Every once in a while a pilot comes along that completely shocks and surprises you with its dazzling beauty, pitch perfect cast, and its casual ability to create a whole world that you never want to leave.
I'm talking, gentle readers, about Pushing Daisies, which ABC has scheduled for the fall season. From the fertile mind of Bryan Fuller (Wonderfalls and Heroes), it's unlike anything you've ever seen on television, a Burton-esque vision of mortality, morality, and, er, pies that sucks you in from the very opening scene and never lets go.
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family), Pushing Daisies has a super-saturated color palette that jars sharply (and intentionally) with its life-and-death theme. Lee Pace (Wonderfalls) plays Ned, a lonely pie maker who, as a child, discovers that he has the ability to bring dead things back to life, a gift he uses to full effect when his beloved dog Dibney is hit by a truck in the pilot's beautiful and brutal opening. But this new gift has a few caveats: Ned can bring something back to life but if he ever touches it again, it dies instantly and can't be resurrected again. Additionally, if he keeps them alive for more than a minute, someone else in proximity will die. Think of it as the law of conservation: if someone lives, someone else has to die.
Just that happens when his mother suffers a fatal aneurysm whilst baking a pie one afternoon. As she falls to the floor, Ned revives her and she pops back to life as though she had been taking a nap. But when Ned keeps her alive, the father of his beloved girl-next-door Chuck (a.k.a. Charlotte) drops dead watering the lawn. As if that weren't enough psychic trauma, Ned's mother kisses him goodnight and then she too kicks the proverbial bucket. What is a resurrecting lad to do?
It's a concept with a few inherent problems for Ned. For one, he can't ever touch Dibney again (he pets his beloved pooch with a hand on a stick) and it's made him reluctant to share any human contact with anyone, especially wanton waitress Olive (Kristin Chenoweth). But Ned doesn't have any qualms entering some morally gray areas to exploit his gift with his business partner, an ex-cop named Emerson (Chi McBride). Their business model? They follow the news for any suspicious deaths with reward money attached, then animate the corpse to learn who killed them, pocket the cash, and go on their merry way.
It's a plan that's helped pay for Ned's true passion: baking pies (not too Freudian, huh?) at his own little slice of heaven, The Pie Hole. And everything would have been fine if the latest murder victim hadn't been his loved-and-lost Charlotte "Chuck" Charles, now an adult (Our Mutual Friend's Anna Friel) who has gotten herself murdered on a cruise. Ned and Emerson head back to Ned's daisy-laden childhood home of Coeur d' Coeur to revive Charlotte but Ned finds himself in a bit of a Sleeping Beauty quandary and he can't bear to let Charlotte die again, especially as she never saw who her killer was.
What happens next? You'll have to wait until this fall to find out, but let me just say that it's incredibly worth the wait and involves a Fuller favorite (monkeys), a murder mystery, a pair of over-the-hill synchronized swimmers, and a shady travel boutique called, well, Boutique Travel Travel Boutique. It's a mystery, a love story, a quirky comedy, and a drama about morality rolled into one and lovingly filled with a delicious cherry pie filling that's sweet but never saccharine.
Pushing Daisies, in short, is the rare television show that actually changes the way you look at television, a dazzlingly lush production that seems more at home as a big budget feature film (think Big Fish and you've approximated the look) filled with charmingly eccentric folk whom you can't wait to meet up with again. (Watch the scenes in which Ned and Chuck nearly touch hands from opposite sides of a wall--or pretend to hold hands by holding their own--and if your heart doesn't break, you're made of ice.)
The series' casting is inventive and spot-on. Star Lee Pace perfectly captures the pathos of a man unable to touch anything but who channels his love into his pies (we should hook him up with Waitress' Keri Russell). It's a star turn that makes me scratch my head, as I wonder why Pace isn't yet a household name? Anna Friel, whom I've adored since I first saw her in the British mini-series Our Mutual Friend, simply lights up every scene from inside herself; she's adorable but also displays a grace and maturity beyond her years, deftly juggling being the lead's object of affection with being a wry modern woman (think Nora Charles) as well as a sensitive soul. It's her Chuck, as the series' moral compass, that comes up with the thought that none of the other characters do: why not ask the deceased for any final words or thoughts? It's an altruistic spin on the crime-solving, reward-collecting business that Ned and Emerson have created. (FYI, the British actor's American accent is absolutely and astoundingly flawless.)
Meanwhile, Chi McBride brings a comedic gruffness (and moral ambiguity) to a role that's vastly different than his normal fare and it's wonderful to see him in a more comedic role for a change. Likewise, as Charlotte's reclusive maiden aunts, the former Darling Mermaid Darlings synchronized swimming duo, Swoosie Kurtz (here in a delightfully neurotic role as a one-eyed woman) and Ellen Greene (yes, Little Shop of Horror's Audrey), are endearingly out-there. Additionally, Jim Dale (yes, he of the Harry Potter books on tape fame) exudes an enchanting blend of gravitas and humor as the story's narrator. In a development season where 95 percent of the pilots had voice-overs, this is the rare bird that makes it work.
If I have one complaint, it's that I'm not in love with Kristin Chenoweth, who seems an odd choice for the vixen-like role of Pie Hole waitress (and Ned's neighbor) Olive. There's just something... off about her performance that's the sole detraction from an otherwise perfect pilot.
Ultimately, I was completely smitten with Pushing Daisies and it's set an impossibly high bar for the rest of this year's freshman drama series to meet. But if there's one thing for certain, it's that I'm already dying with anticipation to see what happens to Ned, Charlotte, and Emerson next.
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Jace is an LA-based television development and acquisitions exec who watches way too much television for his own good and would love a TiVo for every room in the house. (He’s halfway there.) His blog, Televisionary, can be found at televisionaryblog.com.