Summer Rewatch: Pushing Daisies, “The Fun in Funeral”

Ned’s gift has consequences. He’s known this since the very first day he used it, and subsequently cost both himself and his childhood sweetheart a parent each. We’ve known it since the first five minutes of the pilot episode, as the narrator spelled it out in the exact detail: “One minute without consequence. Any longer, and someone else had to die.” Every time he uses his gift, he has to be incredibly mindful of the ticking hand on his watch, because he knows that letting more than sixty seconds pass turns him into an angel of death (albeit one who operates on random proximity).

But Chuck does not know this, and her discovery of it forms the impetus for the action of Pushing Daisies‘ third episode, “The Fun in Funeral.” The case-of-the-week is none other than Lawrence Schatz, the funeral director/grave robber who had the misfortune of being in random proximity to Ned when he broke his cardinal rule to keep Chuck alive past the grace period. His identical twin brother Louis suspects murder – largely due to the 1,867 death threats that came following discovery of Lawrence’s extracurricular activities – and hires Emerson to look into it. Emerson of course is happy to take the case, partially to sniff out the stash of purloined heirlooms for himself and partially to (somewhat maliciously) pop the bubble Ned has been constructing around himself and Chuck.

In popping said bubble, “Funeral” takes two encouraging steps both as an episode and a sign of the show’s direction. First of all, it’s using its mystery in a fashion that allows each of our three main characters to have a significant arc, fleshing them out both as individuals and in terms of their interpersonal relationships. Whereas “Dummy” cast the relationship between Ned and Chuck mostly as limited by the fact that they’re unable to touch each other, “Funeral” forces Ned to face up to the consequences of his actions – even if he tries to explain them away as accidental involuntary manslaughter – and Chuck to acknowledge that there’s more to her second chance at life past her wide-eyed enthusiasm for having it. It’s a smart move, particularly as the romance was showing warning signs of being too saccharine, Ned essentially bending over to make part of his private decisions.

And it really is Ned who has the great moments in this episode, beginning with the hilariously twitchy, flustered display as he tries to explain himself to Chuck and continuing with the half-hearted attempts to talk Emerson out of the case. Lee Pace really does run the gamut in this episode, being at times regretful, deadpan and shocked, nervous to a fault and utterly mortified when he brushes up against a morgue resident and he finds a disgruntled corpse chiding him for not following his DNR. In the episode’s climax, when he finds himself facing down a vengeful Civil War buff, he calls up a hidden reserve of heroism – someone who’s tired of being pushed around and decides to fight back, countering his opponent’s fencing background with the simple declaration “I wanted to be a Jedi.”* Sure, we thought he was endearing, but here he’s really coming across as a leading man.

*Cue a fight scene, scored clearly with John Williams in mind. Well done Jim Dooley.

Our other investigators aren’t as well-developed, but we get a chance to see that they have more dimensions than you would have guessed. Chuck’s still trying to do the right thing in each occurrence and do right by her second life, but that doesn’t keep her from taking umbrage at the reanimated Lawrence for stealing her father’s pocketwatch, slamming the coffin lid in his face – and sending Emerson running for the hills when it looks like it might not open before Lawrence’s minute passes. For his part, Emerson may be unapologetically mercenary in his motives, but even he’s capable of learning his limits, willing to pass up the ill-gotten gains of the Schatz brothers in favor of letting Chuck regift them to their owners’ next of kin.

The other positive step “Funeral” takes is proving that the show has a wider vision than simply being a whimsical procedural, and starts to build its own mythology – in really entertaining ways – after last week’s determined effort to live up to expectations. For the first time we see more than suspicious grunts from Sy Richardson’s coroner, as he expounds on moisturizer to Emerson and then acts legitimately hurt when Ned and Chuck poke their heads in. We get continuity from the pilot, in that everyone from the Schatz brothers to her own aunts refers to the apparently deceased Chuck as “lonely tourist Charlotte Charles,” and she’s not exactly enthralled by the title.

And we get a new character floating in outside of the weekly crime narratives thanks to the introduction of Alfredo Aldarisio (played by multiple Tony Award nominee Raúl Esparza), a salesman of homeopathic antidepressants. Admirably quirky in the show’s vein and in his own way – he lives in fear of the oxygen leaving the room at any moment, leading to one of the show’s trademark fantasy effects as the Pie Hole’s crust and filling are sucked into space – he’s also giving Olive to do something besides stewing off to the side, watching Ned and Chuck find ways to express their affection. Bryan Fuller, who wrote this episode, is a master of dialogue, and he and Olive have charmingly quick repartee in their discussion of espresso machines, neutral thoughts and herbal crack dens. (Example: “You seem decidedly unhappy.” “I haven’t decided that!”)

