One TV series that I really liked but which — as a direct result, I suspect — lasted for less than one season was Cupid, created by Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars), which ran on the ABC network from September 1998 to February 1999.
In addition to being one of the few attempts to translate the movie genre of the romantic comedy into (non-sitcom) episodic television, Cupid had a heart-piercing premise: a wanderer (Jeremy Piven) in contemporary Chicago proclaims himself to be the Greco-Roman god Cupid in human form, banished because of the sorry state of love from Mount Olympus to Earth by Jupiter. The self-described deity’s way to get back home? Bring together 100 couples. Until he does, he’s stranded in the land of mere mortals. Of course, the local authorities think him crazy and put him in the care of young psychotherapist Claire Allen (Paula Marshall). In order to get released from the loony bin, “Cupid” says that his name is “Trevor Hale,” but Claire — ironically an uptight academic specialist in the psychology of romance — believes the name to be an alias. Still, she does what she can to get him to adjust to life in Chicago while trying to uncover his real identity. For his part, the bluff smart-aleck Trevor does what he can to bring his requisite 100 couples together — each attempt being the subject of each episode. Trevor’s declared identity and mission would be easy to dismiss as delusion if it weren’t for his preternatural ability to unite lonely hearts, as well as other telltale signs, such as his uncanny adeptness at throwing darts.
Built into this intriguing premise was a Moonlighting-like unspoken romantic and sexual tension between Trevor and Claire, which both seemed to suppress. In addition to the taboo of romance violating the doctor-patient relationship, Trevor claimed that any amorous attachment on Earth would complicate his “return” to Olympus. Also, their tacit attraction was counterintuitive to their personalities: Claire’s cautious, over-intellectualized, somewhat pessimistic view of romance constantly clashed with Trevor’s wildly optimistic, impulsive, damn-the-torpedoes approach to affairs of the heart. So, while he worked from episode to episode to bring potential lovers together, Trevor/Cupid didn’t indulge in any amatory pursuits of his own. Shot on location in Chicago, Cupid grounded each episode’s quasi-magical romanticism in a down-to-earth depiction of life in the unromanticized city.
Another story-line staple of the series was a therapy group that Claire held for singles, a group that Trevor sometimes attended. When the lovelorn members of the group would tell Claire of their romantic difficulties, she would respond with by-the-book analyses of their problems with an emphasis on the joy-killing laboriousness of seeking a soulmate. To Claire’s analyses, Trevor would usually counter with exultations of the adventurous messiness of finding romance and the joy of following your instincts.
The plots of the episodes provided a deft mix of comedy and drama. One installment involved a husband who constantly burst into song and dance on the street, movie-musical-style, embarrassing his dance-deficient wife; Claire tries to get the husband to stop dancing in inappropriate places, while Trevor encourages the wife to take dance lessons. A woman “falls in love” with a man on a billboard advertisement; Claire lectures her about the pitfalls of “emotional transference,” but Trevor hunts down the male model who posed for the ad. A local singer laments the would-be childhood sweetheart that she missed having; Claire advises her to accept the failure of a relationship with the boy in her past to work out, but Trevor takes her on a road trip to find him. In one of the more unusual episodes, Trevor, on his own initiative, brings together a man and a woman whom he senses were meant to be together, but the woman then reveals that she has a terminal condition which only a heart transplant will cure, and her rare blood type makes a transplant unlikely. In the end, the man dies in a car crash, and his heart provides the transplant that saves her life.
Cupid’s weekly appearance allowed the series to follow both the humor and the heart-tugging solemnity of finding love in the big city. In one episode, a young woman named Helen (Twin Peaks’s Sherilyn Fenn) gets a crush on Trevor, not knowing his claims to a life in ancient Greece (Trevor to Helen: “I knew a Helen once — beautiful face, bit of a troublemaker, though”), and we grin at Trevor’s attempts to avoid her, so he won’t endanger his chances to make it back to Olympus. But in one of the series’ inter-episodic subplots, Trevor has introduced Claire to a possible Mr. Right, and he now seems to be regretting the decision. Perhaps because of his ambivalent feelings for Claire, or perhaps because of his desire to remove himself from this mundane mortal world, at his moment of possible consummation with Helen, Trevor — without revealing his alter ego to her — breaks down in front of her and tearfully tells her of his yearning to “go home.” In Cupid, just like in the best of the cinema’s romantic comedies, tears temper the laughter.
