Summer Rewatch: Pushing Daisies, “Bitter Sweets”

I’ve used probably every synonym in the thesaurus for “unique” that I could in the last seven weeks of writing about Pushing Daisies, but I think it’s worth remembering that for all its flash and its wordplay, it’s still working off a pretty standard framework. Emerson brings a murder case to Ned, they wake the victim at the morgue and get a fairly cryptic direction on how they met their end, the team digs deeper into the facts and finds themselves in jeopardy before solving it. We get one or two subplots dealing with matters like Chuck’s remote monitoring of her aunts, Olive’s unrequited love for Ned and the growing pains of Ned and Chuck’s romance. And by the end of it, the entire thing’s tied off in a neat summary by Jim Dale’s dulcet tones and the earnest grins of Ned and Chuck.

Is that a bad thing? Not at all – I’ve stated how much I love each of the seven episodes that have come before, and certainly none of them have had anything approaching a conventional storyline. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to insist the show keep to its structure, especially when we get as clever a change of pace as this week’s episode “Bitter Sweets.” We get new antagonists, new pairings, and an upsetting of the apple cart so monumental that it provides the show’s first legitimate cliffhanger.

But from the beginning, there’s not much indication that this will be an atypical episode of Pushing Daisies. There is a murder case to begin with: an Italian lothario, strangled with a set of dainty hands that apparently belonged to his girlfriend. However, the interrogation proves to be remarkably quick (despite the victim’s flirtation with Chuck) as it turns out that the hands belonged to a mannequin that the victim’s friend “Burly” Bruce Carter was convinced was real.* One visit to Bruce’s apartment, one empathetic conversation with Chuck, and Emerson’s off counting his money in the bubble bath.

*You have to wonder how much this was inspired by the film Lars and the Real Girl, which came out only a month after this episode originally aired. It puts enough of an original spin on the idea, but if it made up the episode’s primary action a lot more questions would be asked.

And with that murder solved all of a sudden, the action shifts back to the neighborhood of the Pie Hole, where competition has reared its head in the form of Balsam’s Bitter Sweets. The owners Billy and Dilly Balsam (respectively played by Mike White and Molly Shannon) enjoy competition for the sake of competition, and correctly sizing Ned up as someone wouldn’t pick a fight in a million years, decide that their corner location is there for the taking. Before they know it, the front sign’s been made even more provocative with two letters blacked out, a health inspector’s giving Digby dirty looks and a lot of people are asking questions about why there’s so much rotten fruit around.

Certainly it helps that Pushing Daisies has never been as married to its formula as any traditional cop show out there, but adding a direct antagonist to the mix raises the stakes to a level the show hasn’t seen before. Ned, Chuck and Olive have all been in nearly fatal circumstances over the course of the series, but this is the first time that their home base is under direct assault and they’re being forced to improvise. We get to see each of them at their finest here – Olive gets to be appropriately snippy, Chuck tries to be the peacemaker, and Ned coils even tighter as he’s learned through personal experience that going on the offensive* only leads to disaster. And of course, adding a candy store to the neighborhood only increases the show’s parallels to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the added dimension of something very dangerous behind a sugary smile.

*Two weeks in a row for the flashbacks being solidly relevant to the action! Clearly they’ve found the right balance: use it for some retelling of the rules of Ned’s gift, tie it thematically to what he and company have to deal with for the week.

Ned’s complete and utter reluctance to engage – compounded by the fact that his relationship with Chuck has been going much too well and he’s feeling the weight of his secrets – means that his lady friends have to take the lead. Chuck and Olive have been clicking well ever since they started spending serious time together in “Girth,” and it’s good to both see them facing their shared attraction to Ned head-on, but that they’re also willing to don black, commit burglary and release rats on his behalf. Just a lot of fun to see them split between scheming and therapy, and their simultaneous motto “Don’t mess with the Pie ‘Hos” is easily in the top tier of Pushing Daisies moments.

And from there, the action only gets more exciting when Ned tries to right their wrong and makes things worse with another unintentional reanimation, this one being Billy Balsam in a vat of taffy. This discovery – and Ned’s subsequent discovery by the cops – means that his finger’s taken out of commission, and he’s forced to spend some time thinking about relationships and truth with his new cellmate Burly Bruce. Additionally, we get one of Chenoweth’s greatest moments ever as she’s left sobbing uncontrollably in the prison visiting room, and horrifying Ned with her gift of a pie completely with .38 special filling.

