Summer Rewatch: Pushing Daisies, “Bitches”

One of the things that I’ve been enjoying the most in this revisit of Pushing Daisies is how much my knowledge of media has expanded between viewings, and the little ways that adds to my enjoyment of the show this time around. Given that I’ve only been seriously writing about television for a few months and obsessively following most television blogs for a few months before, there’s a lot of details in terms of cast, crew and external influences I didn’t recognize at first watch. Discovering Aunt Vivian and Audrey of Little Shop of Horrors are one and the same, recognizing ties to Bryan Fuller’s earlier shows, knowing where the musical numbers originated – it’s just fun in that regard, especially when I’ve developed an attachment to these things outside of the show.

So I’m sure you can imagine my joy to realize that in “Bitches,” the victim of the week is none other than Joel McHale of Community, the man who has “three times the normal human allotment of facial muscle and can smirk with every one of them.” Here, he plays Harold Hundin, a dog breeder of such repute he’s able to distill the best qualities of four different breeds into one superpooch, the Col-a-Dor-Russell-a-Poo. I’m likely biased given that he’s the lead actor in one of my favorite sitcoms of all time, but he comes across as much more animated than previous victims, take-charge in his extra minute and grinning his way through a seemingly larger number of flashbacks. And much as he collects dogs, he’s also collecting wives – four beautiful brides with their own best qualities, which I’m sure is Jeff Winger’s greatest fantasy.

Seriously – if they could make a polygamy-centered spin-off sitcom on the Hundins with McHale as the male lead, something of a black comedy version of Big Love, I would not only watch that show without question but I also think there’s potential for some really good storytelling. McHale’d certainly be better than Bill Paxton at least.

But anyway, back to the show that actually exists. Hundin’s met his end thanks to a thermos of cyanide-laced coffee and subsequent accidental stabs to the chest with a pointed hairbrush, and his peers recruit Emerson and Ned to look into the matter. What seems to be a simple answer of “My wife did it” is immediately complicated once they discover the multiple marriage certificates, and now our team finds themselves chasing down four likely suspects. It’s even more complicated when it turns out that Hundin’s death could be tied to corporate espionage from rival breeding company Snuppy’s Puppies, whose owner is angling to mass-produce Hundin’s superpooch by Christmas season.

The case is suitably odd for the Pushing Daisies standards – going back to the well of bizarre science pioneered with the Dandy Lion SX – but the best thing about it is how it gives the writers reasons to use the main cast in tandem again following that strategy’s success in “Girth.” With Emerson’s reasoning that the math of four suspects and four faces balances out, Olive is recruited as an unpaid intern and the quartet takes turns with Digby in the widows’ canine-centric businesses. The sequence alternating between the four is edited masterfully, spelling out each suspects’ personality while at the same time drawing clear contrast in investigation techniques – Chuck utterly fails at pretending to be blind*, Olive sports a strawberry-blonde wig and babbles about pies and horses, and Ned sits as far away from Digby as he can on a psychiatrist’s couch and tries to get some free advice.

*Chuck’s explanation for (allegedly) losing her eyesight: kitty litter in the eye led to an unfortunate infection, same as her aunt. Three cheers for continuity.

And Ned really needs some advice, as the kiss Olive gave him last episode dropped a saliva bomb in his subconscious (Emerson’s wording) and he has a terrifying dream where after finally being able to touch Chuck, she peels off her skin and reveals herself as Olive. Finally realizing how incredibly obvious her affection for him is, he does what he does best and attempts to avoid the subject. Unfortunately for him, surviving death at a homicidal elderly woman’s hands has led to Chuck and Olive working towards a friendship, and Olive told her right away about the kiss. (Chuck, for her part, tells a half-truth in saying deathly allergies are what keeps her from touching Ned.)

As an advancement of the plot? Well, unfortunately I’m underwhelmed on that front. Despite the hilariously surreal dream opening things up, and the more interesting question posed of whether the Ned-Olive-Chuck relationship could solve some problems by being even more unorthodox (“One woman to have, one woman to hold” as Emerson unsubtly draws parallels to the case) it feels like a sitcom trope of romantic awkward situation. The polygamy option is dismissed almost immediately, and Ned just spends his time hiding and sputtering as opposed to doing something bold. Even at the end, when Ned faces the issue with both of them, it doesn’t feel like anything’s been addressed or answered – Olive says she wants Ned to be happy but doesn’t completely abandon them being happy together, and his assurances to Chuck before bed are the same things he’s said three times before.

