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When push comes to love: "Cupid" demonstrates the pitfalls of romance (and romantic comedies), "30 Rock" skewers love, and "Millionaire Matchmaker" presents a modern Cupid with a grudge to bear.

Published March 22, 2009 11:29AM (EDT)

When you're young and hopelessly romantic, you chase love with the reckless, clumsy abandon of a puppy chasing a squirrel, thoughtlessly pursuing a juicy morsel that's sure to outrun you no matter what you do. As you grow a little older, though, you gain on the squirrel, your snapping teeth drawing deliciously close to its soft flesh -- at which point your prey transforms itself into a robot-assassin squirrel and blows you to bits with its built-in, fully loaded AK-47. Still, there is something romantic about having your entrails scattered across a few city blocks.

By the time you're in your 30s, love gets slower and fatter and it doesn't always escape, but it smells worse when you catch it. Instead of tumbling head over heels in mad pursuit, you sometimes find yourself wondering, mid-chase, "Am I really hungry?" or "How viable are his long-term career goals?" or "Wouldn't it be nicer to take a nap right now instead?"

I'm with Cupid

This thin line between love, frustration and predatory pursuit is the subject of ABC's upcoming one-hour romantic dramedy "Cupid" (premieres 10 p.m. on Tuesday, March 31). Psychiatrist Claire McCrae (Sarah Paulson) finds herself assigned to a patient named Trevor (Bobby Cannavale), a mysterious, half-crazy guy who claims to be Cupid. "I don't get to go home -- Mount Olympus -- until I match up 100 couples!" he explains in his scratchy New York accent, while installing a giant add-a-bead necklace on his ceiling to keep track of his successful matches. While Trevor believes in true love wholeheartedly, McCrae takes a much more pragmatic approach to romance:

Claire: Love at first sight is a myth! Love is built on a sturdier foundation, Trevor. Shared interests, mutual respect, friendship. Things you can't possibly establish in a couple of days, let alone twenty minutes.

Trevor: No, love is passion! Love is heat, chemistry, sex!

Claire: No, love is what's left after the heat and the passion die -- or fade away slowly.

Trevor: Wow. Who ripped your heart out?

We don't learn who ripped Claire's heart out in the pilot, but we do watch her coaching mortal souls on how to find love, even though she hasn't found it for herself (cliché No. 1). She's suspicious of Trevor and skeptical of his daring ways, but she still seems to have a soft spot for his bold wit and dark good looks (cliché No. 2). Through a series of flirtatious exchanges between these two, we're meant to ponder whether love is smart or stupid, whether love is fated or accidental, whether true love lasts forever or the whole thing is just a myth and the most important thing is to invest in a really solid life insurance policy.

Instead, we find ourselves pondering different questions: Is Bobby Cannavale charming in an awkward sort of way, or is he hopelessly unappealing? Is Sarah Paulson lovable, or vaguely prudish and irritating? And why is Paulson playing the exact same character she played in "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," give or take a few wordy Sorkinesque monologues?

Of course "Cupid" includes the kinds of pop cultural references (Hall and Oates! Captain Kirk!) and quippy dialogue that you'd expect from "Veronica Mars" creator Rob Thomas, who actually brought the show to the air 11 years ago with Jeremy Piven as its title character. I haven't seen the original 14 episodes that aired back in 1998 (whoever has should tell us about them), but Piven seems perfect for the role of Cupid: Sweet, manic and slightly slippery. Cannavale and Paulson, on the other hand, don't come close to having Piven's comic timing, and that's a serious impediment. "Fifteen years of training has prepared me to help these people," Claire tells Trevor in one scene from the pilot, to which he responds, "And being the Roman god of love since the dawn of time has prepared me for, what, celebrity judge on 'Blind Date'?" Nice line, but without a truly funny comedic actor delivering it, it's only mildly amusing.

Ultimately, "Cupid" proves that love might be endlessly fascinating for those who are in it, but everyone else just wants to fast-forward to the part where the entrails hit the pavement.

