In some ways, the story of Pushing Daisies tells you everything you need to know about why network television in such a sorry state these days. The show, from the mind of Dead Like Me creator Bryan Fuller, debuted in October 2007 to critical kudos and strong ratings, thanks to a full-court promotional press by ABC, who quickly put in a full-series order. But the ratings slipped somewhat during that first season, which was then cut short by the writers’ strike; only nine episodes aired, and once the strike ended, the writers elected to start fresh with season two.
However, when the second season began in October of 2008, it had been a full ten months since American audiences had seen the show—and that fall, ABC’s promotional efforts were lackluster at best. The second season opener pulled less than half the audience of the debut, coming in fourth in its timeslot—and that would represent the best numbers of season two. ABC quickly cancelled the show, only producing 13 second season episodes; it only aired the first ten before yanking the series from its regular schedule (the last three were burned off early this summer).
There was a time, of course, where networks would get behind a high-quality show with the kind of rapturous notices that Pushing Daisies received; lest we all forget, NBC stuck with cellar-dwellers Cheers and Seinfeld for far longer than this, and were rewarded with first place ratings. But it’s a different business now. Pushing Daisies was presumably an expensive show to produce—the production and costume design were immaculate, the cinematography complex, and special effects were commonplace, plus they had all those actors to pay. As has happened all too often in the last decade, networks looked at the bottom line, and when you can fill your schedule with numb-skulled “reality” shows like The Bachelor and Wife Swap and Supernanny, which cost four dollars and a bologna sandwich to make since you don’t have to pay writers or actors or anyone with any discernable talent, well, why would you stick with a wonderful but costly series like this one?
And with that, I’ll step off my soapbox and tell you about the show itself. Pushing Daisies is the story of Ned the pie-maker (Lee Pace), who has the peculiar ability to bring dead things back to life with the touch of his finger. However, he discovers in childhood that he must touch them again (sending them back to death) within sixty seconds or someone (or something) else must die in their place—and that his touch can still kill those he’s brought back to life, even after that sixty seconds is up. (Writing a synopsis like that, I’m somewhat amazed that they managed to sell the series at all.)
As an adult, Ned (who owns and operates a pie diner, wonderfully named the Pie Hole) teams up with Emerson Cod (Chi McBride), a seen-it-all private investigator who uses the pie-maker’s gift to score easy cash—he and Ned visit a corpse in the morgue, they bring it back to life long enough to find out who’s responsible, and he collects his fee. But then Ned goes to his hometown funeral home and is shocked to discover his childhood sweetheart, Charlotte “Chuck” Charles (Anna Friel) in a casket, and try as he might, he can’t send her back to her grave. They begin a romance that’s about as warm and tender as one can be when the two parties can’t, you know, touch each other. They’re clearly crazy about each other—much to the chagrin of Olive Snook (Kristin Chenoweth), the Pie Hole waitress who harbors a hopeless crush on Ned. Olive has also accidently inserts herself into the lives of Chuck’s surviving aunts, the agoraphobic Vivian (Ellen Greene) and Lily (Swoozie Kurtz).
Season two begins with shifts in the dynamics of the show; at the end of the previous season, Olive found out that Lily was not Chuck’s aunt but was, in fact, her mother. Ned finally confessed to Chuck that he was responsible for her father’s death when they were children, which prompted her to move in with Olive and seek a more independent life. Lily spirits Olive off to the nunnery where she spent her pregnancy; she’s hoping Olive will keep her secret, while Olive sees it as a respite from Ned. After she returns, some unexpected romantic complications ensue.
Meanwhile, Emerson’s quest to find his long-lost daughter (which involves, hilariously, writing a children’s pop-up book about her) gives his character some lovely poignancy, and while the show’s overall arc is sweet and compelling, the enjoyably convoluted mystery plots help to keep each episode self-contained. The unacknowledged joke of the premise, of course, is that while the information Ned gleans from the recently departed is supposed to make Emerson’s job easier, their sixty seconds of information unfailingly bring up more questions than answers.
The thirteen season two episodes are penned by about as many different writers, which is somewhat remarkable; all seem to have effortlessly captured the voice and comic vision of creator Fuller (who only wrote the season’s first episode). The dialogue is paced within an inch of its life—this is the kind of show where the scripts must run much longer than the page-a-minute standard, the lines are delivered with such audacious zeal and rat-tat-tat brazenness. The witty narration (whimsically delivered by character actor Jim Dale, the voice of the Harry Potter audiobooks) is full of alliteration and lovely turns-of-phrase.
The show’s stable of directors (chief among them TV vet Lawrence Trilling) continue the inventive, fluid, downright edible look established in the show’s first two episodes by film director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black). If it were nothing else, Pushing Daisies would be a joy just to look at—the costume and production design is jazzy and vibrant, while the frames are packed with background gags (Olive reads a book called “The Double Negative: What You Shouldn’t Not Know”) and clever touches (even as a boy, Emerson Cod is seen in loud shirts and pinstripe suits). The editing is fast and smooth, often using clever new transitions for each episode, like the elevator doors of a department store of the snapping jaws of a killer shark. The show’s only real technical flaws are the occasionally-dodgy special effects; the incidental pieces are fine, but when they have to do a big CG sequence (like the reservoir climax of episode 212), the seams show. My only real complaint with the second season concerns the final moments of the closing episode; the brief epilogue feels tacked-on and rushed (which, unfortunately, it probably was). It’s nice to have a bit of closure, yes, but this viewer wished they would have nipped and tucked elsewhere in the episode to give the closing revelations a bit more room to breathe.
The ensemble cast is nearly flawless, from open-faced, loveable Pace to charming Friel to cheery Green. Swoozie Kurtz’s acid tongue offers a welcome touch of tartness, while McBride bone-dry delivery and gruff persona notch in just right against his sunny co-stars. But the show-stealer is the enchanting Chenoweth, whose snappy timing and screwball comedy persona (and occasional musical interludes) are a joy to watch.
Make no mistake, this isn’t a show for all temperaments—the underlying sweetness and pitch-black comedy are sometimes an uneasy mix, while the whirling-dervish tempo and fairy-tale stylization has stricken some naysayers as forced whimsy (and it is, admittedly, a show that occasionally tries too hard to charm). But if you’re willing to go along with its particular brand of dew-eyed silliness, it is a program of guilt-free giggles and snazzy pizzaz.
Pushing Daisies certainly isn’t a show for hard-nosed cynics; some will undoubtedly find it sickeningly sweet, or cloying in its fast-paced but old-fashioned cheeriness. But it is a truly wonderful show, with a second season just as strong as its first, and while one can easily mourn its loss as another casualty of the continuing decline of narrative television (and I have), it can also be viewed another, happier way: it’s a small miracle that they produced 22 episodes of a series this quirky and original within a network landscape so homogenized, and perhaps we should just be thankful that we got as many as we did.
"Pushing Daisies: The Complete Second Season" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.