“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.
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.”
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.
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….
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.
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.”
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….
14 aired episodes — 1 unaired episode
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
7 aired episodes — none unaired
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.