Ned’s absence also means that for the first time, Emerson and Chuck have to spend time together solving Billy’s murder, which gives us a surprisingly functional team. Emerson’s typically portrayed as the mercenary side of the partnership while Chuck’s the overly emphatic one, a difference they regularly disparage behind the other’s back, but now they’re actually portrayed as a semi-serious investigative team who can reconstruct the circumstances of Billy’s taffy drowning without bickering*. The experience even gives us a nice moment from Emerson in a gruff half-compliment about how much easier Ned’s gift makes his work – which is about as close to affection as he can get to anything that isn’t knitting or pop-up books.

*Well, not free of bickering per se, as Emerson pretends to fall asleep as Chuck goes into detail about phantom limb syndrome. He’s still Emerson Cod, after all.

So after all of that, Ned goes free and the status quo seems to be restored, heading for another of those wide-eyed happy couple moments. And then what happens in the last ten seconds?

“Chuck? I killed your dad.”

Wow. That’s been an albatross around Ned’s neck for the longest time, and not only does he reveal it free of his typical hemming and hawing, but he does so almost immediately after he’s agreed with Emerson that not telling the truth is the best solution. That’s a move I didn’t think the show was capable of: it lulls you into a sense of false security, feeling like it’s a return to normalcy, and then with five words it pulls the rug out in a way that’s impossible to put back.

So, the show proved that it doesn’t have to be married to its procedural format for the action to succeed, and it’s upended the status quo in a way that’s almost as final as if Ned were to tap Chuck on the forehead. The season’s not even to the halfway mark, I can’t wait to see where they take this!

Oh… wait. Well, we’ll get to that next week.

Pie Crusts:

  • Once again, aunts Lily and Vivian are completely absent from the action. Though once again it’s an guest star-heavy episode, so it’s probably budgetary reasons. And their arc last week was really, really good, so there’s no need to shoehorn them into an already full story.
  • Speaking of those guest stars, Shannon was particularly entertaining as the bitch-in-a-thin-candy-shell Dilly Balsam. Her Hitchcock-inspired backstory made for some spectacular visual gags.
  • It was also good to see Raul Esparza return as Alfredo, even for only two scenes that Olive doesn’t even realize the import of until they’ve passed. Now that’s bittersweet.
  • Missed opportunity for continuity: Ned uses his original scratching hand from the pilot to retrieve the rats in Balsam’s Bittersweets, but I see no reason it couldn’t have been Lefty Lem’s arm.
  • Though on the other side of it, Chuck’s polyglot talent means she can say hello in three languages without faltering. And of course Chuck would have a calendar of obscure holidays.
  • A great episode for Jim Dooley’s scoring – between the carnival atmosphere of the candy store opening, the ominous music as Chuck and Emerson dig into the investigation and the romantic orchestral flourishes that surround the affections between Bruce/Sheila and Olive/Alfredo, everything feels very nicely accentuated.
  • Best Emerson line: “Now that idea might make a stupid idea feel better about itself.”
  • “I liked the stuttering. It was off-putting and odd.”
  • “Wouldn’t it just rock ‘n roll with liking someone that they had to like you back? Course that’d be a different universe… and something else would probably suck.”
  • “Here’s what we’re not gonna do: we’re not gonna start with this puppy-dog face and get-back-on-your-horse and find-a-man crapola! Maybe you forgot, but Ned was the horse and you pushed me off, so maybe, just maybe I need to get a little angry before I can be all happy about it!”
  • “Why are you dressed like a cat burglar?” “Why are you dressed like a fishmonger?”
  • “This may seem like a broad generalization, but my guess is an attractive man who makes pies for a living shouldn’t even spend a short amount of time in prison.”
  • “The Pie Maker considered how not telling Chuck the truth about her father was a lot like being locked in a prison. Then he considered how being locked in a prison was actually much worse than some silly metaphor about truth.”
  • “And take your trunk monkey with you!”
  • “Up next, can apes drive? We’ll find out!”

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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