On paper, almost everything in Pushing Daisies sounds familiar. Along with a crime-solving component, it features fantasy elements and a will-they-or-won’t-they romance. But, processed through the hopper of executive producer Bryan Fuller (Wonderfalls) and premiere director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black), these tropes come out feeling strange, something never before attempted on television.
As a kid, Ned (Lee Pace) learned he had the extraordinary ability to bring dead things back to life just by touching them. This gift comes with two admittedly arbitrary caveats, learned by trial and error: if he touches the reanimated person a second time, he or she dies again (for good), and if he keeps the person alive for more than one minute, someone else in close proximity will take his or her place. In last night’s first episode, Ned used this power to ripen dead fruit to make luscious-looking pies, collected rewards on unsolved murders by waking victims and asking whodunit (being sure not to keep them alive too long), and saved his childhood love, Charlotte “Chuck” Charles (Anna Friel), from a lonely afterlife. They’re smitten, but with just one hug or peck on the cheek, she’s headed back to the cemetery.
While the premise is awkward to explain, it was fed to viewers like a confection, smoothly narrated by Jim Dale (best known for recording voices in the Harry Potter audiobook series). With his assured, “magical” tone, he can tell you anything and you’d believe it. In the case of Pushing Daisies, what he has to say is especially sharp and convincing, more matter-of-fact than fairy-tale. “He was 39 years, 42 weeks, five days, three hours, and 26 minutes old,” Dale said of one murder victim. The precision is equal parts chilling and enchanting.
Aside from Dale, the main reason Pushing Daisies seems new is its look. Gorgeous and vibrant, it features super-saturated colors and bright, bold patterns, a perfect antidote to the dark and grainy moodiness that permeates most primetime dramas. Pushing Daisies takes visual composition cues from ornate movies like The Royal Tenenbaums, Big Fish, or Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events—lush and weird. Coeur d’Coeurs, Ned’s childhood home town, jumps off the screen, its background a field of electric-green grass, Big Bird-yellow sunflowers, and, yes, a sprinkling of daisies.
True, such distinctively art-directed sets can be called cold or precious. And yes, Pushing Daisies includes a few characters who so far seem only excessively eccentric (I’m thinking in particular of Chuck’s cheese-loving aunts, former synchronized swimmers played by queens of quirk Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene). But the central relationships are already as warm as its color scheme—which is odd, considering that death is at the forefront of most conversations. When the narrator explained that Ned “reached around his back and held his own hand, pretending to be holding hers, unaware that at that moment, she was pretending to be holding his,” it’s hard not to feel their yearning. “I’d kiss you if it wouldn’t kill me,” Chuck told Ned’s sleeping form. It could be that we’ve found a new Jim and Pam.
It doesn’t hurt that Ned and Chuck are extraordinarily cute and charming, navigating breakneck-paced dialogue like Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. In the premiere episode, Chuck sighed, “You were my first kiss. First and last. Is that weird?” Ned was right on it: “That’s not weird. It’s symmetrical.” Swoon. Even Emerson Cod (Chi McBride), a private detective and Ned’s “business partner” for the crime-solving end of things, engaged in snappy, funny verbal back-and-forths with Ned at speeds never-before seen in shows that didn’t have characters named Gilmore or Bluth.
On top of the dialogue and its delivery, the plotting of Pushing Daisies is also inspired. The premiere’s narrative unfolded slowly, with hints, mysteries, foreshadowing, and payoffs all elegantly constructed. When Aunt Lily (Kurtz) was introduced wearing an eye patch, we might be forgiven for expecting the worst. But, the patch found its way into the plot in a delightful and enormously significant way. And we might take that as a sign of great fun and wit to come.