Summer Rewatch: Pushing Daisies, “Dummy”

As I’m sure you gathered from last week’s verbose declaration of love disguised as a review, I felt that Pushing Daisies struck an undeniable cord in its pilot episode. It was impressive from a visual and storytelling perspective, managed to be both funny and emotionally stirring, and had a cast that was endearing enough to really invest you in their personal relationships. More to the point, it was completely different from anything else you’d seen before, and the brightness and newness of it made it seem head and shoulders above the cookie-cutter safe bet programming most networks go for.

But when the show was picked up by ABC, I’m sure that virtually everyone who saw “Pie-lette” originally had a major question: How were you going to get a show out of this? Following up so impressive of an introduction is one thing, but how would you keep the story going from week to week? The old suggestion “Wouldn’t it be better as a miniseries?” was certainly floated in at least one meeting, and almost certainly Fuller had to fight off studio notes to tone down the more fantastical elements in lieu of accessibility. Quirk has a shelf life after all, and unless a show has some underlying structure to keep it going things are going to wear very thin very fast.

But as the second episode “Dummy” reveals, the key to supporting this uncategorizable show going forward will come from Chuck’s analysis of how Ned came to wake her up in the first place:

“You touch murder victims, you ask who killed them, you touch them again, and they go back to being dead and you collect their reward?”

“That’s it in a nutshell.”

In this line, we have the support of one of the oldest television categories: that of the procedural. By taking Ned’s extracurricular activities, Fuller and company can establish their characters and oddities around a case-of-the-week format. It might not be the most original idea – especially applied to so original of a show – but countless variations have proven you can get a lot of mileage out of making it less about the case and more about the investigators.

And in that respect, “Dummy” does its job admirably. The case of the week is certainly standard on the face of it, focusing on automotive safety specialist Bernard Slaybeck and his death in an apparent hit-and-run accident, but it quickly tunes up the complications. First of all, Bernard tells Ned and company that he was killed by a crash test dummy – the only detail he’s able to get out, given Chuck’s insistence on giving him some time to deliver his last wishes. And second, it turns out the vehicle he was working on was a dandelion-powered car with some very important design flaws – the discovery of which also reveals literal skeletons in the closet and a mass grave for the aforementioned dummies.

So despite being a procedural, “Dummy” retains that sense of spirit that made the pilot so engaging, and bodes well for episodes to come. Bright colors are all around the episode, with an emphasis on greens and whites for the Dandy Lion Car Company, Olive’s clothing and the tiles of the Pie Hole – a decision that makes the already unnerving dummy-faced killer leap to the forefront in his bright red jumpsuit. Even though the episode’s heavy on technology (something I mentioned that felt off in the first episode) it’s integrated in a way that drives the action of the episode, both in presenting motive for Bernard’s death and continuing the show’s fantasy aura in the odd design of the Dandy Lion itself.

We’re also getting a sense that as it settles into its weekly routine, Fuller and company are trying out a few new stylistic elements to see what sticks. We see the use of wider CGI to render the city streets around the Pie Hole after an act break, more visually distinctive transitions like blowing flour into the camera to turn the screen white, and a recurring emphasis on making the week’s victim as distinctive as possible*. Some of the illustrated effects don’t work as well as they could – young Ned’s adventures at boarding school are distinctively green screen – though others, such as the lovelorn Olive’s outline spiraling off into space to a star on the other side of an Earth revealed to be the centerpiece of a Dandy Lion commercial, give the show a much wider sense of wonder.

*The pilot introduced a man with his entire face ripped off, and Bernard’s face might as well be made of clay for how well it holds tire treads. (The reactions of the deceased are also priceless. “Why is everything so blurry?” “Well, probably because your eyeballs are flat.”)

And there’s also a branching out into musical territory, as the orchestra inside Olive Snook’s heart spills out and she performs “Hopelessly Devoted To You” around the obstacles of a floor buffer and some unwelcome customers. It’s a bold move for the show, but it’s paced well and produced to the show’s energy levels – and honestly, when you have a classically trained, Tony Award-winning coloratura soprano in your regular cast, why wouldn’t you use her that way? Olive definitely shows more signs of coming into her own as a character, particularly in her banter with the utterly disinterested Emerson, though for the most part she’s still defined only as the lovelorn waitress off to the side.

