“Please don’t attack the window treatments.”
That’s the line I keep remembering from ABC’s already acclaimed “Pushing Daisies.” Its deft delivery illustrates the many ways in which this fable’s idiosyncratic universe is exquisitely rendered in Wednesday night’s pilot episode, quaintly titled “Pielette.” (Keep reading.)
By the time that line cinches the show’s singular flair, star Lee Pace as sweet but melancholy young piemaker Ned has already established his special talent for keeping his fruit fresh - he’s inexplicably gifted with the ability to revive the dead with one touch. Or kill them again with two. This gets explained in a childhood-flashback prologue, with the help of an elegant British narration by Jim Dale (who reads the “Harry Potter” audio books). This sheds light on not only the death of Ned’s mother, and his literally hands-off relationship with his beloved dog, but also his devotion to the girl next door named Chuck.
Ned’s object of affection returns, years later, to his adult life in the form of lovely/plucky actress Anna Friel, whom he first encounters laid out in her coffin. Well. We can tell where this is going. And it proceeds there in oddly logical, endearingly lyrical fashion - all storybook Technicolor, yet Humphrey Bogart noir; skipping along like a child’s game making up its own arcane rules; introducing an imposing private detective (Chi McBride) out to make money off Ned’s gift, but also Chuck’s two eccentric recluse aunts (Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene), who, the narrator tells us, “shared matching personality disorders and a love for fine cheese.”
Outre, you might say; yet dry as fine champagne - or, fans of “Wonderfalls” might recall, as dry as Pace’s deadpan turn playing the overeducated brother in that off-the-wall Fox cult fave about a Niagara Falls souvenir clerk sent on life-fixing missions by inexplicably talkative animal statues.
The same sly mind, Bryan Fuller - most recently seen writing for “Dead Like Me” and “Heroes” - is behind “Pushing Daisies.” Fuller’s tone is amplified in the pilot by wildly visual director Barry Sonnenfeld, who knows how to nail such tube quirkfests as Patrick Warburton’s live-action Fox rendering of “The Tick,” not to mention weird megamovies such as “The Addams Family” and “Men in Black.”
Chuck wants to find out who killed her, and the detective wants to collect the reward on such crimes, and Ned wants what he can’t have, which is to hold Chuck in his arms forever, or even once. Pace endearingly aches his way through that. A Juilliard grad who’s won acclaim Off-Broadway, the actor may be best known for playing the preoperative male-to-female transsexual whose military male lover is murdered for their affection in Showtime’s award-winning docudrama “Soldier’s Girl.” Pace wasn’t so much male or female in that movie, but instead a clearly defined individual person, to be taken on the character’s own terms.
And so Pace unfussily embodies Ned, who, despite his gift, is not given to grand gesture or elaborate expression. As he, Chuck and detective Emerson go about solving what seems destined to be The Case of the Week, Ned pines quietly and savors every second he shouldn’t be spending with his should-be-dead first crush.
Which brings us to the window treatments. After Ned has revived Chuck and brought her to his abode, she gets to wondering what’s up with her “murder” and this not-being-dead-anymore deal. Friel confronts Pace as he’s sleeping on the couch, situating herself on the floor to get eye-to-eye with her rescuer’s bleary face.
That has Pace playing the entire scene barely awake, lying on his side with his face smushed into a pillow. Friel details what she understands to be the dead/not dead rules and grills Pace about the reward money. “I’ll be so mad if you’re lying, you’ll have me scratching the drapes,” she warns, leading to his aforementioned defense of the window treatments. Such a simple expository scene shouldn’t be so revelatory or charming.
But it is. The actors convey infinite canniness through physical stillness and quietly emotive voices, though Pace can nicely put his body into play when need be. On top of the stars’ subtlety and Fuller’s verbal wit, Sonnenfeld’s pilot direction ladles layers of flashy frosting - theatrical camera angles, emphatic zooms, intensified color and those heavyhanded moments when the narration can’t quite straddle the sap line.
“Pushing Daisies” stakes out a brave, broad swath of storytelling territory, and a potentially fertile one. But one episode is all ABC provided critics for review. Where tone and style are as crucial as in this peculiar tale, a snazzy pilot doesn’t necessarily promise a series success.