Summer Rewatch: Pushing Daisies, “Corpsicle”

So, who amongst us remembers the great Writer’s Guild of America strike of aught-seven to aught-eight? Waged over the issues of DVD residuals and new media compensation (amongst several other reasons) the strike lasted for a hundred days and threw a considerable wrench into the workings of the entertainment industry. It put hundreds of support staffers out of work, drove dozens of well-established actors to the picket lines and the bully pulpit, stripped the networks of viewership and ad revenue, and various reports claim that it cost the economy of Los Angeles anywhere from $300 million to $2.1 billion.

I’m not going to say I’m qualified to debate the pros and cons of the strike – I’m certainly not, operating as I do on the fringes of the entertainment business. But from a personal standpoint, I’m never going to forgive the WGA for striking.

Why? They killed Pushing Daisies.

Now, I’m well aware that the show didn’t share the fate of doomed programs like Bionic Woman, K-Ville or Big Shots, as ABC honored its 22-episode contract and picked it up for another season. However, by cutting it off at the nine-episode mark, the writers’ strike completely derailed the show’s momentum. This wasn’t just some quirky show with a cult viewership, this was a legitimate success for ABC, if not a remarkable success for just how extraordinary its content was. It garnered multiple award nominations in its first season, not the least of which was 12 Emmy nods (of which it would win three) and its penultimate episode pulled in over ten million viewers. Asking it to go away for that much time, and have to acclimate its casual viewers all over again, could do nothing but hurt the show – especially asking it to come back in a fall season and compete for eyeballs with a crop of new shows.

But more than that, what the writers’ strike did was to break the streak of creativity that the show had developed. After a pilot I still hold as one of the finest things ever filmed, and three episodes that (paired with it) would have made a terrific stand-alone entity, Pushing Daisies was really finding a new gear creatively. It was experimenting with its format beyond the case-of-the-week structure, implementing recurring plot threads and supporting cast, finding new combinations of its characters and finding a reason for those characters to intersect on a regular basis. Free from the fear of getting canceled outright, Pushing Daisies was settling into its groove, and to derail it in this fashion feels like having your puppy taken back to the shelter after being told you’ve been good enough to keep it.

In the eight episodes I’ve discussed (and in this one, to an extent), Pushing Daisies had a grasp on something indefinable. Call it inspiration, call it genius, call it the right people at the right place at the right time, but these eight episodes had an energy and wit that miraculously didn’t feel tired as you kept going. When you have something like that, you can’t throw an unexpected stop in its way, because doing so breaks the spell. Even if you offer it the olive branch of a second season,* to ask something so vibrant and creative to sit on the bench that long can’t work, and the sense of wonder you’ve been so good at holding onto can never truly be the same again.

*I should clarify here. I have seen all of season two, but I’ve only seen it once compared to the five or six times I’ve watched season one. I’m not really sure why this is, beyond a heavily established comfort with these first nine episodes, but my familiarity on many specifics of season two is faded enough that I’m not going to offer any commentary on the comparative quality of seasons at this time. Maybe later (as I’ll discuss in Pie Crusts).

That’s not to say that the season finale “Corpsicle” is a bad episode of the show, but it’s the first episode of the show where for once it doesn’t feel like it’s got the brilliant energy of previous installments. In the days immediately prior to the strike Fuller heavily rewrote the episode to serve as a season finale, and in many places you can see plot threads being stitched together before they were ready. The murder mystery – a series of insurance adjusters literally frozen stiff outside of a surly sick child’s home – for the first time feels detrimental to the story, like it’s taking time away from the issues that actually matter. Even the narrator feels rushed for the first time, speeding through the young Ned prologue and the murder’s resolution like he knows he needs to make room for more content.

It also doesn’t help that for the first time, there’s an almost meanspirited attitude to quite a bit of what the show’s doing. One of the central figures of the mystery – Abner Newsome, the “boy without a heart” – functions as an opposing force rather than a central character, and is so directly antagonistic toward everyone else in the plot you just want him to get off the screen quickly. And our eventual murderer has so little screen time compared to prior antagonists Napoleon LeNez or Mark Chase that there’s no investment in her character or motives (which, as I said above, are rattled off so quickly by the narrator that it barely registers). I can’t say whether or not the bitterness of the writing staff was shining through into the script, but it’s enough of a tonal shift that I’m not going to rule it out.