As to the three main characters, “Dummy” also does its job in laying the roots for their ongoing conflict. Chuck’s insertion into the daily life of the Pie Hole – and Ned’s utter inability to deny her anything as soon as she turns up the wattage of her grin – has made Emerson even more disgruntled than usual at “Dead Girl” being in the way of his investigations. Not disgruntled enough to shove the two together for a second fatal touch, which would certainly push the character over the edge, but still enough that he has to fall back on his secret hobby of knitting out the stress. (It makes a rather charming moment in character development to learn not only this, but also that the annoyance of Chuck has led him to knit a sweater vest and two handgun cozies.)

The most important developments however are the ones with Ned and Chuck, who are obviously giddy in the early stages of a relationship, and also hitting roadblocks past that fact that one touch will send Chuck back to the grave. Up to this point Ned has lived a very sheltered life, telling every lie he can think of to keep people from connecting with him or learning his secret with the dead. Chuck on the other hand personifies the idea of the free spirit – not only given a second chance at life but free in the world for the first time in 20 years, she doesn’t want to squander her opportunities (“I can’t be alive again for no reason. I mean, I suppose I could be, but where’s the fun in that?”). As fond as they are of each other, they have a very different approach to life, and just because they were childhood sweethearts doesn’t mean their lives are going to be all cherry pies and fresh-cut flowers.

And for the relationship going forward, that’s the best sign we could have. Rather than dancing around each other in the will they/won’t they trope or getting into a contrived argument every other episode, Ned and Chuck are trying to have as real a relationship as they can in their extreme circumstances. It’s always more involving to watch a couple on television when they’re legitimately trying to work out their issues, as it has a lot more impact when a solution is reached. The end of the episode has the clearest sign of that – after spending the whole episode forcing her to sit in the back seat, terrified of his hand slipping, he goes the extra mile and installs a front seat divider, complete with a rubber glove allowing them to hold hands.

Their relationship has been shown not to be perfect, but they’re willing to work at it. And in that same vein, “Dummy” is an encouraging sign that while Pushing Daisies might not be perfect, but it’s working towards it and producing some very engaging television in the process.

Pie Crusts:

  • No sign of Aunts Lily or Vivian in this week’s episode, but an additional layer of conflict is introduced as both Chuck and the narrator make very clear that for all her wanderlust and free spirit she misses those two crazy women who raised her as their own.
  • And we also learn that due to Chuck’s isolated upbringing, she’s picked up a variety of skills that could come in handy as an investigator. This week, we learn that thanks to a variety of cheese-themed language tapes, she speaks virtually every language known to man, putting her in the same camp as Piper Perabo on Covert Affairs or Annabella Sciorra on Law and Order: Criminal Intent.
  • Dale continues to keep the narration from feeling like a detriment to the show, and there’s also signs they’re starting to be more playful in how it relates to the visible characters. Case in point: when he says “At that moment, The Pie Maker felt a mixture of happiness and trepidation,” Ned immediately follows with a resigned “Why is it always a mixture?”
  • A moment of residual Better Off Ted love: when the two German accented researchers – one tall and black, one short and white – presented the car, all I could think of was how much it would have spiced up the episode to have Lem and Phil be the researchers. I hope on whatever farm ABC sends its canceled shows to, Pushing Daisies and Better Off Ted are happy together.
  • Episode’s best Emerson delivery: “If I wanted to mingle with a bunch of geeks wearing leotards, I’da stayed in art school!”
  • “The aunts who had raised Chuck had taught her to believe that the large white appliance in the kitchen had a fairly narrow purpose. In fact, young Chuck did not refer to the refrigerator as anything but a cheesebox until she was seventeen.”
  • “The fun part’s counting my money in the bubble bath.”
  • “This isn’t Pies ‘r Us, Pie City or Thousands of Pies in One Place. This is a bells-on-the-door, pies-baking-mom-and-pop place, we chit-chat here. Chit.” “…Chat.”
  • “While Olive considered how much she loved Digby for paying attention to her when The Pie Maker would not, and Digby considered how much he liked salt…”
  • “I already lived a sheltered life once. But it wasn’t as sheltered as you think: Aunt Lily had a very extensive collection of historic erotica hidden in the milk cellar. Well, the cheese floor, the spooky place under the house, whatever.” (Follow-up for best Emerson line: “I will pay both of you not to have this conversation in front of me.”)
  • “Thought the car of the future’s supposed to fly! What the hell happened to flying cars?!”

About Les Chappell

The Mad Hatter of media criticism. Co-founder of This Was Television, contributor to The A.V. Club, founder of A Helpless Compiler and The Lesser of Two Equals.
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