Summer Rewatch: Pushing Daisies, “The Smell of Success”

The facts are these: I’m back, ladies and gentlemen! After a two-week hiatus, during which I consumed enough steak, bacon and eggs to make Ron Swanson proud and spent an incredibly healthy amount of time in/on the lakes of Wisconsin, I’m recharged and ready to take us to the home stretch through these last three episodes of Pushing Daisies‘ first season.

And in coming back to the show after my hiatus, this week’s episode “The Smell of Success” has reminded me of something: this is a really, really, really weird show. Now, I know by its very definition the show’s weird – a mystery about a pie-maker who can wake the dead with a touch of his finger, littered with alliterative names and vivid colors can’t be anything other than fantastical – but the atmosphere of the show is such that you don’t really realize how many of the things that it does are just flat-out absurd, or devoid of any sort of logic.

Don’t believe me? Let’s lay out some of the major plot points and events in the episode and see how ridiculous they seem when you say them out loud:

  • Our victim was murdered by a bomb on a self-help scratch ‘n sniff book, written by a scientist who can smell cash and yarn and pheromones on his visitors.
  • The hunt for the killer takes our trio to a pop-up bookseller, whose subject matter includes pin-up girls and instructions on constructing pipe bombs.
  • From there, they go into the sewers, managing to incorporate a Wizard of Oz reference right alongside a serious discussion of CHUDs.
  • The clue that points them in the right direction isn’t a bloody knife or cooling gun, but a sock with a misprinted lengthwise threat on it.

The more I think about it outside of the show, the more one tends to agree with the jaded lament of Emerson Cod: “What the hell happened to people shooting each other with guns?”

But if they shot each other with guns, then it wouldn’t be Pushing Daisies – and realizing just how strange this show is in every way, shape or form, only makes one enjoy and appreciate what it does. “The Smell of Success” and the six episodes preceding it have all been remarkably coherent in terms of the story, both on a week-to-week basis and also in terms of creating an overarching narrative. You could never confuse this world or its inhabitants with anything approaching realistic, but everyone and everything that Bryan Fuller and company have constructed wraps together with such grace that I have yet to seriously question any of the plot points and story arcs they’ve introduced.

As a story arc goes, this week’s is another solid installment, continuing the show’s absurd extension of science by focusing on the rivalry between two olfactory scientists. Napoleon LeNez (Christopher Sieber) is an effete type who believes in the purity of the smell experience, complete with isolation chamber; while his rival Oscar Vibenius (Paul Reubens) prefers to get down into the natural funk of garbage and sewers. The rivalry between the two gives us a nice split in settings and adds a good sense of history to the related murder, and each actor brings a unique charisma to their role – particularly Reubens, with an oiliness reminiscent of his performance in Blow.

It also helps the flow that the fixation the two have on smell – and the experiences and memories locked within – ties to the sideplots of the episode and gives it an emotional lift to balance the episode’s absurdities. After a week’s absence Lily and Vivian have returned, struggling against Olive’s cheerful spirit (and by extension, Chuck’s four or five-phase plan to take care of them from afar). Her latest ploy is to appeal to the memories of their past with the smell of chlorine tablets, rationalizing that getting in the water again will lift their spirits – though that backfires when it also stirs up memories of Chuck and her long-dead mother. And the young Ned flashback doesn’t feel as unnecessary as it did last week, getting to the root of why Ned takes his pies so seriously in the first emotionally affecting open in a while: alone in the boarding school, haunted by the memories of his mother, smelling a freshly baked pie was the only way he could fall asleep.

That commitment to his past also introduces the newest conflict between himself and Chuck, with her latest venture of single-serve “cup-pies” assailing his purist tendencies. And here, I think we see what could be the real wrench in their relationship, even more than the “no touching rule”: the fact that the two are almost an illustration of conservative vs. liberal. Ned wants to stay cooped up in his shop, making pies and eternally recapturing those last bright memories of his mother. Chuck on the other hand wants out, wants to be everyone and anyone she possibly can, weaving bits of her old life (the honey) with her new one (the pies). Certainly opposites attract, but Ned is so entrenched* in his ways and so terrified of change that it gives them the very real threat that it might not be the touching or the accidental patricide that drives them apart, but the fact that they’re just not right for each other.

*Of course, if your romantic history included being naked on a bearskin rug with a woman – and your flesh could bring said skin to life – you’d probably be conservative too. A good follow-up to last week, and Ned’s abrupt assertion that he had some experience.

