport came from England, which is half a world away from Hollywood both in terms of geography and point-of-view.  His thoughts on television at the time:

“The attitude in England is different.  We don’t have ratings.  We do have surveys but not so dogmatic as over here.  It’s not a do-or-die thing.  Too much emphasis on the ratings encourages the worst sort of shows.  So much television is the United States is wasted.  You could do so many good things.  Television spent years celebrating drugs, now they suddenly realize they have to stop it.  It must be used to do what is right.”

Television could learn something from David Rappaport….

The Wizard is thinking

The Wizard lasted 19 episodes and only one season from September to March.  While CBS tried to show some faith in the series by airing it relatively consistently, the combined existence of extremely heavy competition and a rather unconventional premise led to it ending that Spring.  But the one thing a network could never end is the spirit of adventure, imagination, and curiosity developed together by Simon, Alex, Tillie, and every single viewer of the show.  That’s always a part of each and every one of us.  Simon said it best:

“Your mind is much stronger than you can imagine.  All you have to do is set it free….”
–Simon McKay, The Wizard

DAVID RAPPAPORT (Simon McKay) was a tremendous actor both here in the US and in his native England.  His passion for performing and touching others’ lives shone in movies like Time Bandits, The Goodies, and The Bride (and he was offered the role of R2D2 in Star Wars but turned it down only because he didn’t want to act in the robot costume).  Television roles included appearances on L.A. Law (in a recurring role), Mr. Belvedere, and Hooperman.  He also has a writing credit for one episode of The Wizard (as well as contributing to other episodes), and the character of Simon McKay was said to be very close to David’s own personality.  He was musically adept at drums, harmonica, accordion, piano, and trumpet, and loved to share his gifts with all.  He left us in 1990, a large talent that is sorely missed.

DOUGLAS BARR (Alex Jaeger) is best known as Lee Majors’ television sidekick for five seasons on The Fall Guy, as well as a recurring part on Designing Women.  He also contributed a story for an episode of The Wizard (everyone on this show really cared about it) and has focused on directorial efforts over the last decade or more, earning a Director’s Guild nomination for his 2010 NBC tv-movie Secrets of the Mountain.

FRAN RYAN (Tillie Russell) was a frequent guest actress on many TV comedies dating all the way back to the mid-’60’s.  She appeared on episodes of The Brady Bunch, The Beverly Hillbillies, and had a recurring role on Green Acres as “mom” to Arnold Ziffel, the pig that was treated like a person!  Numerous light dramatic shows followed in the ’70’s, including Columbo, Starsky and Hutch, and Charlie’s Angels.  She continued performing onscreen until the age of 75, and passed away in 2000.

All for one, and one for all

While The Wizard has yet to be released on DVD (a travesty if there ever was one), there is an active campaign to do so.  Details of that, plus one of the very best sites out there concerning a long-forgotten series, can be found at the official fansite for The Wizard.  It also includes items from Executive Producer Michael Berk and a video about the work towards a DVD release from Rappaport’s good friend, British actor Nabil Shaban.  I recommend it highly, and I support their efforts.  You can spend hours on that one site alone, discovering both The Wizard and the career of David Rappaport, and I encourage all to do so.

“But I think the real secret of this show is the heart.  The real human values.  The hero is powerful but he’s also vulnerable.  The message of the show is that you can overcome things through non-violence.  My size works on many levels.”
–David Rappaport

Cynicism is so much a part of television (and many people on either side of the screen) they don’t even realize it at times.  Our own lives, as well as the lives of characters on far too many shows. are led with a jaundiced eye and suspicion of others.  Fortunately, every once in a while a show like The Wizard and a character like Simon McKay comes along to remind us all of a better way.  Through Simon, we can see the wonder, the surprise, the simple joy that life can bring on a daily basis if we just set aside that cynical mindset and embrace a better point of view.  We are all graced with the ability to imagine, to think, to become better, if we only remember to use that ability instead of listening to the overly competitive, critical world.  That’s what The Wizard himself said he did for anyone who would hear:

“What I do is far more important than any covert operation.”

“All right, Simon.  What is it that you do?”

“I keep magic alive….”

Something we all can do….

