When I think of Rob Thomas' TV shows, "Veronica Mars" and "iZombie" immediately spring to mind, but that leaves out what might be his best show: "Cupid" (1998-99, ABC). Remarkable for Thomas' first creator/executive producer credit, this 14-episode series (plus one never-aired episode) deserves a spot on the short list of great TV shows about romance, and unfortunately it's also on the short list of shows that are heartbreakingly lost to history.
The premise is that Cupid/Trevor (Jeremy Piven, later of "Entourage") must make 100 love matches in order to return to Mount Olympus. Psychiatrist Claire (Paula Marshall) takes him on as a patient; Claire's bosses allow Trevor to stay out of the nuthouse so long as she keeps him under control. What makes the show work is the chemistry between the firecracker Piven and the calmly beautiful Marshall, who as Trevor and Claire are a Mulder-and-Scully of matchmaking: He's the believer in the magical side of love; she's the skeptic, believing that what makes relationships work or not can be broken down scientifically. As with "The X-Files," the believer is usually right on this show, although Claire gets a victory now and then. Thomas' thesis statement seems to be: "It's OK to be a hopeless romantic, but there are some tactics worth trying, too."
The writing of this Chicago-set show is as crisp, fast and smart as "Veronica," with very few wasted moments, but the plots feel more naturalistic, less scripted, than Thomas' hit series; this might be a credit to Piven. While there's a clunkiness to the mythology on "iZombie," it's not a problem here beyond Trevor casually reminding us of the premise by noting that he's 15 centuries old or that his dad is Mars, the God of War. Since he passes for human in every way except for his "delusion," everyone humors him, and those who know him best gradually realize he is indeed Cupid.
The vibe of "Cupid" leans more toward something like a Herskovitz/Zwick show, thanks to the emphasis on W.G. Snuffy Walden's score rather than pop songs. The theme song – the Pretenders' cover of the Divinyl's "Human on the Inside" -- has a very 1990s feel; the instruments sound similar to Jann Arden's "Run Like Mad," the "Dawson's Creek" theme song overseas.
In addition to the leads, we meet Trevor's roommate, aspiring actor Champ (Jeffrey D. Sams), and three members of the singles support group led by Claire and interrupted by Trevor: Nice guy Mike (Paul Adelstein), timid Laurence (Daniel Bryant) and comes-on-too-strong Nick (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) are the three barhoppers, and the favorite haunt is Taggerty's, where Trevor tends bar. This trio represents the Everyman's struggles to find love, a nice counterpoint to the mostly successful matches in the A-plots.
In its too-short run, "Cupid" gives us a wide range of relationships that broadly vindicate Trevor: There's no exact science to this stuff. In the pilot episode, Trevor matches up two people (including "Friday Night Lights' " Connie Britton) at a bar after getting a feel for their personalities and interests; he's like eHarmony made flesh. Then he helps a stuffy linguist and a cynical waitress hit it off (2, "The Linguist"), and urges a conservative woman to reconnect with her newly outgoing husband ("Buffy's" Harry Groener, in what could've been an audition role for The Mayor) (3, "Heaven, He's in Heaven").
Things get twisty in the middle batch of episodes, when "Cupid" reaches its creative height. "A Truly Fractured Fairy Tale" (4) has a "Princess Bride" feel with its voiceover narration, as Claire gets caught up in the idea that a secret admirer is sending her gifts. It turns out the guy simply had the wrong address, illustrating how the imaginations of even the most logic-based person can get carried away when it comes to the idea of a white knight (or a dream girl).
In "First Loves" (5), my favorite among the episodes I've seen (I couldn't find three of them), we learn the formative experiences of all the characters (except Trevor, as he's a god), and 1990s singer-songwriter icon Lisa Loeb gives a strong guest turn as a girl who longs for the one that got away. In "Meat Market," Champ, Mike, Laurence and Nick have wildly different bar experiences in a mini-"American Graffiti." Trevor desperately wants to go home in "Pick-Up Schticks" (7) when a beautiful woman ("Twin Peaks' " Sherilyn Fenn) won't give up on him; if he consummates a relationship on Earth, he'll become fully mortal.
This is also the point at which the Trevor-Claire connection is more overtly teased – Claire spends a bit too much time around Trevor despite being in a perfect relationship with Alex (Joe Flanigan), and Trevor is a bit lacking in ebullience over this successful match. We know where things would've gone had "Cupid" reached an end point, and it would've been satisfying to see Piven and Marshall go there.
Trevor matches up a workaholic Blackhawks coach and a wallflower in "Heart of the Matter" (8), which is wonderfully 1990s with its video store and Skee-Ball scenes; your mileage will vary with the "ER"-style final-act twist. "A Great Personality" (11) also has a period vibe as Trevor uses newspaper classified ads to find a match for a pretty woman ("Hey Dude's" Christine Taylor) who finds good-looking guys to be shallow -- but will she give an Average Joe a chance? "Grand Delusions" (12) strips love down to its innocent core as a crazy man who thinks he's Don Quixote (Patrick Fabian) falls for a stripper, and she in turn falls for his innocent outlook.
In "Bachelorette Party" (13), Trevor says two characters have "lightning-bolt love," and I think the same principle applies to television. "Cupid" was one of those shows where lightning struck with the chemistry between the leads, plus the fact that it took no time at all for the series to find its footing.
To me, this was starkly illustrated when ABC and Thomas remade "Cupid" in 2009 with Bobby Cannavale and Sarah Paulson, who in my opinion couldn't fill the big shoes of their predecessors. Although the remake has its loyal followers too, it lasted only seven episodes and is likewise not available on DVD. As such, "Cupid" is the rare show that has been canceled in two separate incarnations from the same creator. Obviously, "Cupid" wasn't meant to be, but I still long for that 1998 version like the one that got away.
(This blog post is part of a series about great short-lived TV shows that haven't been released on DVD or digital or streaming services, and are rarely – if ever -- shown in syndication. While some of these shows can be found somewhere on the Internet, fans of great TV want to see them get a proper release. If you're one of those fans, your best bets are to vote for the show at TVonDVD.com or to request information from Amazon.com in the event the show gets released. This will let the copyright holder know of your interest. Find an index of my TV reviews here.)