Tuesday, July 28, 2009
With all due respect to Mad Men and its impeccable set and costume design, Bryan Fuller's Pushing Daisies must be the most beautiful TV show since the lavish Rome. Clearly drawing upon the lighter side of Tim Burton (Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), cinematographer Michael Weaver created a lush storybook of a series. To complete the tone, they hired Jim Dale, a prominent narrator who's won a number of Grammys for his audio recordings of the Harry Potter books. This off-kilter feel allows the dodgy, heavily used CGI of the show to fit easily within this world, as it should not look realistic.
Fuller of course is the creator of several "brilliant but canceled" series, a category in which this show now tragically falls. Still, it could have been worse for Fuller; he could have stayed on Heroes and stay with that sinking ship (thank God that brief return was just that). That hardly takes the sting off the cancellation of such an intriguing show.
What Fuller created with this truncated season -- this first season contains only nine episodes thanks to the writers' strike -- is a bittersweet tragicomedy, concerning a hero with a gift of simplistic convolution. You see, Ned (Lee Pace) can bring the dead back to life with a single touch, but this power comes with two catches. 1) Anything he brings back to life he will kill forever with a second touch and 2) If he does not kill that which he returns to life within a minute, another creature of similar build in the near vicinity will perish. Ned discovers this gift as a child when he revives his struck dog, and learns about the horrible downsides when he revives his mother after she suffers an aneurysm.
His mother's resurrection results in the death of the father his childhood crush, Charlotte "Chuck" Charles (Anna Friel), and his father ships him off to boarding school when the mother dies again. Years later, Ned owns a pie shop, naturally shaped like a pie. A private investigator, Emerson Cod (Chi McBride), accidentally witnesses Ned's ability and strikes a deal with the pie-maker: when a body shows up the morgue, Ned revives it, asks the deceased who or what killed him, then touch him again before the minute runs out. That way, Cod can take the info in for reward money, which he splits with Ned.
Business is good for Ned, both pie- and mystery-wise, but his life takes a turn when one of the bodies he's sent to revive is actually Chuck. Chuck's agoraphobic aunts came to live with her after her father's death, and soon afterward Ned's father sent him away, but Chuck never forgot his feelings for the girl who shared his first kiss. Ned revives her, but cannot bring himself to kill her again, so he must bear the guilt of causing another death when the funeral home director suddenly collapses. Soon, we learn that the director robbed his corpses of valuables, which takes the edge off Ned's actions. Now, I think that's too convenient and it lets Ned off the hook, but I can understand them not wanting to exacerbate Ned's inner turmoil in the very first episode. After all, he has enough on his plate hiding his role in her father's death from Chuck, to say nothing of the searing pain of never being able to touch the woman he loves again.
The rest of the season plays out as a series of standalone whodunits, but they each contain ongoing character arcs that make this kooky world interesting. Ned's pies play such a large role that it's hard not to want a slice of pie, any pie, after watching an episode or two. Chuck adds her own celebrated honey to the mix, which only makes them more delicious. Chuck pities her aunts (Ellen Greene and Swoosie Kurtz), now more introverted than ever following the "death" of their niece, and much of the season is spent with these two weird but sympathetic characters, who are nursed back into the real world by, what else, pie.
With the exception of two Fuller scripts, every episode of this season features a different writer, which boggles the mind. I couldn't spot an break in Fuller's establishing tone and humor, and that's hard. Don't believe me? Watch a Buffy episode written by Diego Gutierrez or (*shudder*) Tracey Forbes. Even Guiterrez, who can pen an interesting plot, has a loose grasp on the characters. And it can't be easy to capture the off-kilter comedy of the show: duplicate and alliterative names abound, from the Boutique Travel Travel Boutique to John Joseph Jacobs. Jim Dale often sums up a conversation, the last line of which a character will invariably repeat. Gallows humor flows freely as you'd expect in a show about resurrecting people just long enough to kill them once more. Each character brings a new quirk and offbeat sensibility.
Pace doesn't marvel as Ned, but he nicely captures a neurotic man who must fret over every potential skin graze. McBride is lovably gruff and greedy, with a bizarrely hilarious passion for knitting. Emerson has no time for Ned and Chuck's puppy love, and he always flies off the handle for even the slightest tangent in a conversation. Anna Friel is adorable from top to bottom, but Chuck has more to do than just stand around and look pretty. She brings a wide-eyed innocence that offsets Ned's neurosis, but she takes to the notion of solving crimes with vigor and often proves capable of figuring out some details. But it's Kristen Chenoweth who steals the show. Her Olive pines for Ned but her love goes unrequited, especially after Chuck comes back into his life. Olive has a winning combination of vapidity, understanding and kindness that allows her to thoroughly miss the point, then somehow do the right thing anyway. Chenoweth's loopy characterization and her astounding musical numbers would keep me watching even if everything around her was crap.
For all its morbid humor, though, Pushing Daisies is unerringly sweet. Both of the female leads give you a reason to root for them in the race for Ned's heart, be it Chuck's sunny disposition or Olive's lovesick jealousy and ultimate kindness, and they have their own quirks that make them interesting outside of their tangled relationships. When Ned responds to Chuck's question about what he needs to make him happy with a simple "You," even this hardhearted cynic let loose an "aw." If it has one flaw, it's that each episode has a clear disconnect between the kooky mystery of the week and the deeper character arcs. A mystery show needs fresh plots, yes, but a show like Veronica Mars knew how to blend each mystery into the larger arc as well as develop the characters (at least at first).
No matter, though. Pushing Daisies is a show that cannot be compared with anything else because nothing else looks or feels remotely like it. I've never been the biggest fan of Fuller -- the two or three episodes I watched of Dead Like Me didn't wow me, and Wonderfalls never fully established itself before cancellation -- but this alone makes me want to go back and re-evaluate his other work. By the end of the ninth episode I found myself wondering how such a show even secured a second season. The writers' strike cost everyone viewers, but this show started slipping before the short seasons forced people to wait even longer and, eventually lose interest. A show like this is simply too original to appease base demographics because nothing about it is conventional and relatable. Great performances, memorable characters, loopy dialogue and gorgeous set design and direction make Pushing Daisies an absolute must-see of the post writers' strike creative fallout.