Rocking on

But then, maybe when you announce "This show is all about love!" you damn yourself to an overly trampled path from the start. Just look at "30 Rock" (9 p.m. Thursdays on NBC), a show that's ostensibly about the entertainment industry (snore) but that regularly tackles corporate culture, elitism, celebrity egotism and --  yes! -- love. I haven't written that much about the show this season, mostly because proclaiming "30 Rock" the best comedy on TV is like declaring the sky blue. Not only have the show's writers improved steadily since the pilot, but in its second season, "30 Rock" has reached a level of relatable but farcical comedy that's practically unmatched in the history of television. As much as I loved "Seinfeld," "Arrested Development," "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Everybody Loves Raymond," I think "30 Rock" makes me laugh out loud more often than any other TV comedy I've seen.

And look, Tina Fey's and Alec Baldwin's story lines often revolve around love and its endless perils. Can you imagine Liz or Jack stopping to pontificate on whether love is more like hot chocolate or cold ear wax? No. Instead, Liz goes on a date with her sexy neighbor (played by Jon Hamm), her boob falls out of her shirt ("It wasn't even the good one" she mumbles), and the door swings open when she's on the toilet. Show, people, don't tell!

But "30 Rock" would never limit itself to romantic story lines. In a recent episode, Jenna is set to appear in a Janis Joplin movie that doesn't have the rights to Janis Joplin's lyrics ("A synonym's just another word for the word you wanna use!" Jenna sings in one cut-away scene), but she's exhausted from juggling her TV show and the movie, so she goes to see Dr. Spaceman (a recurring cameo by "SNL" veteran Chris Parnell).

Dr. Spaceman: Well, I can give you these pamphlets on stress and diet and doing a movie and a TV show at the same time ...

(Close-up on a pamphlet that says, "So You're Simultaneously Doing a Movie and a TV Show!")

Dr. Spaceman: But they're all going to tell you that you need to give something up, and they're wrong. You can burn the candle at both ends!

Jenna: Go on!

Dr. Spaceman: We are currently working on a pill that keeps people awake under any circumstances. It's being funded by the U.S. Military and the WNBA!

Jenna: But does it work?

Dr. Spaceman: It's kept my lab rats awake for days! But we're looking for human subjects.

Jenna: Where do I sign up?

Dr. Spaceman: Oh please, we don't want a paper trail!

(Spaceman and Jenna laugh together.)

Dr. Spaceman: (Handing her a big bottle of pills) Take 25 of these a day for the rest of your life.

When you look at how many different aspects of modern life "30 Rock" takes on each week -- the same episode featured Jack's search for a good name for GE's new miniature microwave and Liz's attempt to change her life just by buying a bunch of plastic organizers from the "Compartment Store" -- you have to wonder whether thematic comedies like "Cupid" or the upcoming harried-mom sitcom "In the Motherhood" make much sense. There's just something predictable and inherently uninteresting about a full half-hour of jokes on the same topic each week.

Besides, if we want thoughtful pontificating on love, we'll read "A Midsummer Night's Dream" again. Or we'll check in with Oprah. But if your name isn't Shakespeare or Oprah, you'd better keep your mealy mouth shut.

 Love over gold

That said, if writing about love is tough, matchmaking is even tougher. As easy as it seems to pair two people with relatively similar looks, smarts, style and sensibility, the opposite is true: People don't love what we expect them to love. People are turned on by things they shouldn't be. People care about whether or not you have any marketable skills, or snore through the night. People would rather be taking a nap right now.

Maybe that's why Patti Stanger of "Millionaire Matchmaker" (10 p.m. Thursdays on Bravo) is such an unbearably bossy, unlikable robot assassin. Asked to find true love for a handful of arrogant, self-obsessed millionaires, Stanger spends most of her time on camera griping about her jackhole clients or the unsavory herd of primped sea donkeys who want to date them. At least Patti recognizes the exhausted predator that lurks within each of us after trying and failing to find love for over a decade: "We are going to give you the love of your life," she assures one client over the phone. "You will never, ever have to look for love again."

