Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC. Five episodes into the first season.
One person’s charmingly sweet whimsy is another’s nauseatingly twee kitsch, and I expected Pushing Daisies would be the latter for me. The convoluted premise, the supersaturated Technicolor visuals, the morbid subject matter, the interminably chaste romance—I wasn’t interested. But our Tivo recorded the pilot on its own, and I thought, what the hell, and despite myself, I fell for the extravagantly quirky drama. It has a genuinely warm heart underneath all the baroque eccentricities, and those baroque eccentricities have grown on me, too. If nothing else, Pushing Daisies is truly distinctive: a unique little gem in a landscape of cop shows, melodramatic soaps, tired sitcoms, and reality TV.
The convoluted premise is this: Ned the pie-maker has a terrible gift. When he touches a corpse, the person (or animal or withered strawberry) revives instantly—but not without cost. If Ned ever touches the newly resurrected beings again, they will die forever. And if Ned does not touch them within sixty seconds, nearby beings of similar rank on the evolutionary ladder will die in their place. (In other words, a squirrel might purchase a bird’s new life, but a permanently reanimated person must result in the death of another person. A squirrel won’t do.)
Before Ned worked out these rules as a boy, he accidentally brought his mother back to life by effectively killing his best friend’s father (a secret he has never revealed), only to accidentally kill his mother that very night by accepting a goodnight kiss. By the time the poor kid reached adulthood, he was a determinedly solitary man, his only companion his childhood dog, Digby, whom, having revived, he must pet with a stick. But two developments pull Ned out of isolation: Emerson, a private detective, witnesses his miraculous life-and-death touch and pressures him to collaborate on murder investigations. (The crime is easier to solve if you can ask the victim whodunit.) Then one of those victims turns out to be Charlotte “Chuck” Charles, Ned’s long-lost childhood sweetheart (she of the dead father), whom he can’t bring himself to return to death. (A corrupt funeral home director bites the dust in her place.) To Emerson’s chagrin, Chuck joins the investigatory team and reunites with a besotted Ned—though, of course, upon threat of death, they can’t so much as hold hands.
So, yeah, two dense paragraphs of explanation gets me about fifteen minutes into the pilot, and I haven’t even mentioned Ned’s pie shop employee Olive and her unrequited affection for him or Chuck’s oddball aunts, Vivian and Lily, who still believe their beloved niece is dead. Obviously a high degree of exposition is necessary, at least at first, and the Pushing Daisies writers handle that gracefully with a wry omniscient narrator (Jim Dale, of Harry Potter recorded books fame) who keeps things moving and prevents the dark material from becoming grotesque.
The delightful cast also helps ward off ghoulishness. Lee Pace gives Ned the gentle, awkward manner of someone who has held himself apart for too long, and though his performance occasionally becomes a bit too precious, Pace usually rises to the challenge of making Ned’s hands-off relationship with Chuck feel romantic rather than mawkish or twisted. Similarly, Anna Friel sparkles as Chuck, with a brisk, droll demeanor and a luminous smile. Chi McBride provides the perfect counterbalance to any sap with his deadpan, unapologetically mercenary Emerson, and Broadway veteran Kristin Chenoweth keeps brittle yet buoyant Olive endearing. (Plus, every few episodes, she gets a musical number. I can’t stand Grease, but her rendition of “Hopelessly Devoted to You” enchanted me in spite of myself.)
But what caught my attention long enough for the characters to sink their fanciful hooks into me were those Technicolor visuals. Barry Sonnenfeld directed the first two episodes and set the tone: bright colors, vivid cinematography, and exaggerated art direction—all with a sleek, film-quality edge. You can glimpse traces of Sonnenfeld’s film work—the wickedly black humor of The Addams Family or the rich background of sight gags in Men in Black—but in truth, Pushing Daisies doesn’t recall his movies so much as Tim Burton’s: eerie, even macabre, but ultimately very sweet.
And it’s that sweetness that has made me so fond of the show. I’m not sure how long creator Bryan Fuller and his team of writers can sustain the bizarre conceit, but so far they’ve accomplished it brilliantly, creating twisted little mysteries that reflect back onto the knotty relationships of the principal characters. The romance between Ned and Chuck is remarkable not just because of the no-touching clause but because it’s not the typical unacknowledged attraction so common on TV shows. Ned and Chuck are a loving, devoted couple from the very first episode, and that’s refreshing, however odd their relationship might be.
The irony of Pushing Daisies, then, is that despite the morbid premise, the kooky little drama feels wonderfully alive: optimistic, vivacious, and lovely. The striking design is certainly eye-catching and fun, but I think it might be that core of goodness and humanity that tips the whimsy/kitsch scale toward charmingly sweet whimsy—at least for me.