One of the show’s few bothersome false notes was its portrayal of Claire and her profession. The series was so quick to celebrate Trevor’s from-the-gut approach to love that it often went too far in portraying Claire’s psychoanalysis as strictly from the head. She seemed determine to cram every problem that a patient encountered into some textbook-defined box so that Trevor could rip up this metaphorical box with some seat-of-the-pants idea and thereby liberate the patient’s true romantic impulses. In other words, Cupid’s portrayal of psychoanalysis as over-intellectual and somewhat anti-feeling was a caricature, a straw man for Trevor to knock down. Also, the show’s invention of Claire’s therapy group specifically for singles — while providing Trevor with weekly opportunities to flex his wings — would be unworkable in the real world: such a group would probably devolve into a meat market. But, hey, the episodes’ story lines fueled by the singles group still worked.
Was Trevor really the god Cupid or a flesh-and-blood mortal — albeit one extremely skilled in affairs of the heart — with an identity-engulfing delusion (and an extensive knowledge of Greco-Roman mythology as well)? The series never let on. Given Cupid’s naturalistic depiction of contemporary Chicago, the idea of a mortal Trevor would certainly conform to the show’s ambiance. But this was also the realm of fiction, where it wouldn’t be impossible for archaic gods to assume human form and toy with our knowledge of the known world. I was certainly hoping that the show would last long enough to answer the question of Trevor’s identity in an intriguing way.
Another thing: Trevor’s knowledge of Greek mythology is immense, but he claims that one story from the otherwise true tales of ancient mythology never happened — he says that Cupid, contrary to the well-known myth, never married a mortal woman named Psyche. “Psyche” is also the psychoanalytic term for the mental forces of an individual that influence thought, emotion, and behavior. The psyche is often the central concern of psychoanalysis (as its name might suggest), and Claire is a psychoanalyst. This sets up a compelling possibility: perhaps the story of Cupid and Psyche tells of an ancient occurrence that has yet to happen. Perhaps Claire is the beautiful mortal woman with whom the god Cupid falls in love. Maybe instead of falling for a woman named Psyche, the god of love falls for a woman of the psyche. Maybe it’s Claire’s destiny to live and fulfill the ancient myth. Or maybe Trevor’s just out of his gourd — one of the two. I just wanted the show to make the outcome interesting.
But such, alas, was not to be. After 15 episodes, Cupid was cancelled, leaving the motivating questions unanswered. I’m still disappointed that the series wasn’t picked up for another season or two in order to play out its richly comedic and dramatic possibilities. However, ten years later — perhaps in recognition of Cupid’s enormous potential — the show was reworked, recast, and given a second chance, something uncommon for a series that lasted less than one season. In this iteration, Piven’s bristly, sometimes obnoxious Trevor was transformed into a lovable hunky lunk played by Bobby Cannavale. The dark and brooding beauty of Marshall’s Claire gave way to the airbrushed blondness of Sarah Paulson’s not-terribly-troubled psychiatrist. And most dismaying of all, the moody, cinéma-vérité Chicago setting was switched to a candy-colored, picture-postcard New York. The old show’s agreeably quirky premise was back, but the new show was missing the old one’s carefully crafted soul. This rejiggered Cupid ran for only seven episodes from April to June of 2009.
Somewhere, in a more perfect world, gas costs only 28¢ a gallon, there’s no such thing as war, and the Mudville Nine won the pennant. And in this perfect world, Rob Thomas’ Chicago-set Cupid, starring Jeremy Piven and Paula Marshall, would have been given the long and devoted TV run that it deserved.
The first ten minutes of the pilot to Cupid