An orchestral flourish begins, and we come up through gnarled roots into an improbably large field of bright yellow flowers, stretching under clear blue skies in a scene that seems to define spring. A golden retriever gallops through the flowers, a tow-headed young boy in a red shirt desperately trying to keep up. And a smooth, comforting voice – a storyteller’s voice – explains who these individuals are. “At this very moment in the town of Coeur d’Coeurs, young Ned was 9 years, 27 weeks, 6 days and 3 minutes old. His dog, Digby, was 3 years, 2 weeks, 6 days, 5 hours and 9 minutes old.”
And then he adds the bleak conclusion, “And not a minute older.” as a very non-magical truck comes in and intersects directly with Digby’s path.
So begins our introduction to the world of Pushing Daisies, ABC’s 2007-2008 “forensic fairy tale”: a sense of wonder that borders on overwhelming, soothing us with its beauty and whimsy and then immediately tossing death in our way. The first show since Twin Peaks to so closely intertwine a murdered girl and constant ingestion of pie, a show that blended elements of storybook epics with the crime procedural, this was a show that utterly captivated me upon my first viewing and remains in my pantheon of personal favorite shows. And this summer, it’s the topic of A Helpless Compiler’s first annual Summer Rewatch, where I revisit a long-passed classic and see just what’s inside.
Pushing Daisies comes to us from the mind of Bryan Fuller, a writer to whom I’d award the not-so-coveted title of unluckiest showrunner in the business. Prior to Pushing Daisies he was best known for the creation of Dead Like Me, Showtime’s black comedy about the daily lives of souls forced to work as grim reapers – and also known for being unceremoniously dismissed by MGM Television after only a few episodes, with the quality of the show gradually sliding afterwards. He moved on to Wonderfalls, one of many FOX series which developed a small and very devoted following and that was unfailingly canceled after one season; and also happened to write for the first season of Heroes right before it graduated into one of the worst shows ever to infuriate audiences.
Certainly Fuller’s long-term success is nothing to brag about, but while his shows rarely have staying power they’ve never lacked for ambition or innovation. His fixation on life after death and ordinary people placed into extraordinary circumstances means that he’s able to elicit reactions and situations that more conventional shows can never reach, and force them to answer questions about what’s really important. It also helps that he’s an abnormally good writer, capable of dialogue that flows both quickly and wittily and makes his characters helplessly likable, and very fond of using alliteration and distinctive names to give an extra layer of endearment.
Out of all his ideas, Pushing Daisies was probably the most ambitious, or at least the most imaginative: a pie maker by the name of Ned has the ability to touch the dead and bring them back to life, but with two caveats: a) only for a minute, or someone else has to die, and b) if he touches them again, they die forever. Having learned of these gifts by tragic means in his childhood, he’s avoided touching anything save the dead fruit he prepares his pies with, until private investigator Emerson Cod suggests he use the power to for profit (“Murders are much easier to solve if you can ask the victim who killed them”). When one of these cases turns out to be his childhood sweetheart Charlotte “Chuck” Charles, he finds himself breaking his own rules to bring her back – and expanding the scope of his life and investigations past anything he ever expected.
We’ll save the discussion of how you get more than one episode out of this idea for next week, as I want to spend time talking about “Pie-lette” itself – because quite frankly, it’s fantastic. It’s been several months since the last time I’ve seen it – preceding my nascent career as a television critic – so I was interested to see how it held up given my expanded viewing habits, and I can say it not only holds up but stands proud and tall. I’d rank it not only as one of the best pilots I’ve ever seen alongside the pilots for Firefly and Justified, but also one of my top five television episodes of all time. It’s one of the things I’ve regularly put on whenever I’m in a black mood, and (based on early reviews of the pilots for Grimm and Once Upon a Time) something that anyone thinking of making a fantasy-based television show should watch as the right example of how to do it.