(A personal aside:  The Wizard was chosen specifically for one of the most special people in my life, whose birthday is this week.  He turned seven during the airing of this show, the perfect age to discover and encourage his imagination.  I’m so very glad he discovered both the show and his own gifts, and he continues to use that imagination with joy and wonder each and every day.  My life would be far less without those things in it.  Please follow his (and Simon’s) example and do the same.)

Vital Stats

19 aired episodes — none unaired
CBS Network
First aired episode:  September 9, 1986
Last aired episode:  March 12, 1987
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  The hour is right, the days are wrong.  The Wizard premiered on Tuesdays, but was shifted to Thursdays in December of 1986.  Airing in the 8/7 Central slot worked, because this was one of the best family shows ever.  Too bad not all the parents got it!

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

This week, a show full of wonder and imagination, and an article written especially for someone I know who embodies those ideals very well.  A unique show, a unique star, and a message I wish was much more plentiful on television.  Five quotes:

“It’s during childhood you learn the important things in life — the wonders of life should never be missed or hated.”

…he was possessed of the most magical gifts of all–a tremendous heart, an inquisitive mind, and an inventive imagination.

“Why sail away in search of adventure… when it lives right here?”

Surprisingly, although this show sounds a bit like a fantasy, it definitely was not.

“Anyone can be a fool for five minutes in a day.  Wisdom comes from knowing when not to exceed the limit.”

Watching this one, I agree very much with the hero.  The show, like life, is all about keeping the magic alive.  See you Friday 8/7 Central.

–Tim R.

“Life is complicated.  Love is simple.”
–Trevor on Cupid (2009)

Simple?  Really?  Face it, Valentine’s Day is not made for those who have yet to find their soulmate.  The search for that “perfect match” can be long and trying, and a person can get their heart broken more than once along the way.  Those looking for that special someone often wish that the journey weren’t quite so difficult, or that there was somebody out there who could  help them.  People turn to friends, books, even computers and online dating services to be successful.  But it doesn’t always work.

Then, when you least expect it, sometimes love just falls into your lap, like a gift from the gods.  Sure, it still takes a lot of work, and you really can’t take anything for granted.  But suddenly the possibility is there… if you don’t screw it up.  All you need is a little help.  All you need on your side is Cupid.

Trevor and Claire circa 1998

Debuting on ABC in 1998, Cupid opens with psychiatrist and author Dr. Claire Allen (Paula Marshall).   She has written a number of best-selling books on love, but can’t get it right in her own life.  Although she’s great at helping others find that “special someone,” for some reason she’s always found a way to foul it up for herself, mostly by thinking about it too much.  With other people, she does the thinking for them, and lets all that mind stuff get out of the way of their hearts.  But she can’t get out of her own way, because she’s “thinking” instead of “living”, let alone finally getting to the possibility of “loving”.

Her newest patient (recently institutionalized) is Trevor Hale (Jeremy Piven), who seems normal in many respects except for one thing — he has this belief that he’s actually the ancient Greek god Eros, or as he is also known by humans, Cupid.  Trevor tells Claire that his apparent mission, as Cupid, is to make romantic matches for 100 couples so he can go back to Mt. Olympus and once again become a god.  This mission isn’t really a mission though… it’s a punishment.  Cupid was a bit lax in his duties (according to Trevor) and now he has to prove his worth through 100 perfect matches here on earth — without the use of his bow, arrows, or magic of any kind.  He’s got to do it the old fashioned way, as a mortal.  Claire still thinks he’s a bit crazy, yet Claire’s mission (or punishment) from the mental health commission is to help Trevor back into human society… and forget all this Cupid business.

“I only get credit for a match if it’s true love… the kind of love you’d cross oceans to find.  Romeo and Juliet counts.  Romeo and the coat check girl doesn’t.”
–Trevor/Cupid

Easier said than done, as Trevor/Cupid really wants to go “home” and he sets out to start matchmaking… with less than perfect results.  He says he’s used to doing things the easy way, with “magic”, and while he knows a lot about what love should be, he doesn’t necessarily know that much about the much harder human process of getting there.  For that part, he needs help, and he decides that’s where his human guide Claire comes in.