But if I have problems with some of the longer-running emotional threads of the episode, they’re secondary to the sheer awesomeness of Chi McBride. I’ve given some not-so-subtle hints in past reviews that he’s my favorite part of the show, and much like the last two episodes gave Chenoweth a chance to show off, “Bitches” makes Emerson Cod a more active character. For the first time in the show, there’s a love interest for him outside Chuck-Ned-Olive triangle in the one of the widows, the disciplined and professional Simone Hundin (Christine Adams). Emerson’s met his match in Simone, and the two play very well off each other – particularly in a great recurring gag where she conditions him to behave with the snap of a finger.

And just in general, Emerson has the chance to be Emerson in a degree that’s very satisfying in this episode. He bluntly breaks to the Pie-Maker just how Olive feels about him, and takes a fair amount of pleasure in the utterly defeated slump of Ned’s head. As the coordinator of the investigation, he seems less like he’s depending on Ned’s gift to get things done, trying to get information from all four sides and increasingly frustrated at how bad the other three are at being discreet. He also has a dream that’s even more surreal than Ned’s – half nightmare tunnel from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, half opening credits to Mad Men – that leads him to possibly crack the case, and he has the idea to use Ned’s touch in a way that exposes the real killer. (And as always, getting the best lines, be they his opinion on “gangster love” or rationalizing that blind kids’ money spends better than smiles.)

So between the weirdness and the heavy quota of Emerson, there’s enough to keep Pushing Daisies in the winner’s circle this week. The mystery does seem to lose some steam halfway through the episode (Snuppy’s not nearly as interesting as the four wives) and the romantic arcs come up a bit short on originality, but after how engaging and innovative “Girth” was last week I won’t begrudge it taking a step back.

And again? Joel McHale. Seriously, I’m willing to write up a pilot script for that polygamy comedy if you’re interested, ABC.

Pie Crusts:

  • So with McHale on Pushing Daisies, is there any chance we can get Chi McBride on Community now? With Human Target picked off by FOX in their bubble bloodbath (term copyright Dan Fienberg), he’s available now, and you know Dan Harmon and company could come up with something fun for him to do.
  • This episode was entirely free of Lily and Vivian, probably due to budgetary reasons of having six guest stars commanding a respectable part of the episode. I didn’t quite miss them since there was so much going on, but given their development in the last three episodes it’s surprising to see them not even mentioned in passing.
  • A lot of advancements on the personal front for characters, but it’s also rewarding to see that after varying degrees of success, our investigative team has boiled their initial casework to efficient procedure. Pay off the morgue director (who offers his first wide grin instead of a skeptical murmur), explain the process quickly to the alive-again, and cover both last requests and murder details in the time allotted.
  • Absolutely nothing new offered in the young Ned flashback this time around, other than confirming Chuck missed Ned as much as he did her growing up. It added some of the Claymation effects from the pilot again, but other than some shots of Digby hiding in a chest it just felt like a waste of time.
  • Hooray for the narrator continuing to play off of the dialogue. Emerson’s gripe “That son of a bitch was a damn polygamist!” gets even better when Jim Dale’s dulcet tones agree: “Harold Hundin was in fact, a damn polygamist.”
  • Best Emerson line: “There’s no way for this conversation to be anything but awkward for me.”
  • “Someone women love like gangstas: it’d be like ‘Ooh, baby, you bleedin’, how that happen?’ While they hiding a razor in their weave.”
  • Olive on Ned and Chuck’s no-touch situation: “That’s the most tragic story I’ve ever heard. Not withstanding the big ticket items like genocide and famine. But tragic nonetheless.”
  • “See that? Simple: you ask a question, you get an answer. There’s no room for buttscuttling or misinterpretation. Oh, thank you, Lord, for simple things like ‘My wife did it.’”
  • Best interaction of the episode, possibly of the season: “They breed children for their polygamy cult?” “Dog breeders.” “They breed dogs for their polygamy cult?!”
  • “You brought her down: she was your baby zebra! Or maybe she was the lion who had the baby zebra in her maw and you were the crocodile who came from nowhere!”
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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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