Tom Shales TV Preview: 'Cupid' on ABC

Trevor (Bobby Cannavale) is Cupid in human form. You know, the Roman god of love. This guy -- this guy -- is Cupid.
Trevor (Bobby Cannavale) is Cupid in human form. You know, the Roman god of love. This guy -- this guy -- is Cupid. (By Eric Liebowitz -- Abc)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Now I'm not one to make cheap cracks, but it's all too obvious what "Cupid" rhymes with, especially once you've seen the series of the same name on ABC.

Time and again, producers concoct movies or TV shows with a lame premise that involves the gods of mythology coming down to Earth to meddle in human affairs -- or in "Cupid's" case, to encourage human affairs. That gimmick failed miserably long ago when Rita Hayworth tried it in "Down to Earth" and failed just as miserably last October when CW tried it with "Valentine."

The latest foolish attempt, premiering tonight at 10, is a drama more ridiculous than most of the comedies on the air -- although ABC officially refers to it as a "romantic dramedy." Cupid, who capriciously adopts the earthly name of Trevor Pierce, is played by the miscast Bobby Cannavale, who looks about as cupidly as Saddam Hussein.

They share an excess of facial hair, in neither case an asset. Although if eyebrows were talent, Cannavale would be all the Barrymores put together (to quote, of all things, a lyric from "Funny Girl"). No doubt the producers thought casting a lug as Cupid was a funny concept, but it doesn't play funny, just irritating. It's perverse to depict Cupid, even though he never existed, as creepy.

Here's an irony for you: Rob Thomas, who created the series and wrote the pilot, has run this all by us before -- in 1998, when he made his first "Cupid" with the same premise but with Jeremy Piven as the star. Piven made a world of difference and helped put it over, although the series tanked anyway. And of course Piven has gone on to glory as the rampaging agent in HBO's "Entourage." It looked like a happy ending, until Thomas persuaded ABC to try it again.

This time, he skates way too close to the "cute" zone -- as with a rooming house called Hostel Territory and the Boldly Go Travel Service. The first of Cupid's little conquests -- he's been discharged from Olympus to bring about 100 assignations, or couplings, or whatever -- is also cutesy-wootsy; a plaintive balladeer named David pines sappily for a girl named Holly and even puts her name up in lights on Times Square, about where the New Year's ball should be.

All in vain, and I do mean all.

Cupid tries to lend a hand and bungles the job, but every time David shows up strumming his guitar and singing a corny song, Holly seems to be his, only to sort of wander away again. Two scenes in a row are set at a "mariachi karaoke" bar, and in one of them the icky couple sing Elton John and Kiki Dee's "Don't Go Breaking My Heart." Now, I'm not one to boast, but a few weeks ago my goddaughter and I did our own SingStar version and it was at least 10 times better.

Thomas wants us to know Cupid is a true romantic, so early in the show he has him stare longingly at a young woman's posterior. Is that part of the new romanticism, or just plain old lust? Throughout the show, his behavior is quirky and smug in cloying and annoying ways, which seems a self-destructive miscalculation. If Cupid's going to be a lug, maybe Thomas should have gone further and made him a grizzled, cigar-smoking old grump -- but then no network would let him be the hero of a series.

The supporting cast, in contrast to the leads, isn't bad. Austin Pendleton has one or two scenes as an officious hospital administrator, and he's an old reliable. Indeed! It's hard to believe that one could have sat in a New York theater nearly 40 years ago and seen the novice Pendleton as a young man in "The Last Sweet Days of Isaac," and now here he is playing an old doctor. Now, I'm not one to get sentimental and mushy and start mooning about the passage of time, but -- oh, wait a minute. Yes, I am. I am one to do precisely that.

But then, when you're watching a show like "Cupid," your mind searches relentlessly for places to wander.

Cupid (one hour) premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 7.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company