It takes two... tries

Trevor discovers Claire is good at some things, but her supposed “expertise” as a relationship therapist goes against what he knows about the final product… so he promptly goes about debunking pretty much everything she’d ever believed and taught.  Trevor’s good ideas of passion and “living in the moment” occasionally resemble more modern-day sexual hook-ups for some than lasting relationships, so occasionally Claire might have a better idea of what will keep a couple together.  The truth is somewhere in the middle, so the running battle is on between the two.  They try to help people find true love while they learn that love may be standing right beside them, if only they’d look at each other.  The audience can tell from a mile away that they’re fated to be together, no matter what missions they may have or how blind they can be to the obvious.

“We’re all hungry for true romance and true connections.  We have two characters with divergent points of view, but they’re united in trying to help others strengthen their own relationships.”
–Scott Winant, producer/director

Cupid got great reviews and 14 episodes on Saturday nights, a time period that was quickly becoming a TV wasteland (and who would watch a romance show late on Saturday when lovers are out dating anyway?)  The series ended up with one episode left unaired and a Dear John letter from the network.  It didn’t look like Cupid would get to shoot any more arrows.

But love (and television) can be surprising.  After creator Thomas’ next fantastic show Veronica Mars became a high-profile hit, both The CW and ABC came back like competing lovers to ask for a revival of Cupid.  Since The CW had recently canceled Veronica Mars and ABC was the original home of the show, Thomas went with ABC.  Maybe there was still a relationship here after all….

 

Claire and Trevor, circa 2009

In 2009  ABC ordered Cupid as a mid-season replacement.  A few modest changes ensued:  New actors were hired for the leads (Sarah Paulson and Bobby Cannavale); the last names of the two lead characters were changed, from Allen to McCrae and Hale to Pierce; the venue of the series moved from Chicago to New York (although both versions were shot on location, providing a more realistic counterpoint to the slight fantasy element of the show).  But for the most part the series premise was intact:  Trevor was still either crazy or a god, Claire was still thinking too much, and they were still meant for each other.  The search for 100 couples and true love was on again.

“Fifteen years of training has prepared me to help these people.”

“And being the god of love for 3000 years has prepared me for what?  Desk job at Hallmark?”

–typical Claire and Trevor, no matter which version

Both versions of Cupid suffered (to at least some extent) from the Moonlighting syndrome, in which potential couples are set up to possibly be the “perfect match” for each other (arguing all the way), and then obstacles are put in the way of the romance.  The audience wants to see them together; the couple is shown to be exactly what each other wants and needs; and pressure starts building on the writers and producers to actually get them together and release all the pent-up romantic tension that the series has built.  And fans are waiting on the edge of their seats for it to happen, if the build-up is done right.

The problem is, giving in to the fans is exactly the wrong thing for a show to do in this case.  The engine of the show is the sputtering relationship between the leads, that “perfect match” that never quite gets struck.  The moment you do go to that point, when feelings are acknowledged and love consummated (emotionally or sexually), the engine sputters and there’s no place for a show to go.  The trick becomes finding something else to sidetrack the characters instead, the big roadblock that will keep them from becoming devoted lovebirds for the run of the series.  In the case of Cupid, the roadblock is actually rather straightforward once you buy into it.  Both Claire and Trevor had to finally discover if Trevor was really the Cupid of mythology.

“I just knew I wanted to write it as though he might be… or he might not be.  There wasn’t some big secret that the writers were in on.  The original suggestion [was made] that we treat him like Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street.  That was the mandate.  I believe most viewers absolutely wanted him to be Cupid.  I think I leaned, slightly, to the notion that he was off his rocker.”
–Rob Thomas, creator/producer

There are different ways this could have gone.  Trevor could have been actually crazy, but in such a way that Dr. Claire was still the perfect match for him, as long as she didn’t try to “fix” him anymore.  Trevor might have actually been the mythological Cupid, and Claire loses him when couple #100 finally gets fixed up, but she’s learned what love might be along the way and she’s able to find her own soulmate.  The original Greek mythology of Cupid has him marrying Psyche, a mortal.  This is even mentioned in the first episode of each series.  (Telegraph much?  Claire is a psychiatrist!)  All great ideas for stories, but they all depended on one thing:  getting to that hundredth couple.  They were going to need a few more revival series for that.