But as this is the last installment of the season, I think we’ve spent enough time harping on the episode’s flaws and it’s time to get to the good – of which there is quite a bit despite the obvious stretch marks. After last week’s nuclear revelation that Ned was indirectly responsible for the death of Chuck’s father, the aftershocks are out in full force: Chuck has taken up residence in Olive’s apartment to hide from Ned, leaving him shouting her name in the streets looking for her and Olive acting as a very reluctant buffer*. And she’s feeling so broken that she’s sought a new confidant in Oscar Vibenius, back from “The Smell of Success” and now nosing around Chuck to answer the question of why she doesn’t smell like anyone else.

*Indeed, regardless of her affection for both Olive’s not having a great time of things lately. Keeping Chuck out of sight, pushed aside by Emerson yet again, ferrying pies to the aunts without disclosing the baker – and don’t think I didn’t catch her snatching down that mistletoe when Ned was at the door as if she just doesn’t want to deal with that drama. Her line “I’m pretending not to know a lot these days” carries a lot of weight, and kudos to Chenoweth for balancing it with Olive’s natural ebullience.

The broken attitude of both Ned and Chuck at this shattering revelation gives their relationship a necessary shake-up, and for the first time they’re seeing each other in a new light. They’ve had minor spats in “Dummy” and “Girth” over Ned’s standoffishness, but for the most part they’ve been allowed to live in their fantasy world of pies and mysteries. With Ned’s revelation driving the two apart, we see just how frayed their situation might be – Ned’s barely able to leave anyone from Olive to the aunts alone about it, Chuck’s so tired of her fugitive life that she tells Olive point-blank Ned brought her back to life – and circumstances are serious enough that it has Ned seriously asking the question of whether or not the two might fit together in the long run. Both Pace and Friel get to go deeper in these characters than they’ve had a chance to before, and the broken looks and tones they share ups your investment in this relationship to a new degree.

And after the bombshell of last episode, we discover there’s two more family-oriented revelations springing to the surface. We learn that Emerson Cod – the only man who can give Ron Swanson a challenge in surly apathy toward the problems of others – not only has an opinion on Ned and Chuck’s relationship he’s willing to share, but that he’s a father himself with a daughter he’s absolutely unwilling to talk about. And on the same subject, Lily also discloses to Olive her own daughter she’d never talk about if she wasn’t overdosing on homeopathic mood stabilizers – because that daughter happens to be Chuck. Neither of the revelations are handled poorly (a sullen McBride and loopy Kurtz do quite well with their material) but paired with all the drama of last week’s revelation the episode does feel stretched out. Certainly, at least Lily’s revelation had to be two or three episodes down the line.

“Corpsicle’s” obviously very heavy on the dramatic/storytelling side of things, but that doesn’t mean the show’s had to abandon so many of what made previous episodes great. The murder victims might as well have been hit with a snow-cone cannon for how encrusted in ice they are, which provides great visual gags like Emerson pulling out a knitting needle to chisel a touchable place away. There’s wordplay that still stacks up and offers more of Fuller’s love for alliteration (“The Wish-a-Wisher is a kill-a-killer!”) And it’s also a remarkable episode for Jim Dooley’s score: while not a Christmas episode per se it did offer renditions of Christmas carols and the Nutcracker suite woven into the familiar notes, and there’s a rather clever incorporation of typewriter clanging into the theme of the UberLife Life Insurance Agency.

It’s also a pleasure to see Paul Reubens return to the action as olfactory scientist/sewer technician Vibenius, now free from the obligations of the case-of-the-week. He adds a nice edge to the show, beyond the hilarity of him basing much of his research on fur shaved from Digby’s rear end. Reubens plays the character as menacing without ever seeming an antagonist – he’s just a scientist trying to solve a mystery presented to him, and if in the process he makes some oddly disturbing speeches about honey and death, that just adds to his “charm.” He too would have been better served with more time in the episode, though you get the feeling that Chuck’s refusal to tell him the whole story would have come back in future episodes.

