Pushing Daisies Delights in Its Second and, Sadly, Final Season
Oct 5, 2010
Review by Erin McCarty
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:gorgeous visuals, cleverly written, wonderful characters and actors, tributes to great movies
The Bottom Line: "In the town of Couer-de-Couer, events occurred that are not, were not, and should never be considered an ending, for endings, as it is known, are where we begin."
The 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America Strike shut down production on shows across America, with the result that many series wound up dramatically shorter than they otherwise would have been. I was very bummed out to lose about three episodes of LOST, but I think that most of what was missing from the fourth season, such as Miles’ backstory, was worked into the fifth. Sadly, for some series, picking up and dusting off wasn’t so easy. The strike killed the building momentum for Pushing Daisies, which started out as one of the most promising and acclaimed shows of the season. While the series lasted another season, it never really found its footing again in terms of ratings, and a fascinating, exuberant series got cut short.
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Pushing Daisies is the story of Ned (Lee Pace), a shy pie maker with a secret: he can revive the dead. He discovered this during his childhood, as we see in one of the flashbacks that usually opens the shows. Whenever he touches the dead, they spring back to life in whatever condition they died in. If he touches them again, they return to their deceased state, never to awaken again. However, if he allows them to survive past one minute, someone else will die in their place, even though his touching them again will still kill them. If the party involved is a person, another person will soon drop dead. If it’s an animal, another animal of comparable size is not long for this world. It’s a lot of responsibility for one unassuming guy to handle.
Still, he makes the best of it. His rare ability allows him to buy rotten fruit extremely cheap, then bring it back to full, glorious life. Of course, the downside of this is that he can never eat his own pies - though surely he could reserve a bit of properly ripe fruit for himself. I don’t know how I could stand to make such delicious pies and never eat them. The pies are a visual spectacle, as is the shop itself, which is in the shape of a pie, and just about every other element of the show. Everything is intended to dazzle the eyes in much the same way that a Tim Burton movie like Big Fish does. The creator this time is Bryan Fuller, and his fairy tale vision for this world never falters. With each episode, it feels as though you are stepping into a Technicolor dream world. Adding to that impression is the warm, funny narration provided by Jim Dale, best known by many as the man behind the American Harry Potter audiobooks.
One of the most colorful characters in the series is Olive Snook (Kristen Chenoweth), who works in the pie shop with Ned and is, as she sings in the first season, “hopelessly devoted” to him. She adores the kind but emotionally distant Ned, and her flashy outfits are part of her attempt to capture his attention, in much the same way as Clark’s smitten best friend Chloe keeps changing her hairstyle in the early seasons of Smallville. Her outfits tend to be a little less ostentatious in the second season, during which she has grown used to the presence of Chuck (Anna Friel), Ned’s sheltered, rather tomboyish childhood chum whose sweet-as-honey demeanor makes it impossible for Olive to truly dislike her, despite their romantic rivalry. It was never much of a rivalry anyway, since Ned never gave Olive any real reason to hope for a relationship with him and since he and Chuck have been practically attached at the hip since she mysteriously arrived on the scene.
What Olive does not know is that Chuck is dead, or at least was dead. Ned resurrected her as a part of a murder investigation undertaken with the acerbic detective Emerson Cod (Chi McBride), not realizing who she was. Once he did, he couldn’t bear to return her to the coffin. While one would think anyone given this new lease on life would be inclined to get as far away from the gravest threat to her existence as possible, Chuck loves Ned as deeply as he loves her, so they find a way to make their relationship work, being careful to never touch each other. They manage to come pretty darn close to physical contact, sometimes sharing a smooch with a bit of plastic between them, but there are definite restrictions to what they can do. Their love for one another is so wholesome and chaste, it’s gotta be one of the most tender and G-rated romances in prime time history.
The second season features thirteen wonderfully quirky episodes in which Emerson teams up with Ned, along with Chuck and occasionally Olive, to solve several puzzling murders. In some ways, Pushing Daisies is a procedural, but every situation is so unique and the dialogue is so punchy that the formula never gets tired, especially after just 22 episodes. For instance, the season opener finds Ned, Chuck and Emerson trying to wriggle their way into Betty’s Bees, a company that makes honey-based products. We learned in season one that Chuck was an avid beekeeper, so this seems like a natural environment for her. For me, it’s rather traumatic, since bees and I don’t exactly see eye to eye, and it’s more than flinch-worthy to watch scenes of people covered from head to toe in buzzing bees. The design of the company is spectacular, though, and this episode also introduces an early season two story arc that I especially love: an extended spoof on The Sound of Music, a real contender for my favorite movie ever, with a bit of the marvelous Sister Act thrown in.
