Star-Ledger, 01/07/99

Cupid aims for new viewers

(Tonight at 9, Channel 7) Trevor tries to find a mate for a beautiful woman who wants to be appreciated for her personality. Rated TV-PG-L.

"Finding a new television show to follow is often like looking for a mate. There's plenty of material out there to choose from, but obstacles aplenty.

A show might seem appealing but have a fatal flaw (a former "Baywatch" star in the supporting cast). A show could try really hard but not generate a spark (an earnestly well-meaning family drama, say). It might keep throwing out the same old come-ons (any recent NBC sitcom, any comedy with a former sitcom star and untested writers). And even when you think you're ready to make a series commitment, you might find out your new show airs on a commitment phobic network with a quick cancellation button.

This season, the field of series bachelors and bachelorettes has been pretty barren, but we think we've found a show that'll be hard not to fall in love with, if you just give it a try. ABC's romantic comedy-drama "Cupid", which moves to Thursdays at 9 beginning tonight.

As foolish as it might be to try to quantify love in a list, this is television we're talking about, and sound bites rule. So here are four simple reasons why you should watch "Cupid", the season's best new show:

1. Jeremy Piven is the star. If you're aware of Piven, it's probably either as the obnoxious cousin from "Ellen" or a host of obnoxious frat-guy roles in '80s and '90s teen comedies (usually featuring John Cusack in some way). Overbearing and irritating has always been his stock in trade.

So why is he so good as Trevor Hale, a paroled mental patient who just might be the Greco-Roman god of love? Why is he so confident, so charming, so funny and (occasionally) so moving?

Maybe Piven's side job as a "Cupid" producer status as a producer gives him enough feedback to keep Trevor from being a jerk. Maybe he's lucked into the role of a lifetime. Who knows? All that matters is that he's delivering one of the most charismatic leading turns in a long time, and his presence alone is worth tuning in on a given week.

2. It's really funny. And smart. And sometimes touching. The writing staff, culled from shows as diverse as "Moonlighting" and "thirtysomething", has been turning in some of the funniest, most intelligent scripts on TV (this season).

There are many great lines in a given hour that you may actually want to tape the show as you watch it, just so you can go back and catch the ones you missed because you were laughing. It helps that Piven and Paula Marshall --as Claire, the skeptical shrink assigned to monitor Trevor -- can deliver the banter at lightning speed, to give extra time for jokes in a given hour.

They also write terrific dialogue for the other characters, including whatever guest stars Trevor may be trying to fix up. Whether it's a cosmologist expounding about the origins of the universe on a first date or a shy college professor talking about his South Boston upbringing, everyone gets great stuff to say, and many of the show's first dates will be a lot more entertaining than ones you've been on.

The writers have managed to toe the line on Trevor's true identity nicely. There hasn't been a single iota of "magic" in any episode, though Trevor will occasionally do a parlor trick that seems impossible (throwing a dart over his shoulder while aiming with the reflection in a beer mug and hitting the target dead center). And the show on occasion will suggest very strongly that he really is just a lonely guy with some delusions.

3. It's unpredictable. The basic premise -- whether he's really Cupid or not, Trevor believes he has to unite 100 couples in order to return to Mount Olympus -- would seem to suggest some kind of "Touched By A Nutcase" weekly quasi-anthology format, with Trevor bringing two young lovers together at the end of each week's show.

Miraculously that hasn't happened. Trevor occasionally fails. Sometimes, there's no couple at all. Other times, the couple is an afterthought.

One of the best episodes so far featured Trevor challenging the shy guys from Claire's singles encounter group to try to collect as many rejections as possible from women at a Halloween party, leading to a wild farce of bad pick-up lines, odd behavior and the occasional surprise success story. Another sent Claire, Trevor and his roommate Champ (Jeffrey D. Sams) on a fun-filled road trip with an aspiring pop star looking to find the first boy she kissed.

And even when the show is squarely in "couple of the week" territory, it can take a magical twist or two. In one, Trevor tried to fix up a terminal heart patient with what he felt was her "perfect match". After the first date, the guy died in a car accident, but she received his heart -- a perfect match for her incredibly rare blood type -- in a transplant.

Of course, the ones where Trevor just gets two people together are pretty nifty -- and tonight's bittersweet episode is actually an odd choice for the first show in the new timeslot -- but it's nice to know that anything can happen in a given week.

4. Veronica's Closet stinks. ABC has tried good dramas opposite NBC's "Must-See" Thursday in recent years, but it's never had a show this good (or at least with this much mass appeal), and NBC's never been this weak. "Frasier" is in a major creative slump, and "Veronica's Closet" is an embarrassment, a show just as crass and dumb in its own way as UPN's canceled "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer", and should be protested just as vehemently -- wasting the half-hour between "Frasier" and "ER" with this is almost as offensive as parodying Abe Lincoln.

"Frasier" may show signs of life, but with the condition it's in right now, you have no excuse not to give "Cupid" a shot. And don't feel bad if you like "Cupid" so much you start missing "Frasier" -- you can always catch the Channel 11 repeats.

(article typed up courtesy of Bonnie)