TV Review: Pushing Daisies 1x01, "Pie-lette"
Television creator and showrunner Bryan Fuller is celebrated for his whimsical, critically-acclaimed and, sadly, short-lived television shows. From Dead Like Me to Wonderfalls to Pushing Daisies and now Hannibal, Fuller's shows are known for their gorgeous aesthetics, memorable characters, and creative dealings with death.
With the recent critical success of Hannibal's first season, it's time to take a look back at another of Fuller's well-received shows, Pushing Daisies. Following the misadventures of Ned the Piemaker, a man gifted (or cursed?) with the ability to bring the dead back alive again--but only for one minute, lest someone else die in their place--Daisies is, by some accounts, almost a detective procedural. Teaming up with private detective Emerson Cod, childhood sweetheart Charlotte Charles, and smitten bakery waitress Olive Snook, Ned solves brightly saturated murders and deals with a few more personal things each week.
In this series, we'll begin with the first episode of Pushing Daisies, then tackle two episodes at a time in future articles. While I've seen the show from beginning to end a few times by now, I'll focus each article only on what has happened up to this point so as not to spoil future plot points for those experiencing this delightful series for the first time through.
Pushing Daisies, "Pie-lette"
"Pie-lette," which premiered October 3rd, 2007, was the pilot (get it?) episode of Pushing Daisies's first, shortened season. It wastes very little time establishing its key premise. We begin in flashback in the town of Coeur d'Coeurs, where Young Ned (portrayed by Field Cate) is running through a blindingly saturated field of yellow flowers with his beloved dog Digby. When Digby runs out into the road and is hit by a semi truck, Young Ned discovers a very startling power when Digby comes back to life at his touch. Poor Young Ned doesn't notice the random squirrel dropping dead one minute later.
We follow Young Ned long enough to discover his admiration for girl-next-door Charlotte Charles, whom he calls Chuck. They share a darkly comedic moment of dressing as monsters and crushing the clay people of a town they've created, with each horrified townsperson brought to life in claymation. It's not until Young Ned returns home, however, when the real darkness underlying the bright and cheerful show begins. As Young Ned watches Chuck through his window, his pie-baking mother suddenly drops dead of an aneurysm. Ned, not yet knowing the consequences of his gift, immediately revives her, and she gets right back up with no idea she'd been dead at all.
One minute passes, and Chuck's father falls over dead himself. It dawns on poor Young Ned that his ability takes as well as gives, and that isn't all. Later that night, as his mother tucks him in and kisses him goodnight, she falls over dead a second time: the first touch brings life, the second brings death, again, forever.
And thus with the premise of the show firmly established, we move forward some nineteen years to present-day Ned (Lee Pace) and his pie restaurant, The Pie Hole.
After sharing his first kiss with Chuck at their parents' respective funerals and being shuffled off to boarding school by his distant father, Ned has mostly kept to himself. He lives in an apartment with his dog (the long-lived Digby), avoids being touched, and doesn't seem all that keen on meeting new people or changing things. He may not be happy, but he is content enough.
The pilot wastes no time establishing two important characters in adult Ned's life: Olive Snook and Emerson Cod. Olive (Kristen Chenoweth) is a waitress at The Pie Hole and desperately in love with Ned the Piemaker, who is clearly uncomfortable with the attention. Emerson (Chi McBride), a private detective who discovered Ned's gift quite by accident, now uses him as a business partner. After all, it's much easier to solve murders when you can simply ask the victim who killed them. Ned doesn't love the work, but pie restaurants aren't exactly a goldmine.
Before long, Ned and Emerson pick up the murder case of a young tourist woman murdered at sea, and low and behold, Charlotte Charles suddenly re-enters Ned's life after nineteen years. Too bad she had to die to do it.
Ned Alive-Agains Chuck
Ned, who has been very careful about this ever since he inadvertently killed Charles Charles, makes the conscious decision to keep Chuck alive, though hidden. Eventually, they come to solve her murder, but not before meeting the delightfully eccentric aunts who raised her.
Shy, restrained Vivian (Ellen Greene) and outspoken, brash Lily (Swoosie Kurtz) were once the famous synchronized swimming duo the Darling Mermaid Darlings. After their forced retirement due to Lily's kitty-litter induced eye injury (and the bedazzled eyepatch that accompanies it), Vivian and Lily became shut-ins. Before her death, niece Charlotte cared for them as much as they cared for her growing up. Her passing rattles them to the core, and though Charlotte is quite worried for them, things seem to look up at the end of the episode when they take the reward money for solving her murder and start a new Darling Mermaid Darlings tour.