Olive, wanting to distance herself from Ned, joins a convent on the advice of Chuck’s abrasive aunt Lily (Swoosie Kurtz), who has divulged to Olive that she is actually Chuck’s mother, a fact that would shock not only Chuck but also Lily’s naive sister Vivian (Ellen Greene), who was in a lengthy relationship with Chuck’s father. In the convent, where she is given a habit of gorgeous blue, Olive tries to keep a low profile - aside from a bit of inevitable mountaintop singing - and become spiritually centered. However, trouble finds her soon enough when one of her fellow sisters dies, prompting her to enlist Emerson’s services.
This ultimately leads to her leaving the convent, but it also means we get to spend an entire episode - Bad Habits - there, causing Chuck to do some hard thinking, reminiscent of Edward in the Twilight series, about whether her resurrection has so violated the natural order of things that her soul has been imperiled. The episode also adds another member to the gang of regulars: Pigby, a truffle-hunting pig, who becomes fast friends with Ned’s ageless dog Digby, the Richard Alpert of Pushing Daisies who evidently is just as wise, since he somehow has the smarts and self-control to make certain that he never comes into physical contact with his master.
Family connections often take center stage in the second season. Emerson’s mother (Debra Mooney) comes calling and gives us a better sense of what makes him tick. Emerson’s tart tongue is just as twisty in season two; I don’t know how McBride managed to spit out half those lines without tripping up. But his softer side shows more often now, and every now and again, he pulls out the pop-up book that he hopes will lead his estranged daughter back to him. Meanwhile, although Chuck has forgiven Ned for his accidental role in her father’s death, she longs for a chance for closure, and after he reluctantly grants it, she manages to hoodwink Ned into allowing her to keep him alive indefinitely. At the same time, her family’s secrets risk exposure when her father’s old friend pays a visit to Vivian and Lily. Ned learns that he has twin half-brothers and tries to become a part of their life, while there are hints that his own father, whose relationship with him was so troubled, may be prepping for a reappearance. Because the show got the chop so soon, some of these storylines don’t find any resolution, while others are rushed. This is a definite shame, but I think Fuller and his team did the best they could under the circumstances.
Along with fascinating set pieces that immerse us in a totally unique landscape in each episode, we have guest stars who liven up each investigation. Eric Stonestreet of Modern Family puts in an appearance as the scooter-bound judge of a baking competition in which Ned and Olive take part. Comfort Food also includes a character who is a rather grotesque spoof of Colonel Sanders and a poignant rendition of the Bangles’ Eternal Flame by Olive. In Oh Oh Oh... It‘s Magic, Fred Willard, who seems to have managed to work his way onto just about every television series out there, plays the magician who has been looking after Ned’s brothers.
In Window Dressed to Kill, George Segal and Richard Benjamin make a big impression as Roy and Jerry, the petty criminals who accidentally kidnapped Olive when she was a little girl and have remained her pen pals ever since. Now that they’ve escaped from prison, Olive is determined to help them start a new life. Meanwhile, Ned agrees to pretend that they’re engaged, as she had indicated in her letters, and frustrates Chuck and Emerson by refusing to use his “superpower”. This episode also includes David Arquette as Randy Mann, who appears in several episodes as an eccentric taxidermist who is a potential love interest for Olive.
Aside from Olive‘s stay in the convent, I think my favorite episode may be The Legend of Merle McQuoddy, which delightfully riffs on Pete’s Dragon. I’ve never actually listened to the Harry Potter audiobooks, so my primary association with Jim Dale is the role of scheming medicine man Doc Terminus in that 1977 Disney musical. Pushing Daisies aired on ABC, so technically it, too, is under the banner of Disney, and with that actor such an important, albeit unseen, part of the show, evidently Fuller saw fit to honor one of the great Disney classics with an episode. The name McQuoddy is a play on the town Passamaquoddy, where Pete’s Dragon is set, and the climax of the episode occurs at the top of a lighthouse in the pouring rain. Just in case viewers didn’t catch the references on their own, the show lays the source of inspiration on thick by having an a cappella group in rain slickers suddenly appear and burst into Candle on the Water, the movie’s most memorable song. This was one of the episodes that I didn’t see until after I received the DVD for Christmas, so it was fresh in my mind when I learned that the fourth episode of LOST’s final season would be entitled Lighthouse. Evidently, great shows think alike!
It’s a real shame that Pushing Daisies died off before it could pull off more fantastic tributes like the episode above and that it only barely had the opportunity to give viewers a proper ending. The last few minutes of the final episode feel tacked on, with sub-par special effects and a hasty wrap-up of all the major dangling storylines. Again, given the constraints, I think it’s the best that fans could hope for, though I can’t help wishing that a movie or at least a comic book could be made that explores the story more fully. Pushing Daisies may be a show centered around death, but it was one of the most joyous series I’ve ever seen, and I catch myself smiling whenever I think about it. If only Ned’s fantastic finger had the power to revive this show.
This review is a part of Carstairs38's Third Annual All Things Disney Write-Off. Join him in celebrating the House of Mouse!
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