“Corpsicle’s” not a failure as an episode of Pushing Daisies or even an episode of TV, it’s just one that bears too markings of having to be forced into the role of info dump and narrative stopping point far before anyone on the creative team was ready to do so. They certainly could do it, but to have to do so after the batting average they racked up? Four years later, it still smarts something fierce.

And yes, now we have to face the fact that we’ve come to the end of our run on Pushing Daisies season one. Thoughts?

Well, I feel out of place saying that the show holds up – something that only aired four years ago isn’t even close to the position of being evaluated as a classic – but I do have to say, brevity aside I’m astonished at how fantastic a season of television is. The characters are all remarkably well-played, the writing style is fast and sharp while only rarely seeming strained, and it sustains a sense of wonderment surprisingly well for having to work on a network budget. Yes, I had my share of complaints along the way (the sweetness bordering on schmaltz of the Ned-Chuck relationship being the most obvious example) though I view those complaints more as matters of taste rather than an indictment of the actors or writing. And certainly it’s not a show that fits everyone’s taste, it just happens to be one that sits on my pleasure centers for wit and quirk without once overstaying its welcome.

I closed my review of the pilot episode by saying that it was “utterly unique, utterly charming, and just damn good,” and having revisited every one of these episodes on a weekly basis, I’m prepared to apply that as the blanket statement for the entire season. If I had to rank them I’d still put the pilot at the top, with “Girth” at second, “Pigeon” right behind it and the others neck and neck, though “Corpsicle” would still be bringing up the rear. But really, any one of these episodes I’d watch again in a heartbeat – and even having spent three months watching them, I’m fighting the urge to just put the discs back in and marathon the whole thing in a day.

It’s been an absolute joy to revisit Pushing Daisies these last few weeks, even if it did wind up breaking my heart all over again by ending so soon. To all of you who have been following along this year, thanks for the comments, the retweets and everything else. Now go enjoy yourselves a slice of pie.

Pie Crusts:

  • To answer a question some of you may have, I don’t know whether or not I’ll be reviewing the second season of Pushing Daisies. I’d absolutely love to, given the positive reaction to these pieces and the above-mentioned fact that I’ve only seen it once, but I certainly need a break from regular coverage – especially with the fall season coming up and a lot of new/returning shows to devote attention to. Let’s just say it’s in the freezer, ready for reheating on short notice.
  • Winter coming to the world of Pushing Daisies definitely gave the costume department time to play. Ned’s overcoat and scarf combo plays well into his hangdog look, Emerson’s looking dapper in a fedora and overcoat, Chuck seems to have raided Olive’s closet for that forest green jacket, and Olive seems to be sporting a technicolor skiing outfit.
  • Speaking of winter, best interaction of the episode is certainly Emerson and the corsoner exchanging words over the latter’s Christmas sweater. “That thing’s uglier than a chipmunk’s ass” is something I’m saving for the next holiday season.
  • Did anyone else catch the Groundhog Day homage as the sun rose over the suburban neighborhood Emerson and Ned were staking out?
  • The body shattering from frostbite and Ned’s almost instant refusal to touch it does raise an interesting question: how far does Ned’s gift reach? He’s alluded to awakening a bearskin rug before, but how much has to be left?
  • Best Emerson line: “We are giant, enormous idiots. And don’t you say ‘ginormous’ because that ain’t a word.”
  • “Thank you for lighting the furnace so Charlotte’s ghost wouldn’t have to.”
  • “We were discussing phantom limbs and I blurted it out; it was like word vomit.” “Then you slipped in that word vomit and you fell on your ass now you’re covered in word vomit.”
  • “You can’t have any of my hair.” “Then I guess the dog’s ass-shavings will have to do.”
  • “I just simply like the word bosom. I say it to myself all the time. Bosom, bosom, bosom. I just can’t help myself. I’m a bosomoholic.” Oh Olive.
  • “Maybe I know I have a tell and I know you know I have a tell and maybe I’m doing it now to confuse you because you don’t know what tell I’m telling.”
  • “I find a bludgeoning to be a unique sensory experience. I taste pennies and smell burnt toast.”
  • “It could take a lifetime to sort out all the issues there. And what you think? You can just all ‘happily ever after’ after just one minute? Man, you a dreamer.”
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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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