Imagine you’re going to sit down to watch ABC’s new romantic dramedy “Cupid” without any awareness that it’s a reboot of a show that aired for around 30 second back in 1998. Then imagine that you’re settling in to enjoy the new “Cupid” oblivious to the notion that it (and its 1998 antecedent) comes from “Veronica Mars” mastermind Rob Thomas.
In short, pretend that you’re not a TV junkie, that you aren’t a pop culture maven. Pretend that you’re just a person who likes to watch TV after a long day of work and after an arduous 62-minute “Dancing with the Stars” results show. Pretend you’re like 99% of the viewing public.
I know that’s a lengthy exercise. It’s all just a lengthy prologue for the sad reality that if you didn’t like “Cupid” in its first incarnation and you weren’t predisposed to like it now for a litany of behind-the-scenes reasons, ABC’s new “Cupid” is instantly forgettable and disposable. But many critics have such warm feelings for the original that a transferal process is likely to remain into effect.
This “Cupid” isn’t that “Cupid” and there’s no point in dwelling. So I won’t.
[Review after the break…]
Bobby Cannavale, a tremendous talent somehow long denied a proper starring vehicle, plays a free spirit locked up in the psyche ward after a wildly romantic New Year’s Eve stunt. He’s willing to call himself Trevor, but he insists he’s really Cupid and that he’s stranded on Earth until he matches 200 singles into 100 couples, delivers 100 happily-ever-afters. He’s a wacky bon vivant prone to leading his fellow patients in choruses of “All You Need Is Love.”
He’s paired with Sarah Paulson’s Dr. Claire McCrae, an oppressive pill of a psychiatrist and self-help guru who argues that love-at-first-sight is a myth and that “Love is what’s left after the heat and passion die.”
Trevor is put under Claire’s observation, but even after his release, he continues to insist that he’s Cupid and she continues to figure that he has an actual identity and a variety of psychological hang-ups. Claire’s theory seems more realistically plausible, but she’s written as such a bitter husk that you don’t particularly want her to be right about anything.
The romance-of-the-week features Irish busker (Sean Maguire) looking for his American soulmate. But wouldn’t you know that sparks would fly with the love-shy reporter (Marguerite Moreau) meant to interview him and get his story?
Perhaps the pilot was too well-cast in the guest star department? Maguire and Moreau are both veteran series leads and the plot, which borrows more-than-casually from “Once,” unfolds smoothly. Many viewers will find themselves perfectly happy to follow this pairing, with awareness only gradually sinking in that as soon as Cupid makes this one match, Moreau and Maguire will head off to their next guest-starring or lead roles and we’ll never see or hear from those characters again.
The heavy concentration on the couple-of-the-week comes at the expense of the main dynamic, which is supposed to be the banter between Claire and Cupid/Trevor. It’s a choice: Do we went emotional investment in the disposable weekly couples, or do we want investment in the show’s central questions. I left the pilot with only marginal interest in whether or not Trevor is really Cupid and no interest at all in the chemistry or lack thereof between Paulson and Cannavale.
The perception in Hollywood is that Sarah Paulson is such a likable actress that she has to be handicapped by being cast in the most unlikable of roles. She struggled to fight Frank Miller’s misogyny on “The Spirit” and Aaron Sorkin’s relationship baggage on “Studio 60.” Here she’s stuck with a Type more than a Character. There was once a time where it was writing-against-the-grain to have a male role be the swooning romantic and the female be hard-hearted and cold, but we’re well past that point. At Sundance this January, I saw at least five movies that hammed home the Woman Who Doesn’t Believe in Love archetype. It’s very 21st Century. I get it.
So Paulson has to stand back and roll her eyes and furrow her brow as Cannavale shouts and gesticulates. Apparently being the Earthly embodiment of a Greek God means that nobody ever tells you to rein it in. I could go into comparing Paulson and Cannavale’s interpretations of the roles to what Paula Marshall and Jeremy Piven did in the original, but that would violate my desire to treat “Cupid” like it’s its own series. Let’s just say that both stars have good moments in the pilot, but neither is interesting enough for viewers to take a side.
The only other regular cast members are Rick Gomez and Camille Guaty, as siblings who own the Tres Equis Cantina and rent Trevor a room above the bar. I’m still struggling to figure out why Gomez and Guaty are around other that they’re part of ABC’s recurring casting stable.
The story goes that Thomas was pitching ABC on pilots that were in the vein of “Cupid,” but not “Cupid,” but both sides agreed that they might as well just make “Cupid” again if that’s what they wanted. That’s an ambivalent reason for a series order and that explain the lack of urgency in the pilot, which Thomas wrote and directed.
Even if you can be disappointed by the lack of spark and crackle in “Cupid,” it’s far from distasteful. Shot in a magically clean and photogenic version of New York City, “Cupid” has a charm and intelligence, but it’s all low-wattage. It’s almost like ABC is afraid of the attention spans of “Dancing with the Stars” viewers, because neither “Cupid” not “Castle” seems aspire to much more than being amiable enough to keep viewers from changing the channel. That’s not the same as being compelling enough to make audiences tune in. As a critic, I can tell you that nothing is less fun to write about.
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