like any relationship, we keep on trying

The second version of Cupid lasted only 7 episodes on Tuesday nights.  Again, the casting was great, but perhaps the execution wasn’t the best, as the newer version sacrificed some sweetness for more modern cynicism at times, trying too hard not to become saccharine.  It’s hard to find that balancing act between sparring and romance without crossing the Moonlighting line.  While the actors (in both versions) may have been the perfect match, the tone and the writing just didn’t make a match with the viewing audience and Cupid was reduced to being a myth once more.

JEREMY PIVEN (’98 Trevor/Cupid) is probably best recognized for his role as Ari Gold on Entourage, for which he’s won three Emmy Awards.  He was also featured on Ellen and The Larry Sanders Show.  He’s also known for a stage career, although one Broadway engagement was cut short due to mercury poisoning, likely contracted from his 20-year habit of eating fish twice a day.

PAULA MARSHALL (’98 Claire) is a veteran of many shows, including regular stints on Snoops, Cursed, Hidden Hills, Out of Practice, Veronica Mars, and Californication.   She recently starred on the comedy Gary Unmarried.  Oh, and one of her first jobs was in an episode of the original Grapevine, another second-chance romance you can read about here.

BOBBY CANNAVALE (’09 Trevor/Cupid) first came to fame in the series Third Watch, but is best known a recurring part on Will & Grace, for which he won the Emmy for Best Guest Actor.  He also was on multiple episodes of Cold Case.  Another veteran of Broadway, he was nominated for a Tony award for his performance in Mauritius.

SARAH PAULSON (’09 Claire) is one of our favorites, appearing as Merlyn in the cult favorite American Gothic (which will forever make her repeated line “Someone’s at the door” one of the most scary phrases in TV history).  Other starring roles included the series Jack & Jill, Leap of Faith, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

“I think a good romantic story is always worth telling.  People want to feel like it’s possible that it could work out great.”
–Bobby Cannavale

The 1998 version of Cupid (all 14 episodes) is available for streaming on YouTube, where you can also find some promo spots for the 2009 version along with some interviews with Cannavale and Paulson.  Fans of the show have also shown their love by creating some great websites full of interesting quotes and information about the shows.  Neither versions is available on DVD however, so it’s the bootleg route once again if you must.

How different are the two series?  Not only are large chunks of dialogue repeated almost word-for-word in the pilot episodes, but the plot for the first 2009 episode was one that creator Rob Thomas had planned for the 16th episode of the original (if it had run that long).  Thomas also wanted original actors Paula Marshall and Jeremy Piven to reprise their roles in the 2009 remake.  Unfortunately, Marshall was already committed to the sitcom Gary Unmarried and Piven was involved with HBO’s Entourage.

The recasting brings up an interesting idea:  What if only one had been available?  We could have seen Marshall psychoanalyzing Cannavale, or Paulson rolling her eyes at the antics of Piven.  Could either of those shows have succeeded where the originals failed?  There’s no way to know, obviously, but it just shows how unpredictable the true course of winning at love (and television) can be.  Maybe we need the help of Cupid to figure it out….

Vital Stats

Cupid 1998

14 aired episodes — 1 unaired episode
ABC Network
First episode aired:  September 26, 1998
Final episode aired:  February 11, 1999
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Worse, if that’s possible.  Saturdays at 10/9 Central

Cupid 2009

7 aired episodes — none unaired
ABC Network
First episode aired:  March 31, 2009
Final episode aired:  June 16, 2009 (although the series was canceled a month earlier)
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  A bit better time slot, Tuesdays at 10/9 Central.  One has to wonder if an earlier time slot would have helped a drama with comedic overtones like Cupid.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

It’s Valentine’s Day in a week, so this Friday’s post will be all about love (and the many ways we try to find it).  Of course, if we had a little help, it would all go so much easier… or would it?  Five quotes:

“Life is complicated.  Love is simple.”

“Romeo and Juliet counts.  Romeo and the coat check girl doesn’t.”

