Love, Death and Déjà vu

In that several rather than a few words are required to describe it, ABC's Cupid -- in which Jeremy Piven stars either as the actual Roman god, mortalized and exiled to Chicago until he engineers 100 love connections without his customary magic, or as a nutjob who believes this to be the case -- may be considered one of the season's more ambitious series. Indeed, as it begs a question that begs resolution, it has the premise not of a TV show but a movie -- a sort of literally screwball comedy, with Piven conveniently assigned to the care of lovely Paula Marshall, a psychiatrist and "relationship expert" whose expertise, you may be shocked to learn, does not extend to her own romantic life. Fated by the rules of the genre (and in the manner of Tracy and Hepburn or Astaire and Rogers or, closer to home, Mulder and Scully) to an erotic mutual annoyance based on an opposition of ego and id, head and heart, sense and sex, fact and fancy, control and chaos, the leads will make one another complete -- a coming together further complicated by the fact that Piven's character is either crazy or Cupid.

To be sure, this relationship is not the whole of the show, which concerns also each episode's lovelorn guests (including, one week, a very good Lisa Loeb), but, as in The X-Files, it is the light from which everything else takes its color, and which all other action elucidates; it is the show's big engine, in a way that, say, the affairs of The Love Boat's crew were not. Piven -- whose actorly stock in trade, honed as Cousin Spence on Ellen, is an obnoxiousness not utterly without charm -- has been cast half-in, half-out of type: He is small and boyish enough to accord with traditional representations of the little winged archer, but with a sturdiness that suggests a bipedal bulldog, or a former college wrestler a little too fond of dessert. (That his thinning hair has been patched in by the hair-patching department says to me we're being primed to accept him as a romantic lead.) And it is of course amusing that the minister of love, though he knows how to party and bring out the partier in those around him, should also be petulant, bitter, jealous and arrogant; but, then, the gods of the ancient world were all these things, and worse. For her part, Marshall, who played Michael J. Fox's gal pal for a few memorable Spin Citys last year, wears her practicality like armor; we see, without looking hard, that inside she's as soft and gooey as the rest of us.

I don't wish the show anything but well, because I like it quite a lot, but in a better world, where TV series do not try to run forever, Cupid (created by Rob Thomas, an author of young-adult novels and former writer for Dawson's Creek, and executive-produced by thirtysomething/My So-Called Life vet Scott Winant) would be planned to last only a season or two -- they should be so lucky -- and to make good in that time on the promise of its premise, to progress, to conclude. For the moment, it manages to have its ambrosia and eat it too, remaining neutral on the question of Piven's divinity (though one naturally wishes him divine rather than deranged), dropping no coy mystical hints, and avoiding the notion -- popularly expressed in such films as They Might Be Giants, The King of Hearts, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Fisher King -- that the insane have something to teach us about carpe-ing diem.

Like Cupid's Cupid, Brimstone's Ezekiel Stone (Peter Horton) is a supernatural civil servant working on a quota system: A
police detective sent to hell for killing the man who raped his wife, Stone has been engaged by the Devil himself, in the plausible form of John Glover, to round up 113 damned souls escaped back to earth; if he succeeds, he gets salvation. (I would have imagined that only God could cut this kind of deal.) These are, you can imagine, some way bad cats he's after, with some weird psychological business to work out, but beneath the demonical frippery and grainy, bleached images that spell unearthly grit, it's just an old-fashioned, hunt-'em-down cop show: Baretta, with Beelzebub at the captain's desk. There is no overarching, incrementally revealed superplot, as in its Friday-night Foxmate Millennium. Stone, whose transgression we reflexively excuse, has nothing to learn or discover apart
from the particulars of the case at hand; in
fact, he's pretty centered for a guy who's
spent 15 years enduring the torments of the damned. He's even managed to keep his sense of humor, which suggests that
hell isn't all it's cracked up to be. (And a strangely comforting thought that is.) Truth is, there's nothing here remotely as frightening or fiendishly hypnotic as the Olsen Twins, whose Two of a Kind occupies a competing time slot over on ABC.

Given the thinness of the concept (which resembles the Todd McFarlane comic Spawn, animated last year by HBO), logical holes even the Father of Lies would have trouble covering, and the no-not-again tiresomeness of matters satanic as a subject for popular entertainment (Buffy gets by on mostly not taking its monsters seriously, and drags when it does), it says something for the show that I find it a grade or two above tolerable. Apart from Horton's weirdly easygoing performance -- he's not half as creepy as he was on thirtysomething -- its virtues are, however, all around the edges, invested less in the week's dark bounty than in the throwaway jokes, generally limber dialogue, and well-cast oddball secondary players, including Lori Petty, condemned to punkishness since Tank Girl, in a recurring role as a cyberette desk clerk, and Glover's low-rent Lucifer, all parlor tricks and dumb jokes. Much comedic hay is made from Horton's 15-year absence from the world -- he wakes up craving a Reggie bar, goes blank at the word Internet -- and though this is a small gag, Horton has so nicely absorbed it into his character that it skirts contrivance and seems, I don't know, cute.

Time is the essence as well of UPN's Seven Days, in which Jonathan LaPaglia, look-alike brother of Murder One's Anthony and former New York Undercover cop, is enabled by Roswellian alien technology to go back in time seven days in order to retroactively pre-empt terrorist disturbances of the peace -- it's a paranoid version of Early Edition. As befits a series about a man who goes around and around in time, the déjà vu is nearly blinding. We have been here before, fresh paint and fresh faces notwithstanding, in these secret underground chambers manned by silent guards and stuffed with sparky machines, out in the field saving the life of the president, heading off World War III, isolating a world-devouring virus. It took no time at all to get around to the old split personality/evil twin routine, seen with little variation from Star Trek to The Secret World of Alex Mack. The supporting cast, meanwhile, could have been lifted whole out of any of a hundred action films: Meet (again) the wise-owl project director, the thick-spectacled scientist, the naysaying blowhard and the sexy but brilliant superbabe -- in this case, a defected Eastern-bloc egghead played by Justina Vail, whom those with no life may remember as a vampire on a second-season X-Files. And LaPaglia is just the latest avatar of a hero whose incarnations run from John Wayne through Clint Eastwood to Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson: individual, unconventional, preternaturally self-possessed and yet perhaps a little mad -- as with Cupid's Piven, we first discover him in a booby hatch, where he won't take his medicine and is reading The Idiot. He's trouble, but they need him, damn it.

But like Brimstone, Seven Days makes a much more enjoyable hour than its specs might seem to promise, primarily because of LaPaglia's so-cool-he's-hot, so-hot-he's-cool star turn, and a determination not to take its mission too seriously. The show has little to say past that your government is working hard to keep you safe from apocalypse -- a weekly business, apparently -- but not so hard there's not room to joke and, more important, to flirt. It's all rather reassuring, really. Pass the popcorn.

Saturdays, 10 p.m.; Thursdays, 9 p.m., after January 7

Fridays, 8 p.m.

Wednesdays, 8 p.m.


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