Why do I lavish so much praise on this start to the show? Well, chiefly it’s because it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen on television before. In a business that gets regularly bogged down by trends of cop shows with a twist, groups of friends hanging out and sleeping around and procedurals by the truckload, Pushing Daisies is one of the rare shows that completely bucks all tradition and just explores what you can really do with television as a legitimate art form. It’s definitely quirky, but it’s not an assertive quirkiness like Twin Peaks or its legion of imitators. The mood that Fuller, director Barry Sonnenfeld and production designer Michael Wylie sought was to make the show appear like a storybook on television, and the entirety of the first episode just feels so comforting in its presentation.
That comfort is helped by the fact that every aspect of the production is tailored to make “Pie-lette” feel unified. The show’s coloration is bright and vivid, animated without ever appearing cartoonish (although the first few minutes do incorporate a CGI demolition of a Play-Doh metropolis) and the camera angles feel as if they’re racing to capture every ounce of magic on the screen. The scoring of Jim Dooley gives the show an up-tempo mood reminiscent of Danny Elfman minus the latter’s manic tendencies, accelerating nicely at dangerous moments and becoming almost heart-wrenching at times. Production also favors several vintage elements that give the show additional characters between Emerson’s suits, Ned’s car and the entire furnished home of Chuck’s agoraphobic aunts Lily and Vivian.
And the cornerstone of this fantasy element comes in the narration, which very much feels as if you’re gathered around an armchair for storytime. Voice-overs have been a popular target for critical beatings in recent years but this is one of the rare occasions where it works, not only because it comes to us from acclaimed British actor/singer Jim Dale (better known to American audiences from the Harry Potter audiobooks). Fuller’s sprightly narration keeps the more expositional elements from feeling like an info dump, and Dale knows the right tone to take when the action begins transition: “At this very moment…” is delivered in an upbeat, almost whimsical tone to bring up the spirits, and the straightforward tone “The facts were these” lets you know it’s time to start paying attention.
Dale tells us a lot about who these people are and why they turned out this way, and the performances go the extra mile to animate our two main characters. As Ned, Lee Pace runs a gamut of wonderful reactions: treating the dead with an almost disinterested attitude, becoming increasingly verbose when he tries to explain his way out of a situation (eye twitching in a charming fashion every time he tries to quickly move past a lie), and throwing bashful grins at Chuck that shows he’s still at heart a kid with a crush on the neighbor girl. Anna Friel’s character is less outstanding to begin – mostly playing in the adorable wide-eyed vein of a Zooey Deschanel – but Chuck is unfailingly sunny in the happiness she has to both experience the world for the first time and have given a second chance at life.
But while she’s been given a second chance at life – and Ned a second chance with her – that second chance is inevitably hampered by the terms of Ned’s gift. This is a romance that by its very definition can never be consummated, which not only removes the relationship dead weight of “will they/won’t they” but makes for some of the most bittersweet moments I’ve seen. I like to think that years of criticism and survival instinct have boiled my heart down to nothing but a cold obsidian core, but every time I witness the scene in Ned’s apartment when both Ned and Chuck are unable to sleep, each leaning their hands on the wall directly opposite each other, so close to each other and yet still facing an impossible distance, I unapologetically get choked up.
All of this presentation makes the episode a fantastic experience, but the real defining moment from other shows comes very early when Ned realizes just what he can do. Dale lays it out for us once the heartbroken boy places his hand on Digby and the dog springs back to life with an excited bark:
“This was the moment that young Ned discovered that he wasn’t like the other children: nor was he like anyone else, for that matter. Young Ned could touch dead things and bring them back to life. This gift was a gift given to him, but not by anyone in particular. There was no box, no instructions, no manufacturer’s warranty: it just was.”