…love may be standing right beside them, if only they’d look at each other.

The problem is, giving in to the fans is exactly the wrong thing for a show to do in this case.

“I think I leaned, slightly, to the notion that he was off his rocker.”

The search for love can get a little crazy.  The searchers might be more than a little crazy themselves.  Come find some love for a lost show this week on Friday @ 8/7 Central.

–Tim R.

“Well, you can’t expect everyone to like you.  And you can’t expect everything to work out exactly the way you plan it.  Because life is full of surprises.  You never really know what’s around the next corner.  But if you do the best you can, and if you give 100%, then you can go to sleep with a clear conscience.  What you didn’t win today, you can always win tomorrow.  And remember, never lose sight of your goals.  Because there are some people who really are worth that extra time and effort. And in the end I believe that, if you work hard enough, everyone comes around.”
–Jim Profit, at the end of the pilot episode

I'm here to help... me.

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?  Nobody’s perfect.  None of us can really say we’ve made all the correct decisions, or have been completely blameless in our interactions with others.  That’s just the way humanity is.  In striving for what we want and need, sometimes people’s feelings get hurt along the way.  We’re not bad people, but we occasionally make mistakes.

But if Jim Profit happens to be around, then we know we’ve got a friend to turn to.  Jim’s a great guy.  He understands.  He’s been there.  He’ll help us out as much as he can.  It’s not his fault if we end up getting a figurative knife in the back from someone else, right?  Unless, of course, we’d ever discovered that he was helping that someone else with their problems as well, and guided that knife right between our shoulder blades while he sat and watched us all like a stage manager watching a play.  Those uplifting sentiments expressed above come from the VILLAIN of the show… or is he the hero?

Profit was a 1996 drama on Fox detailing the machinations of Jim Profit (Adrian Pasdar), an up-and-coming executive at multi-national company Gracen & Gracen (G&G).  G&G was the fifteenth largest company in the world and growing, thanks to their new junior executive.  But Profit wasn’t just looking to succeed.  Ultimately, he wanted the entire company for his own, and didn’t really care how he got there… or what happened to others along the way.

The first step is a whisper

The climb up the corporate ladder starts simply enough.  The previous Junior VP for acquisitions has died of a heart attack, and Profit is elevated to the position… and he promptly starts blackmailing a fellow VP’s secretary into helping him.  The secretary, Gail Koner (Lisa Darr) is scared of her small transgression being revealed, and helps Profit at first.  But when her possible part in the plan is discovered, she decides to expose Profit.  Her modest theft of company funds (to help her ailing mother, no less) is turned into something more like Grand Theft and the embezzlement of hundreds of thousands of dollars, thanks to more maneuvering by Profit.  But Profit then gets her off the hook, throwing blame on another person in the company (whom he wanted rid of anyway) and causing Gail to become even more indebted to him… and the vicious cycle begins.

Victim and Villain? Walters and Profit

Profit starts to play his chess game with other people’s lives at G&G.  With Gail’s assistance as his new secretary, he disgraces his boss, Senior VP Jack Walters (Scott Paulin), who temporarily loses his job and starts trying to find out what happened.  Walters brings in old friend (and long ago mistress) JoAnne Meltzer (Lisa Zane), G&G’s chief of security to help him, and they start on the trail of Profit.

But Profit has a bit of a head start, and he’s heading to the top.  The older Gracen brother Chaz (Keith Szarabajka) is the CEO of G&G, takes a mistress himself every year, and would probably be someone Jim Profit would kind of admire… if he wasn’t in the way of Profit’s drive for the company.  His younger ne’er-do-well brother Pete (Jack Gwaltney) is an alcoholic and doesn’t appreciate his marriage to his beautiful ignored wife Nora at all… a point Profit uses to manipulate each of them.

“Trust.  The foundation of any marriage.  If broken, it can hurt even the strongest ones… and kill the weak ones.”
–Jim Profit

By the time the orchestrations of Profit are finished, Nora (Allison Hossack) has fallen for Profit (who first encouraged her and then, nobly to all appearances, walked away from the potential affair).  But husband Pete is duped into thinking that the potential affair is with brother Chaz, and all three are to blame and untrustworthy in each other’s eyes… with Profit nowhere near the disaster, completely innocent to all concerned.