"Mmm, that sounds relaxing," you can almost hear the client tell Patti over the phone. "But can you guarantee that I'll get quality blow jobs on a regular basis?" Yes, with one and a half seasons of "Millionaire Matchmaker" under our belts, we've come to understand that this is how most ultra-successful men think. For entrepreneurs and high capitalist wheeler-dealers, it seems there's no shame in unabashedly bargaining for any product or service you might require in order to be happy.

Indeed, much to Patti's chagrin, many of her clients seem to be looking for something a little more handy and convenient than a wife. They're busy men, after all. They don't have a lot of time and patience for talking about someone other than themselves. Instead, they'd prefer something akin to a high-priced escort, one who might be willing to, say, stick around, make some chili for dinner, clean the bathroom, watch the Lakers game, then pop out a few kids before she leaves in the morning.

Of course, the women Patty finds to date these men aren't much better. One young woman tells the camera, "I can't marry the average loser who drives a Honda and makes 60 grand a year and we have to save up and build a partnership. That's just not for me." I hear you, sister. Save up? Yuck. Build a partnership? Gross. It's tough not to want to see a woman like that land in a miserable life of indentured servitude.

Considering the borderline-depraved nature of the desires in play here, it's probably fitting that Patti finds love for her clients by sifting through a towering pile of Glamour Shots like the beleaguered casting director of "Big Jugs In Cabo II." Of course, the real comedy kicks in when the women actually come into the office to meet with Patti, and she insists that all of the regular-looking women start dressing like hoochie mamas immediately:

"Hair does not look good. I need you to blow it straight."

"I need you to rev up the sex appeal, otherwise he is not even going to look at you sideways."

"I want you to Mystic [spray tan] yourself before you come tomorrow, otherwise, when you get to the door, I'm going to kick your ass out."

Over and over again, Patti demonstrates how "the boobs" should be trussed up in a push-up bra by smashing her own double Ds (yes, she's told us her chest size several times by now) up to her chin, or she leans over and says, "This is how a shoe should look," pointing to her 9-inch clear stiletto hooker heels.

Masochistic sea donkeydom aside, no one bears the brunt of Patti's disgust quite like her wealthy clients. "Every millionaire comes in and has sort of an illness," she explains. "I diagnose it and then I develop a treatment for it. They can't see what they're doing wrong, and they need to be tweaked. I'm the tweaker!" Indeed, unlike most businesswomen, Patti seems to go into meetings with her new prospects determined to insult and disparage them as much as humanly possible. Just listen to the sympathetic and sensitive ways that Patti describes her customers:

"Oh my god, David is such a pervert, all he talks about is tits, sex and ass. I'm gonna vomit."

"He's got issues. Guys like Brett are problematic because they just can't stay in one place. You can't nurture a relationship if you're always on the go."

"I think Bill needs to date older because he needs to grow up."

"I don't like him. He thinks he's hot but he's not."

But the real spectacle begins when the aspiring concubines circle the rich men at one of Patti's mixers. After navigating quickly through a roomful of chatty, spray-tanned women in push-up bras and tall shoes, each man picks two women to talk to one-on-one. Next, Patti discusses the hoochies with her clients in the least delicate terms imaginable. "Did the penis get off the couch?" she asks her clients every single episode. Or she explains to the camera, "I'm here to spread the message of love, but remember, the penis does the picking!"

Not that she's wrong or anything, we just wish she wouldn't say so. But then, you're destined to become something of a churlish rube when you barter in jackholes and sea donkeys all day long. On the other hand, maybe Patti just knows the truth all too well: The squirrel may twitch its fluffy tail provocatively, but once the chase is over, it's just another self-involved, stinky animal with limited job prospects, an overbearing mother, and an unfortunate habit of snoring loudly through the night.

Next week: HBO's "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" and ABC's "The Unusuals" give the procedural drama a surprising makeover.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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