It doesn’t help his mood that Chuck’s spending more and more time with Olive for “girl business/bonding” as they try to jar the aunts out of retirement – though he might change his tune if he saw their efforts are starting to bear fruit. For the first time, Lily and Vivian share longer scenes completely independent of the Pie Hole’s employees, and in their honest talk about where their lives should be going gives Ellen Green and Swoosie Kurtz some great opportunities* to discuss their feelings over Chuck’s death and their shared tragedy. And it gets even more touching as the musical format makes a return this episode – this time Cat Stevens’ “Morning has Broken” – in a beautiful sequence that seems to segue into a Monet painting at times.

*Yet another point of interest: according to Vivian, the loss of Lily’s eye wasn’t the deciding factor to kill the Darling Mermaid Darlings. The longer we spend with these sisters, the more secrets they seem to have submerged.

And that’s all only the main plots of the episode: I could go on for hours and hours about the little touches that are scattered throughout. Emerson’s soft side keeps coming out as we see he’s not only a knitting detective, but almost obsessively interested in pop-up books. The narrator’s voice overlaps directly with the story not once but three times, each time accentuating the flow of the story. There’s Olive-Emerson banter, terrible puns, a table of explosive chemicals literally labeled “Explosive Chemicals” – there’s jokes and references here no other show’s even shooting for.

Though for all I’ve said about the structural cohesion of the show, I also won’t pretend this episode’s entirely seamless. The musical number with Lily and Vivian certainly has a lot to recommend it but it feels somewhat awkwardly positioned in the episode structure – especially after two episodes without any form of song. And while I know that the somewhat static nature of relationship between Ned and Chuck is one of my regular gripes, it feels like they botched the endgame here by having Ned decide to put her cup-pies on the menu. It nags especially here because “Girth” proved that they can have legitimate problems as a couple and rebound in a way that makes sense, and in the end it feels like they laid the framework for a real conflict and then leaped back to status quo.

But that relationship might not stay static for very long, especially with the first ominous ending to an episode we’ve had – Oscar Vibenius, attention turned on Chuck’s sweater, his olfactory curiosity tuned to the question of why she doesn’t smell like anything else. How long can our happy couple stay happy, especially with someone literally sniffing around? Well, we’ve got two episodes left to find out.

Pie Crusts:

  • For some strange reason, this episode appears to be when they changed the title screen from the one printed at the top to this animation. I really don’t know what motivated it, and can’t say I’m a fan – it’s too assertive compared to the original, even as much as I like the fact it gives Fuller his shout-out.
  • Interesting bit of casting trivia: Reubens was actually the original choice to play homeopathic herbalist Alfredo Aldarisio, first seen in “The Fun in Funeral.” Raul Esparza’s set to appear in next week’s episode, so we’ll get to debate who fits the role better.
  • After last episode’s virtually unmarred victim-of-the-week – probably because obstructing Joel McHale’s features would ruin just how facially expressive he is as an actor – this week’s victim goes in an extreme direction, covering the actress in a full-body, still smoking charcoal getup. An ambitious move that works to the show’s favor, mostly for the reactions it gets out of the team and the normally unflappable Ned.
  • The show purposely called attention to Olive’s “modest dress” in “Girth,” but now they’re going all out, putting her in the full Captain America-inspired Darling Mermaid Darlings outfit. And watching her hop around is… well, “buoyant” seems the cleanest word. Not that I’m complaining.
  • Tie for the worst pun in the episode: Emerson’s knitting humor magazine Knit Wit, or a photo of young Chuck at a festival wearing a shirt that says “Jews for Cheeses.”
  • You wouldn’t think you could make the phrase “I’m canceling my pre-order” sound threatening, but kudos to Kristin Chenoweth for doing so.
  • Best Emerson line: “Hell, before Dead Girl came along, I didn’t know what you liked, or if you liked or if you had anything to like with! For all I know, you coulda been one of those people who was born with both but didn’t use either!”
  • LeNez, on Oscar’s past: “There were rumors: some claimed that he committed suicide. Others were convinced that he ended up in a mental institution, only to be put back on the street by the Reagan Administration. I heard tales of Oscar roaming the sewers, haunting them… a soured husk of who he once was. But then, someone recently told me that he worked for the DWP, so that might explain where some of those rumors came from.”
  • “Looks like he’s working on this thick yellow hose!” “Well, let’s follow the yellow thick hose.” “Follow the yellow thick hose!” “So hope there’s methane down here … ‘cause the skinny ones are the first to go!”
  • “If that happens, I’ll say something like ‘What is this, a police state?!’ [beat] If I ever say anything like that, it means I’m having a panic attack.”
  • “Hey, I’m just here for pie and conversation. Neither of which are cause to call a man a bitch.”
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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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