Jim Profit is an absolute bastard, but he’s very good at being a bastard.  Some referred to him as “Satan in a suit.”  The question is, why?  Hang on, there’s more….

Hi, mom

A woman named Bobbi Stakowski (Lisa Blount) comes to visit Profit in his apartment.  She’s a vulgar, loudmouthed thing, with an apparent heroin habit and a need for money… and she’s Profit’s stepmother.  Worse, she apparently seduced him when he was younger!  Now, she’s back for money and attention, and is willing to bring him down if she doesn’t get them.  Profit goes along with this… until he finds a way to turn the tables, framing her for the murder of his own abusive father (her husband), hopefully getting rid of her.  But Bobbi learned how to survive, just like Profit… and she’s not gone for long.  And the repercussions of that abusive childhood haven’t really left Profit, no matter what he lets the rest of the world see.

“Anyone who thinks controlling people is a science is dead wrong:  It’s an art.”
–Jim Profit

Want to know the really scary part of all this?  Everything I’ve described so far happens in just the two-hour pilot movie.  This is just the appetizer… wait for the main course.

Here I am, ready or not

Just like Jim Profit’s schemes and plans, nobody saw this show coming.  Profit was a critic’s darling in 1996 (one called it “Refreshingly cruel”) because it dared to do something no other show had really done before:  The lead was the bad guy, and he was the one the audience was supposed to identify with.  The title character narrated the show, with comments like the one at the start of this article that seemed perfectly reasonable and rather positive, but in the context of Jim Profit’s manipulative rise to the top of G&G there were rationalizations for murder, blackmail, lies, betrayal, and the worst behavior possible.  He was our eyes.

Of course, not everyone wanted to see through those eyes.  While the critics almost universally loved the characterization, some Fox affiliates (especially in the Bible Belt) threatened not to air the show due to its content.  Jim Profit was a thoroughly broken man with dark and Machiavellian methods, portraying uncomfortable motivations for most viewers.  These days, audiences accept such things (witness Dexter on Showtime or Breaking Bad on AMC, where the heroes are murderers and drug dealers), but Profit aired in 1996 when audiences still expected their heroes to be, well… heroes.  Jim Profit was a hero, all right, but most saw him as a hero only to himself.

If you look closely though, nothing could be further from the truth.

“The line most people say they won’t cross?  It’s usually something they’ve already done when they thought no one was watching.”
–Jim Profit

Look back over what Jim Profit did in just that pilot episode.  Yes, he manipulated people, preyed on their vulnerabilities, used them for his own purposes.  But each and every one of them fell victim to his schemes only because of their own personal errors, their own personal faults, their own personal desires.  None of them ever fell because they did what was right, and Profit simply used their own darkened souls against them.  Again, Satan in a suit?

I know the darkness

This show wasn’t uncomfortable for viewers because the title character was a bad guy.  It was uncomfortable because far too many people watching had their own skeletons in their home closet, and Jim Profit was the kind of guy who would remind them of their own secrets.  No one wants to deal with the darkness within.  And because Jim Profit was darker than most, he lived comfortably in a place none of us wanted to see in ourselves.

Too many people use television only as an escape, as a reason to get away.  Viewers don’t like to be reminded of their faults and problems.  Yet, the best drama and literature in history has examined the exploitation of those very human foibles and fallacies.  Creators David Greenwalt and John McNamara came up with the idea while watching a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III.  The very first scene prominently displays Machiavelli’s The Prince on a bookshelf, which has been used as a motivational tool for both personal philosophy and business advancement, despite its message of manipulating the innocent.

But Jim Profit didn’t take advantage of the innocent, only the guilty.  Think about that.  As I said before, nobody’s perfect.  We’re all guilty of something.  And by that logic, I would have to say that each and every one of us would be a potential target for the manipulations of Jim Profit… or anyone even remotely like him.  THAT’S the part of Profit that should really scare everyone.  And that’s what makes the show so incredible to watch… if you can stand to.

