Pushing Daisies combines the love-with-obstacles relationship of a great screwball comedy with the brightly candy-colored visual imagination of the (first) Willy Wonka movie or The Wizard of Oz. There’s even a plummy voiced narrator (Jim Dale, who sometimes amusingly contradicts the characters) with a flowery sense of diction. I find it odd that I’m comparing this completely unique show to the best kids’ movies, but there’s something both very adult — dealing with themes of life and death and who deserves to live and die — and very childlike about this show. More on that later.
It’s by Bryan Fuller, who previously created Dead Like Me (also about an unusual relationship with death and judgment) and Wonderfalls (where a loner tried to set wrong things right through convoluted chains of twists). Like that show, this is a romantic fantasy, only mixed with murder procedural.
Ned (Lee Pace, previously the brother in Wonderfalls) has the power of reanimation. When he touches something dead, he can bring it back to life. There are unpleasant rules, though — if he touches it again, it dies again. For good. And if he doesn’t return the dead to the dead, then an equivalent something else nearby dies, randomly. This amazing ability has never brought him pleasure. He became a loner, with a secret he can’t share. Melancholy, since he’s given more power than any person should have. And an outstanding pie maker, because he restores rotting fruit to use as fillings.
Emerson Cod, a grumpy private eye played wonderfully by the imposing Chi McBride, knows Ned’s secret. Together, they created a business. Ned touches the corpses of those who died mysteriously. They wake up, they tell him what happened, he kills them again, and he and Emerson collect the reward money. These deaths are often completely bizarre, and the resulting special effects makeup is amazing. (Guy with face eaten by dog, for instance, or guy stepped on by horse.)
His boyhood next-door neighbor, best friend, and sweetheart is Chuck (Charlotte Charles, played by Anna Friel), whom he rediscovers after seeing her body on the news. Chuck lives with her aunts, synchronized swimming performers who are nearly the best thing about the show. They’re played by Swoosie Kurtz in an eyepatch and Ellen Greene, whom I best know as the helium-voiced singer from Little Shop of Horrors. They’ve been trapped inside by social phobia, so ironically, Chuck finally gets to leave the house, see the world, and have adventures after her death. Thus, the main conflict of the show: Ned and Chuck rediscover and love each other, but because he reanimated her, if they touch, he’ll lose her forever.
There’s also the pie waitress, Olive Snook (the always terrific petite Kristin Chenoweth), who has an obsessive crush on Ned. Thankfully, this isn’t dragged out. She suspects Ned and Chuck’s “surprising lack of physical contact” from the beginning, but she soon finds herself more concerned with figuring out why Chuck faked her death (as she thinks). Olive takes care of Digby, Ned’s dog, also no longer dead. The survival of this dog from his childhood, once he reincarnated the pet, suggests some odd implications about those brought back, perhaps to be immortal until touched again.
This first season consists of nine episodes. The second is unfortunately the worst of the bunch. (For this series, that’s still pretty darn good.) An automobile engineer for the experimental Dandy Lion car (which runs on dandelions) is run over. Fun visuals, but the pacing doesn’t really click, and a lot from episode one is reiterated for us. (On the DVD set, it seems repetitive; watched weekly, it probably helped firm up key concepts.) On the plus side, Kristin sings “Hopelessly Devoted to You”.
Episode three is the first where storylines make major strides forward, as Ned and Emerson investigate the death of Chuck’s funeral director. There’s more with the aunts, a hilarious Winnie the Pooh reference, and a wonderfully convoluted fight for the climax involving a Chinese Southerner. The series only continues to climb from there:
- Episode four has windmills, a wingless carrier pigeon, a prison love story, and the song “Birdhouse in Your Soul”.
- Episode five, the Halloween show, featuring Olive’s history as a jockey and a killer ghost horse.
- Episode six is about a polygamist breeder. (“They make babies for their polygamy cult?” says Olive, until Emerson clarifies “dog breeder”, after which Olive says, “They make dogs for their polygamy cult?”) This episode also features a very weird opening sequence that directly addresses the Ned/Chuck/Olive triangle.
- Episode seven guest-stars Paul Reubens as a noted “nose” (smell expert) and a case with an explosive scratch-and-sniff book. Olive and Chuck work together, trying to get the mermaid aunts back in the water.
- Episode eight has Molly Shannon guest star as the owner of a new, competing candy store.
- The wintry episode nine is the most Tim Burton-like of them all, with despair in a snowstorm, a frozen relationship, and bodies trapped in snowmen.
The extras are minimal. The way they handled Pie Time: Time for Pie, a set of featurette clips, means you have to push a lot of buttons to see everything. For each episode, you click 2-3 pieces of pie that open the clips. They include Bryan Fuller, the production designer, director Barry Sonnenfeld, and/or Lee Pace talking about aspects of each episode and favorite scenes. There’s also a fold-out insert that resembles an old-style menu in the package.
So, back to the theme of recapturing childhood. Notice that Ned is a pie maker because Mom was baking pies when she died. Chuck was his first and best friend. And the nature of their relationship means that they love each other desperately but he can never touch her again. This is summed up by Chuck’s literal statement in the first episode, “I’d kiss you if it wouldn’t kill me.” Thus, a love that’s forced to be un-sexual (or perhaps pre-sexual).
I admire the ways the show emphasizes this (for example, showing them reaching towards each other on opposite sides of the same wall) and finds clever ways to work around it. It’s refreshing to see wit used to emphasize affection (instead of lust). I like this love story because it’s not about adolescent angst — oh, noes, their love can never be because they can never touch! — but mature problem-solving as they find ways to make their relationship work for them. I don’t want to go on and on about this, but there are too many people screwing up too many commitments because all they know of love is the physical and they’re not willing to work to build something with someone compatible.
It’s a challenging show in odd ways. There’s a lot going on, some of which you won’t realize until much later. There’s a fascination, best demonstrated by the narrator, with exact time — “Ned was nine years, twenty-seven weeks, six days, and three minutes old” — which emphasizes both Ned’s minute-long death constraint and the need to be conscious of how our time on earth is limited. We don’t get forever. We don’t even get a second chance, unlike Chuck.
(Let me stop here to make a small observation. If you’re looking for entertainment where women talk to each other about something other than men, this is a terrific show for that, with all kinds of bonds forming among the four lead women, especially Olive and the aunts.)
There’s also a love of wordplay and symbolism that’s old-fashioned and touching. “Chuck came ready-made from the Play-Doh Fun Factory of life,” the narrator says in the “pie-lette”. Plus, the costumes and scenery are all picked to be classic or timeless or from another era. (Check out the cars, for instance, or some of Chuck’s dresses.)
If you want something truly different and very very good, watch and savor this season. Unlike so much other television, the show demands your full attention but rewards it profusely. It’s an adult fairy tale, for those of us who know how precious whimsy can be.
The show was a huge hit at first, until the writer’s strike stopped production and killed its momentum. Viewers never came back for the second season when it did. Tragedy.
I know! The writers’ strike affected a lot of shows I enjoyed negatively. I wish production companies were more willing to pay fair rates in the first place.