ABC’s Pushing Daisies is the most deliberately offbeat entry in the network fall sweepstakes. But it’s less Twin Peaks than Edward Scissorhands, and certainly no less ridiculous (and, frankly, already smarter) about its mortality/relationship metaphors than any episode of Grey’s Anatomy. It’s a whimsical, romantically inventive and darkly funny pop-up hour about a man (Lee Pace) whose touch can bring the dead back to life (but also, yikes, vice versa).
With all the hype the show has received weeks ahead of its premiere episode, you can already detect viewer rumblings over Pushing Daisies — from cautious excitement over the gush of early praise for the show and fan love for the fantasist work of tart-witted creator Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Heroes) to the familiar suspicions that the show either won’t live up to its buildup or will be too offbeat and brilliant to survive.
Of course, the irony of fearing for the life of a show about reanimation is that network TV is typically a world in which the dead (as in canceled) stay dead. Except .?.?. last season’s Jericho, which was already on the coroner’s slab when CBS chose to hear the Orphic mourning of mobilized fans, flexed its god power and renewed the show for this year’s schedule. The caveat for a revived Jericho, though, has to be the opposite of the one given Orpheus in escorting his dear Eurydice back from the underworld: Followers and more had better stare at their beloved this time around, or else.
The specter of death is actually not so much the stuff of Greek tragedy, soap theatrics or procedural corpse chic but rather like an on/off switch of human connectivity for a conflicted storybook hero. As narrator Jim Dale (one of the show’s many pitch-perfect touches) explains in the first episode’s rainbow-hued, jauntily scored childhood prologue, Ned learns about the parameters of his strange gift the hard way: His cheery mom keels over in the kitchen one day, so naturally Ned gently taps her, and it’s as if she’d awakened from a nap. But after a minute passes, Ned looks across the street to the house of his girl soul mate Charlotte — or Chuck, as he affectionately calls her — and watches her dad collapse on the lawn. So not only does the cosmos need to balance the scales whenever a Ned-rejuvenated soul stays alive longer than a minute — and you don’t want to be nearby when that happens — but when newly alive Mom kisses her son, she croaks again, this time for good. The cruel twist with Ned’s powerful touch: Once more is not with feeling.
Ned grows up a naturally skittish guy about human contact, becomes the proprietor of a bakery called The Pie Hole (rotten fruit? not a problem) and allows himself to enter into a lucrative murder-solving arrangement with a cynical private eye named Emerson Cod (Chi McBride). Inserting himself into an unsolved case, Ned can simply awaken the victim, ask who the killer is, return them to their deceased state, and collect the reward money.
But things get complicated when Chuck (Anna Friel) re-enters his life as a strangled body discarded from a cruise ship, then as herself in the flesh after a little funeral-parlor intervention from Ned. In a strangely sweet exchange during their scheduled minute of togetherness, Ned — practically aquiver over reuniting with his boyhood crush — reveals that she was his first kiss.
“You were my first kiss too,” Chuck says, alarmingly at peace with her abbreviated return time, and not a little flirtatious. “You want to be my last? First and last. Is that weird?”
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“That’s not weird,” Ned replies, sheepishly smiling. “It’s symmetrical.”
So is the visual motif of Pushing Daisies, which revels in perfect-circle (as in “of life”) imagery — from the sun to windows to pies to even the pattern on a suburban fence — while boasting the clean two-shots and perfectly centered swooping camera movements that are the hallmark of director/executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld. The wanton artificiality of the show’s design is undoubtedly diverting, but it can also make actors seem like carefully positioned toys in a fun house. Fortunately, Pushing Daisies is fortified with snappy, spiky dialogue and a strong cast well aware of the importance of zeroing in on the recognizably human when your surroundings binge on quirk. Pace’s comic use of his lanky frame, mutter-patter baritone and soft features are practically Jimmy Stewartish, while Friel’s homespun beauty and charmingly conspiratorial glint in her eye give her an equally old-fashioned sex appeal. Plus, the ever-reliable McBride looks like he’s having the time of his life as the wisecracking opportunist who feels trapped in a fractured fairy tale when Chuck — whom Ned of course couldn’t bring himself to send back into darkness — joins their unusual operation. (The look on McBride’s face when asked by Ned to surrogately hug Chuck during a tender moment is priceless.) These three would normally be enough for any series’ starting lineup, but there are already bonuses: chickadee-voiced scene stealer Kristen Chenoweth as Ned’s torch-carrying vamp of a waitress, and character actor vets Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene as Chuck’s shut-in guardian aunts, ex-synchronized swimmers (there’s that symmetry again) who assume their niece is still occupying a burial plot. I’ll bet Ned’s dog, Digby, even gets his own fan club.
One question you’re already hearing about Pushing Daisies — the pilot of which has the satisfying click-snap-zoom of a well-engineered, beautifully designed gadget — is whether the whole kit and caboodle can keep up the genre-straddling mixture of enchantment, mystery and Edward Goreyesque humor week after week. I believe it can, and it’s not a question of production design or cinematic richness. It’s because Fuller seems to invest every inch of his creation with his viewpoint about life, how its oddities are as essential and satisfying as its grace notes, and how its cruel bedevilments just make us all have to work that much harder — and more imaginatively — to get around them. After all, how do two lovers hold hands when contact is literally fatal? The final moment of the first episode lets you know how, and that’s when I really knew this show’s own touch was decidedly sublime.
PUSHING DAISIES | ABC | Wednesdays, 8 p.m. | Premieres Wed., Oct. 3