In this line, Dale and Fuller dispel the notion that this show isn’t going to be one that’s caught up in its own mythology at the expense of telling a story. Pushing Daisies never tries once in its pilot to be a LOST, a FlashForward or Heroes – we’re not going to devote serious time to learning how Ned had this power, what great responsibility has been set out for him, or what dangerous forces will hunt him down to abuse his abilities. You don’t want to keep tuning into this show just to see what comes next, you tune in because you want to wrap yourself up in this world for as long as you possibly can. Magic is simply there, for reasons none of the cast can understand or even want to try to understand: there it is, and we have to deal with it. Obviously the show goes to very dark places – seven people die in this episode alone, and the threat of how Chuck’s father died unknowingly from Ned’s power is always there – but the very best fairy tales are once that respect their readers enough to take them there.
And “Pie-lette” is one of the very best fairy tales. I mentioned earlier that it’s a favorite pilot, and it’s in that category not only because it so well establishes its world but also because if this was all we got it could have been enough. The narrative of Chuck’s return to life and the search for her killer is dealt with by the end, aunts Lily and Vivian get a sense of closure, and the story of Ned, Chuck and Emerson ends at a point where it sets up future adventures but also feels like the book could be closed in the last lines. Obviously it didn’t stop there – and we’ll be spending the next two months seeing where it can go from here – but for now, taking it as its own entity? It’s utterly unique, utterly charming, and it’s just damn good.
- As I mentioned in last week’s announcement, I’ll be recapping all nine episodes of the first season each Thursday here. Episodes are readily available on DVD, Hulu and Netflix instant streaming, so it’s not hard to follow along.
- Obviously a lot of time’s passed since the show went off the air, and it’s not a show that contains a lot of spoilerific elements, but if you comment please limit your discussion points to episodes that have already been previously covered. Speculation is fine, but please don’t outline anything coming in future episodes or the second season.
- Since I didn’t get to it above, a few words for the supporting cast. As Emerson Cod, Chi McBride is playing the character in an utterly mercenary vein – his grin at the mention of rewards or pie is unquestionably a shark’s – but his very nature can’t help but make any line he delivers endearing. (And he definitely gets the best ones. This episode’s winner? “Bitch, I was in proximity!”)
- Kristin Chenoweth as lovelorn Pie Hole waitress Olive Snook isn’t a very prominent part of the pilot, though she does add a layer of sexual energy in her obvious attraction to Ned that also gives the episode its best physical comedy as he stumbles over tables to avoid her. (Best line: the deadpan “Does he touch you?” to Chuck as the two leave the apartment simultaneously.)
- Ellen Greene and Swoosie Kurtz do a terrific job as Chuck’s aunts, behaving almost as a schizophrenic entity early on with Vivian’s obvious fragility balanced by Lily’s brusque attitude. Virtually everything they say and do in this episode is hilarious, especially as they discuss what it was like growing up with Chuck.
- On a rewatch, it’s almost jarring to hear things like Ned’s reference to the funeral director selling things on the Internet or to glimpse a brand new VW Bug outside a travel agency. The show so completely inhabits its own universe that it somehow feels wrong to overlap into our world.
- I need to get this off my chest at some point so I might as well do it now: I remain continually infuriated that Pace and Friel’s careers haven’t gone in better directions since the show went off the air. The biggest screen credits to their names since the show went off the air? Marmaduke and Land of the Lost. Sigh.
- “I asked you not to use the word ‘zombie’: it’s disrespectful, stumbling around squawking for brains, it’s not how they do. And ‘undead’, nobody wants to be un- anything. Why begin a statement with the negative? It’s like saying ‘I don’t disagree’: just say ‘You agree.’”
- “Words that sound alike get mixed up in my head.” “Me too! I used to think masturbation meant chewing your food!… I don’t think that anymore.”
- “It’s nerves. Aggravated by a stomach thing: it’s like acid reflux, but in my eye.”
- “Y’know what, we all have childhood issues, okay? Believe me, I got the full subscription. Horror stories! “I kinda killed her dad when I was ten.” “Maybe not horror stories …”
- “Horrible the way Charlotte died: on a cruise. Last days spent surrounded by middle-aged, overweight women who wear sweatshirts with things sewn to them. “Usually kittens made of felt.”
- “Thank you for bringing me back to life.” “You’re welcome.”