Propelled by strong advance word from critics and by an enticing advertising campaign, ABC’s PUSHING DAISIES made a strong debut on Wednesday, with a 4.2 rating/12 share in the adults 18-49 demographic. With an average of 12.8-million viewers over the course of its opening hour, the show handily one the 8:00pm time slot. So, the show is a critical favorite and it’s popular with audiences, too. That means it must be good, right? Not necessarily.
Once you get past the hype and the pretty colors, the debut episode of PUSHING DAISIES was too precious for words – a fact underlined by the cutesy title “Pie-lette.” (Get it? It sounds like a TV “pilot”; it looks French, which is supposed to be cool; and the leading man bakes pies.) Other writers have already noted the Tim Burtonesque visual qualities in Barry Sonnenfeld’s direction (artificially enhanced colors to create a storybook tone), but the borrowing extends to the script by series creator Bryan Fuller. The childhood era prologue – in which hars topics like death are treated with an off-hand tongue-in-cheek manner – seems deliberately to invoke the children’s fiction of Roald Dahl. There is also an extensive, omniscient voice-over narration a la HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, which pretty much tells the whole story; the main difference is that the HITCHERK narrator was actually funny.
The story set-up is that Ned (Lee Pace) discovered a strange power in himself at an early age: if he touches a dead person or animal, it comes back to life; if he touches it again, it returns to death. Unfortunately, if he allows that resurrected life to last more than one minute, someone nearby dies, apparently to restore the cosmic balance. (The balance is not so balanced: after the minute is up, if Ned restores the resurrected person to death, the one who died in his/her place does not revive.)
As an adult, Ned bakes pies and avoids emotional contact because he does not like touching people (even though his touch has no ill-effects on ordinary living people). Private investigator Emerson Cod (Chi McBride) has formed a partnership with Ned: Emerson finds murder cases with big rewards, and Ned gets information from the victims by reviving them just long enough to get literal death-bed testimony. Things take a personal turn when the latest case involved Charlotte “Chuck” Charles (Anna Friel), Ned’s childhood sweetheart. Ned revives her but cannot bring himself to put her down again. Instead, she teams up with Ned and Emerson to solve her own murder.
The tone is rather off-putting. The show attempts to invoke a magical aura, but the black comedy falls flat; it’s a matter of being indifferent to the emotional consequences of horrific events, rather than using them for some kind of biting satire. This indifference undermines the attempts at sweetness, which taste like icing layered on top of cemetery sod.
In general, the characters act not like people but like projections of the audiences’s wishes. Dealing with the emotional consequences of being brutally murdered and then resurrected are ignored – they would slow down the story and sap away the feel-good vibe the series wants to ring. So instead we have Charlotte cutting herself in on Ned and Emerson’s partnership with all the gravity of a child asking to join a club. (You almost imagine her enthusiastically urging, “Hey guys, let’s put on a show!”)
The episode is filled with absurdities, which we are not supposed to question while being overwhelmed with the cuteness of it all. As a child, Ned resurrects his dog, who is hit by a truck, then his mother, who pops an artery in her head. Ned learns that a second touch kills when his mother kiss him, leaving us to wonder why, during all the time in between, he never got around to petting his dog. Later, Ned revives Charlotte at the funeral home, and we are not supposed to question why (as in the 1972 film TALES FROM THE CRYPT) she is not shrieking in agony from teh embalming fluid burning through her veins. When Ned tells her to lay low by hiding in her coffin until he can smuggle her out, she does so – even when the coffin is loaded into the hearse, taken to the cemetery, and lowered into a plot. Was she really just going to lay there while she was buried, supremely confidant that Ned would come for her sooner or later? And why are we supposed to like a character who could be so foolishly passive?
Sonnenfeld bungles the direction of a crucial scene. Charlotte’s resurrection is a secret (Ned fears the consequences if word got out about his power). At one point, her aunt Lily (Swoosie Kurtz) is standing where she should be able to see Charlotte, but the narrator tells us she fails to do so because she has only one good eye (the other having been lost in an accident years ago). The camera slides over, supposedly to show us the point of view from her good eye, from which Charlotte is not visible. Unfortunately, Sonnenfeld gets the camera placement exactly backwards: the angle matches Lily’s bad eye on the right, making it obvious that her good eye on the left would have spotted Charlotte without obstruction.
Where the show is heading is hard to imagine. The mystery angle seems designed to short-circuit almost immediately. If Ned can merely ask the dead to reveal who murdered them, there is not a lot of reason for conducting an investigation to fill the one-hour slots. Consequently, future scripts will have to spin variations on Charlotte’s situation, featuring murder victims who do not know who killed them. In which case, Ned’s power becomes pretty much pointless.
Perhaps the series will try to sustain itself on the relationship between Ned and Charlotte. The first episode ends with their childhood romance rekindled, their love for each other frustrated by Ned’s inability to touch her. Perhaps this platonic longing is supposed to play well on television, appealing to conservative viewers who complain about too much sex on TV, but it is hard to imagine how the show will sustain it for more than a few episodes, let alone a whole season.
PUSHING DAISIES: “Pie-lette” (October 3, 2007). Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Written and created by Bryan Fuller. Cast: Lee Pace, Anna Friel, Chi McBride, Ellen Greene, Swoosie Kurtz, Kristin Chenoweth