Charlotte yearns to return to her family, but can't for fear of revealing Ned's secret. "I suppose dying's as good an excuse as any to start living," she decides, and with that, we have the start of the series.
Pushing Daisies is not a show for everyone. It's whimsical in the extreme, from the creative and bizarre deaths to the oversaturated coloring to the extreme repetition of names: the town of Coeur d'Coeur is home to the Darling Mermaid Darlings, the Boutique Travel Travel Boutique, Charlotte Charles and (once) her father Charles Charles. Its love story is saccharine sweet, and moments like Ned holding his own hand and Charlotte holding her own hand while each pretends it's the other's hand they're holding may be a bit over the top. And even beyond the central "dead back to life" premise, it can require some significant suspension of disbelief; a viewer has to accept the world as presented in order to enjoy the show.
And I haven't even mentioned its voiceover narration by the wonderful Jim Dale, which can, perhaps, overwhelm the story at times. Dale provides very specific information ("Young Ned was nine years, twenty-seven weeks, six days, and three minutes old") and relies on catch phrases ("The facts were these"). I think Dale adds to the show's charm, but voiceover work can be tricky. If a show or movie over-relies on it, it can get lazy and really drag things down. The pilot leans on it extensively, but in a table-setting episode needing plenty of exposition, that can probably be forgiven.
If the pilot only featured Chuck and Ned, Pushing Daisies probably wouldn't be that great. However, the humor provided by the extremely sarcastic Emerson Cod and the dark undercurrent brought by the premise itself--plus the fact that this episode certainly doesn't lack for dead bodies--balance the show's lighter, almost sickly-sweet moments. As long as the show can maintain that balance, it can do quite well for itself.
After its pilot episode, Pushing Daisies shows a lot of promise and offers a lot to look forward to. It can be rather exposition-heavy, but that's a burden all pilots bear; with that out of the way, it has a lot of room to grow.
One Minute Wonders
Ned can only bring each person he touches back to life for one minute before he must touch them again, or someone else will die, too. It's a random proximity thing. In this episode, Ned revives:
- Digby, his beloved golden retriever. Ned doesn't know the rules yet, so he lets his dog stay alive, sentencing a poor squirrel to die in his place.
- His mother, dead of an aneurysm. This, too, is before he knows the rules. Charles Charles, Chuck's father, dies after one minute, and then Ned's mother dies again anyway.
- Alley Man, who falls to his death after being pursued by Emerson Cod. Emerson witnesses Ned's accidental alive again / dead again touches, which is how he comes to discover Ned's powers.
- Leonard "Leo" Gaswint, a Michigan entrepreneur apparently mauled to death by the family dog. He's missing a significant chunk of his face, but not because of his own dog--his crazy secretary sicced her Rottweiler on him! Mystery solved!
- Charlotte Charles. Doesn't know who killed her! Ned's decision not to touch her again becomes the real starting point of the series. The funeral home director, a nasty man with a habit of stealing from the corpses, suddenly drops dead one minute later.
- Deedee Duffield, found with a plastic bag over her head. She admits to setting Chuck up on the cruise, leading to Chuck's own murder, but reaches out to touch Ned's cheek before she can identify their killer.
- Martin Miltinberger, murder victim. The episode ends before we get to learn his story.
While later episodes will feature bizarre, visually creative deaths, the pilot stays relatively light on them, with the exception of Leo Gaswint's missing cheek. Emerson Cod is so disgusted he has to leave the room, but Ned doesn't seem all that bothered. In the grand scheme of things, this one's not too bad.
"Do I have something right here?" Leo asks, pointing.
"No," Ned answers, "There's nothing right there."
Pushing Daisies Season 1
- What is Ned's last name?
- If Digby is still alive all these years later, does that mean he can't die of natural causes? Will he go on living until Ned touches him again?
- What does that mean for Chuck?
- Why did Ned's father shuffle him off to boarding school, "never to be seen again"?
- Did anybody else cringe when Ned and Chuck crashed the plaster monkeys together? They came awfully close to touching again, and so carelessly!