ADRIAN PASDAR (Jim Profit) may not have played a heroic character in Profit, but he’s best known as one of the leads of the NBC series Heroes.  He was previously a regular on Judging Amy and Mysterious Ways.  He is married to country singer Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks.

LISA DARR (Gail Koner) appeared regularly on Popular, Strong Medicine, and Life as We Know It.  She also played the girlfriend of Ellen DeGeneres when the lead character “came out” on Ellen, being part of the first serious open portrayal of a gay couple on a network television series.

SCOTT PAULIN (Jack Walters) was seen on I’ll Fly Away, and Hotel Malibu, and in recurring roles on JAG and Beverly Hills 90210 (’90’s version).  He’s currently seen in a recurring role on ABC’s Castle and teaches acting at the 2nd Story Theatre in Los Angeles.

LISA ZANE (JoAnne Meltzer) was a good person in a series that featured the evil one on Profit, but she had just come from playing villain Queen Diana on Roar (which means she’ll show up here again soon).  She’s about as multi-talented as they come, shining as a theatre performer, a writer, and a singer, and was recently recognized by the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame as one of their new songwriters of the year.  (Oh, and she’s got a really cool website too!)

KEITH SZARABAJKA (Chaz Gracen) had previously been a co-star on The Equalizer for four seasons.  Genre fans know him as a vampire hunter on Angel and as the lead in Stephen King’s Golden Years.  He has become an often used voice-over actor for video games, heard in franchises like Bioshock, Mass Effect, Dead Space, and Call of Duty.  (And Keith’s got a website worth visiting too….)

JACK GWALTNEY (Pete Gracen) has appeared in many New York-based TV series, with guest roles in three different Law & Order series, CSI:  NY, and Sex and the City.  He’s also protective of NY, volunteering for the Disaster Response Team of Greater New York.

ALLISON HOSSACK (Nora Gracen) is a native of Canada, and has appeared in Vancouver-based shows like Cobra, Kingdom Hospital, and CBC series Falcon Beach.  She also had a recurring role on Reaper, and a pivotal role on Supernatural playing the grandmother of lead characters Sam and Dean Winchester.

LISA BLOUNT (Bobbi Stakowski) received wide notice as Debra Winger’s best friend in the movie An Officer and a Gentleman.  She later won an Oscar as a producer for the short film The Accountant.  She accidentally died in late 2010, apparently suffering from a condition in which low levels of blood platelets cause difficulty in creating blood clots, threatening anyone with it that suffers even small blood loss.  No foul play was involved.

“Failure is a much better teacher than success.”
–Jim Profit

Although only four episodes (five hours) of Profit aired on Fox in 1996, all nine produced hours were released on DVD in 2005.  The DVD is hard to find these days, but it is well worth it for both the riveting episodes (with three commentaries) and an hour-plus long feature on the creation and making of the series.  There’s a phony site for Gracen & Gracen with pics and a supposed “interview” with rising executive Jim Profit, plus a timeline for the events happening within the company as seen onscreen.  I’d also highly recommend these ads for the series which aired on Fox in the lead-up to the show’s debut.  The first one with the spider is especially telling….

Television has changed significantly over the years, as have audiences.  The good guy/bad guy mold of the early days has become much more developed into shades of grey.  The very definition of a “hero” and a “villain” has become more based on context instead of purity of purpose and motivation.  But really, it’s always been that way, it just took movies and TV some time to catch up to Shakespeare, traditional Greek theatre, and humanity in general.  Some people can just more easily handle watching the darkness within their fellow man and themselves.

Of course, Jim Profit is one of those people.  He not only can watch the darkness, but show others how to deal with it.  Each of us has those small imperfections, the places we wouldn’t want to confront or expose to the light of day.  Jim Profit knows that and, as a friend, would never want to let those things be seen by others.  He’ll help.  You can trust him, can’t you?

Vital Stats

4 aired episodes — five unaired
Fox Network
First aired episode:  April 8, 1996
Last aired episode:  April 29, 1996 (The unaired episodes later aired on cable networks Trio and Chiller)
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No, although Jim Profit would have taken over that time if he could.  The series aired after frothy lead-in Melrose Place on Mondays at 9/8 Central, but was really aimed at a more serious audience who never found the show.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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