The facts were these. As a child, Ned (Lee Pace) discovered he could raise the dead. But through trial and error (a dead-then-alive-then-dead-again mother, a dead neighbor, tons of dead squirrels and fireflies) he also discovered that his gift came with rules. If Ned brought something back and kept it alive for more than a minute, a nearby creature or person of equal “life value” dropped dead in its place. Also, if he touched anything he had resurrected — even after that crucial first minute — it would die again, permanently, with no hope for coming back again.
So naturally, he does what anyone else in his situation would do: he becomes a crime-solving pie maker. Well, the crime-solving comes about by chance when private investigator Emerson Cod (Chi McBride) discovers the pie maker’s gift and makes Ned his business partner, all the better to claim rewards on unsolved murders by questioning the victims in the town’s candy cane-colored morgue. Ned’s fascination with pies comes from his childhood: his mother was baking one when she died.
Another holdover from childhood is his crush on Charlotte “Chuck” Charles (Anna Friel), the girl who used to live next door. Problem is, unbeknownst to Chuck, Ned accidentally killed Chuck’s father when he resurrected his own mother for more than a minute all those years ago (Chuck’s father, Charles Charles, being the closest thing alive at the time). He also recently resurrected Chuck after she was herself murdered, and didn’t have the heart to kill her again. Now, Ned and Chuck endure a platonic mutual crush punctuated by stolen kisses through plastic wrap, rubber-gloved handholding, and endless flirtation. The kind of moon-eyed puppy love that makes calloused Emerson contemplate suicide every time he’s stuck in the car with them. Meanwhile, Ned’s employee, Olive Snook (Kristin Chenoweth), maintains a crush on Ned, and in her quest to ruin Chuck’s chances, gets involved in the lives of Chuck’s grieving aunts, a pair of synchronized swimmers known as the Darling Mermaid Darlings.
Lest you think the last few paragraphs were full of spoilers, this is all covered in the first episode — and in the background for nearly every other episode in the show’s strike-shortened first season. Pushing Daisies is nothing if not a welcoming show, from helpful summary intros to dry narration by Jim Dale (known for his narration of the Harry Potter audiobooks) to cartoon-bright color schemes. It seems to say, “Sure, this episode is about someone dying from smelling a boobytrapped scratch-n-sniff book, but it’s really quite normal. Here, settle in and have a slice of pie — and not in that weird Twin Peaks way. Mmmmm, pie.”
Such is the world of Pushing Daisies, a show that piles quirk on top of quirk on top of quirk with no shame whatsoever, and pretty much gets away with it. Ned’s business is called the Pie Hole, a man with a wooden arm and a woman with a wooden leg fall in love in a vast historic windmill sanctuary, a Chinese railroad worker during the Civil War passes himself off as a Confederate officer, a horse race is actually called “The Jock-Off”, narration can take the form of Seussian rhyme, and dialogue like “Names are destiny. If you think Dwayne Cloggin ain’t growing up to be a plumber…” is par for the course.
But for all its self-aware quirkiness, Pushing Daisies never flies off the rails, instead staying true to its own universe and rules. As proven in the Halloween episode, “Girth”, there aren’t necessarily ghosts or other forms of magic in the Pushing Daisies world just because Ned has the magic touch. Aided by well-thought-out production choices (pies delivered in wooden boxes, a plethora of quirky vintage cars, a visual scheme that the show’s cinematographer described as a cross between “Amélie and a Tim Burton film — something big, bright, and bigger than life”), the show constructs its own cohesive reality. The bright, oversaturated colors — of the kind that seeped into the pores of Pleasantville‘s black and white surfaces — give the show a feel that’s part Looney Tunes, part fairy tale. A handful of bite-sized commentaries with Pace and creator Bryan Fuller (who also brought us Dead Like Me) show the great amount of thought and effort on the part of the show’s creative staff to create this cuckoo-clockwork world. As you watch episodes unfurl, you think to yourself, “Of course there would be a jockeys-only bar that wouldn’t serve tall people. Of course you can fix a grounded pigeon with a taxidermied parrot wing and a bejeweler.” The oddities don’t seem to exist for their own sake, but as natural extensions of the story, in service of the story. This is the secret to a successful quirky show, as Pushing Daisies proves again and again.
Granted, the show occasionally asks us to suspend our disbelief to uncomfortable heights. Are we really to believe that Ned never touched his dog after he brought it back and before he learned the rules? Or that, with instant death awaiting the slightest graze between Chuck and Ned, that they would ever stand as close to each other as the TV screen requires them to? Those are really nitpicky things, though, since Pushing Daisies works so hard and so well at putting you in the right mindset to be carried away by the show’s breezy tone (even the rapid-fire, Gilmore Girls-paced dialogue sweeps you along). Pushing Daisies is a fable about love — rediscovered and childlike, unrequited and melancholy, lost and mourned — that, if you’re willing to go along with its flow, puts a goofy smile on your face.