Most of you probably already know the backstory on “Cupid.” The show originally aired under Rob Thomas’ direction on ABC for 14 short episodes ten years ago — starring Paula Marshall and Jeremy Piven — before it was quickly shitcanned in favor of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” every night, all the time. The original “Cupid,” was sweet and witty, but it only mustered a miniscule but devoted following, mostly folks who were watching TV on Saturday nights (where it first aired) or who weren’t watching NBC’s comedy block on Thursday nights (against which it next aired).
A decade later, and Rob Thomas has got a little clout. He produced “Veronica Mars,” another low-rated cancelled-too-soon show with a significantly larger, but still relatively small, devoted following. Somehow, despite a résumé that doesn’t include much besides the original “Cupid” and “Veronica Mars,” he was able to nevertheless convince ABC to give him another shot at “Cupid,” though there’s very little reason to think that television watching audiences have changed enough over the past decade to buy into a silly premise and allow the schmoopy goopy wash over them for an hour.
But, as I did with the original “Cupid,” I reluctantly bought into Thomas’ remake, although not quite as much. For comparison’s sake, I’d watched the first half hour of the original pilot, so it took me a few minutes to get over how so little, yet so much had changed. The premise is identical. And, in fact, large hunks of the original pilot were kept intact — the exact locations had changed and the lighting was brighter, but many of the same words were coming out of different people’s mouths. And while I’m fond of Bobby Cannavale (The Station Agent) and Sarah Paulson (“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”), neither of them quite matches up to Jeremy Piven and Sarah Marshall in terms of presence and chemistry. Piven (pre-toupee) had a smarmy wit and a sleazy streak, while Marshall radiated a little warmth beneath her icy exterior. Cannavale’s take on Cupid is a little more earnest, a little more studio-driven, and Paulson doesn’t quite have that warmth yet. But once you come around to the idea that this is quite not the same “Cupid,” the new show nevertheless manages to knock a few flakes of coal off of the shell surrounding your cold, black heart.
The premise, still as ridiculous as ever: Cannavale plays Cupid. Yeah. Freakin’ Eros. As a form of punishment, he’s banished from the orgy on Mount Olympus and made to return to Earth, where he’s required to match 200 different people into couples. A few dates and a little bump-rump that’s what she said won’t do: The couple needs that “travel across the ocean” kind of love for it to count. The narrative impediment? Paulson plays Claire McRae, a cynical shrink with a bestselling book on the science of romance. She also runs a singles group, where she espouses cold, practical advice for finding a lifelong mate.
After Cupid is arrested for doing something romantically foolish, he’s put under the psychiatric care of McRae, which is the tenuous sticky that glues them together. Naturally, the doctor/patient relationship, and the fact that McRae thinks that Cupid is batshit, will keep the two apart for a while, but underlying the romance of the week will be the slowly blossoming relationship between the two.
Unfortunately, there’s no there there in the pilot episode, and the chemistry between Paulson and Cannavale is so awkward that it’s still fairly difficult to imagine how it will plausibly work. But I’m willing to let Rob Thomas try to convince me. Meanwhile, the pilot episode’s romance of the week is kind of cheesy, kind of bland, and very predictable. But it has its moments, which mostly revolve around minor chord renditions of Hall & Oates numbers. It’s hard to buy the relationship, but it’s not that difficult to swoon over an Irish guy who does an acoustic rendition of “You’re Making My Dreams Come True.” I’m an easy sell when it comes to Daryl and John.
It’s not a fantastic pilot, and it doesn’t really come all that close to matching the original “Cupid,” but it airs on Tuesday night, where the primetime schedule is pretty bare. And if I can stick through seven episodes so far of “Dollhouse” out of loyalty to Joss Whedon, a few episodes of “Cupid” — for the sake of Rob Thomas — will be significantly easier to do. Besides, there’s a much better chance that “Cupid” will ultimately succeed, at least critically. It already has once before. The trick is to get that lightning back in the bottle before it singes off your eyebrows.