I was as much in thrall to NBC’s “Must-See TV” blocks in the mid-’90s as anyone else, but by the end of the decade, my wife and I were watching ABC about as much as we were watching any other network. For a time there, ABC was taking real chances with their hourlong dramas, giving a shot—if only a brief one— to unusual shows like Murder One, Relativity and Nothing Sacred. One of the best of those here-and-gone efforts was Cupid, a whimsical, smart take on modern love starring Paula Marshall as a prim pop-psychologist who didn’t believe in romance, and Jeremy Piven as one of her patients: a man who claimed to be the mythological Eros, sent here to Earth to match 100 couples in order to earn re-entry to Olympus. Each of the show’s 14 aired episodes were about Piven trying to bring people together while Marshall argued that his stunts and theatrics were actually proving detrimental to the cause of true love. Meanwhile, Cupid kept fighting his attraction to his doctor, certain that coupling with a mortal would end his shot at Olympus; and the doctor kept digging into her patient’s past, plumbing the depth of his presumed psychosis. Cupid was like Miracle On 34th Street with a healthy dose of cynicism balancing out the fantasy.
After creating Cupid, writer-producer Rob Thomas kicked around the TV industry for a few years and then had some success with his second major series, the intricate high school detective show Veronica Mars (which probably didn’t have any more regular viewers than Cupid, but aired on a smaller network and thus ran for three full, mostly awesome seasons). Once VM ended, Thomas migrated back to ABC, where he’s been serving as a kind of utility player while developing new series. As a reward for being a good soldier, Thomas has been given the chance to re-start Cupid from the beginning, with a whole new cast—operating under the assumption that perhaps the show was ahead of its time.
The new Cupid’s pilot episode sets the premise up kind of perfunctorily. Eros (now played by Bobby Cannavale) is in the midst of helping an Irish street musician named Dave (played by Sean Maguire) reconnect with a New Yorker he met back home, by changing NYC’s “Happy New Year” lights display to “Holly I’m Here.” Watching the stunt from her couch, the pop-psychologist, Claire (now played by Sarah Paulson) shakes her head at the near-psychotic show of romantic desperation. But after Cupid gets arrested—taking the fall for Dave so that he can save him from deportation—Claire is called in to an asylum to evaluate the god's mental state, and immediately becomes captivated by Cupid’s confidence, and his fervent belief in love stories that please the immortals. She’s also half-convinced by his encyclopedic knowledge of Greek myth—except that he doesn’t remember that the real Cupid was married, to a mortal named Psyche. If this modern-day Cupid is the same as the Cupid of old, could Claire be his Psyche?
All of this takes place in the first ten minutes of the pilot, before the opening credits. The opening also throws in a quick introduction of Cupid’s new Earth name ("Trevor Pierce," stolen from an inscription on the courthouse wall) and a quick establishment that the court has made Claire responsible for the ongoing competency of “Trevor.” Then we’re off to the races with the Dave/Holly plot, as though Thomas didn’t want to waste the time of the old Cupid’s loyal fans.
Here’s what I liked about the revamped Cupid: Even though the tone is light and quirky—so quirky that Trevor/Eros tends bar in a singles joint that features Mariachi Karaoke—it’s clear that Thomas has no plans to abandon the little tinges of acid that made the first series so singular. When Cupid tells the doctors at his competency hearing what they need to hear so that they’ll let him go, the way Cannavale grits his teeth and spits out his made-up name makes it clear that pretending to be what he’s not is almost physically painful. And later, when Trevor’s efforts to reunite Dave with Holly comes at the expense of one of Claire’s patients—a New York Post reporter who falls for Dave while writing his story—the reporter delivers a heartfelt rebuke to Trevor that’s both genuinely emotional and evocative of the series’ main theme. Is love the stuff of Harlequin Romances and chick-lit, or is it about the mundanity of compatibility and common interests?
Here's what I didn't like about the revamped Cupid: Pretty much everything else. My problem with this pilot is that I really didn’t care a whit about Dave, Holly, or the Post gal. Dave’s character was clearly meant to remind viewers of Once’s Glen Hansard, but Maguire’s Irish accent obliterated some of Thomas’ best lines. Also, at the moment, I’m not sold on Bobby Cannavale as Cupid, despite his Broadway/indiewood bona fides. (Or maybe I’m just distracted by his awful fauxhawk.) And at the moment I don’t like Sarah Paulson any more here than I did when she was on Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. She has far too little esprit.
Perhaps I’m just recalling the liveliness that Marshall and Piven brought to their respective roles. They had an almost manic, His Girl Friday edge that seems to be missing between Cannavale and Paulson. I’ll keep watching Cupid because I trust Thomas and I still think this premise is a winner, but based strictly on the revamped pilot, this Cupid feels like a tepid cover version of a great song.