But the real gift comes in a sample pack of his herbal mood elevators (“a bully for your emotions”) which Chuck immediately capitalizes on to bully her aunts out of the dark place they’ve found themselves in after finding a postcard written near the end of her first life. She weaves them and Gruyere into a pie that seems to liven up their spirits,* and unintentionally brings Olive into their lives when it turns out Cour d’Cours isn’t on the regular delivery route and she has to deliver it herself. Once there, it doesn’t take her long to realize that their niece, lonely tourist Charlotte Charles (yes, she does it too) and Ned’s childhood sweetheart are one and the same – and you can see the possibilities for removing this obstacle boiling behind her eyes.

*Another nice little callback to the pilot, where Lily grumpily mentioned how before her apparent death Chuck threatened to bake antidepressants into their food to get them outside. Continuity!

The show’s moves towards continuity and an open world are certainly to be lauded, especially because there are a couple of concerns popping up with its formula, chiefly in beginnings and endings. This now makes three episodes that have opened with a flashback going back to Ned’s childhood, and explaining how the terms of his gift works through youthful experimentation. I appreciate that any show starting out needs to make its core principles clear – especially this episode, where the focus is entirely on the consequences of his actions – but there’s only so many times I can have the core principles explained before it starts feeling repetitive.

And as to the ending, while the show is clearly going for a “happily ever after” vein the show goes for in its individual episodes, Ned and Chuck being wide-eyed and completely dismissing their problems in the wake of each others’ company feels like it has the potential to get old after a while, no matter how generally likeable Pace and Friel are together. As I mentioned earlier, that relationship is right on the border of saccharine, and the ending certainly doesn’t help – “I’m going to see if I’ve got some plastic wrap” even feels a little creepy in context.

But really, in looking ahead to what the show could become, I don’t want to take away from what it is in this episode – and what it is remains endearingly upbeat and original. The visuals are still solid, sanding off some of the industrial edges of the last episode by revisiting so many of the pilot’s locations; the dialogue remains quotable banter without being forced or staccato (see below as always for favorite examples); and the characters really do gel together as an ensemble, especially when two are trying to pull the third out of a window at opposing ends. So far, Pushing Daisies is three for three, and the positive steps I listed above indicate it’s going to keep getting better.

Pie Crusts:

  • There’s no shortage of comparisons to Tim Burton that have been made re: Pushing Daisies, though this episode’s the first one where it’s really noticeable, chiefly in young Ned’s vivid use of fireflies to test the limits of his gift. And even more noticeably, Emerson’s upgrading of Chuck from “Dead Girl” to “Corpse Bride.”
  • The series is of course visually striking, but it’s worth noting how there is a legitimate characterization in what is now established as our characters’ regular outfits. Ned dresses in muted blacks and grays and holds his hands behind him, nervously trying not to be noticed or accidentally brush up against anything; Chuck revels in her second life by dressing in unreasonably bright hats and dresses; and Emerson furthers his shady private eye look by dressing in print shirts and sport coats that feel freshly picked from the vintage shops.
  • I’m not planning to discuss season two in any great detail in these recaps – taking it episode by episode – but those who’ve seen the whole thing should take note of the first appearance of Chuck’s father’s watch, an item that like the plaster monkeys will have a value far greater than sentimental.
  • Best Emerson delivery (possibly for the series to date), upon realizing he might once again be in proximity to Ned’s one-minute consequence: “Oh HELL NO!”
  • Best visual gag: Aunt Lily heading up the stairs, tears pouring down half her face, tilting up her eyepatch to drain the rest.
  • “No, no, I ain’t gonna say another word: Future Me, though, is gonna tell you ‘I told you so’ up one side and down the other, but Now Me is just gonna sit back and watch.”
  • “Anybody dead back there that shouldn’t be?” “No.” “Sweet.”
  • “Pies for breakfast always remind me of mother.” “Vermouth always reminds me of mother.”
  • “Everything we do is a choice: cereal or oatmeal, highway or side street, kiss her or keep her, we make choices and we live with the consequences. If someone gets hurt on the way, we ask for forgiveness, it’s the best anyone can do!”

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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