Judge Erich Asperschlager prefers his reviews ala mode.
Our review of Pushing Daisies: The Complete Second Season, published July 21st, 2009, is also available.
"I'd kiss you if it wouldn't kill me."
With Pushing Daisies, producer Bryan Fuller set out to make a "prime time fairy tale." While it may not be the best television show of all time, it's certainly one of the most original. Unfortunately, while Daisies had everything going for it—sharp writing, charismatic cast, lush cinematic design—it had as many things going against it—low ratings, high production costs, and a writers' strike that nipped a promising season in its proverbial bud. The good news: the show's initial nine-episode run is available in Pushing Daisies: The Complete First Season DVD set; the bad: it's unlikely this year's even-better second season will be around much longer. But just because the Pie Hole is closing up shop for good doesn't mean you shouldn't dig into this delicious first season set.
Facts of the Case
"The facts were these…"
With just a touch, Ned (Lee Pace, Wonderfalls) can bring dead things back to life—something he discovered as a boy after his beloved dog, Digby, was run over by a truck. However, this gift comes with two caveats. One: if he touches that newly-alive thing a second time, it dies forever—a fact the young Ned learned at bedtime on the day he brought his mother back to life from a fatal stroke. Two: he only has one minute to touch the newly alive thing that second time, or else something, or someone, else dies in its place—a fact he learned sixty seconds after bringing his mother back to life, when the father of his childhood sweetheart and next door neighbor, Charlotte "Chuck" Charles (Ann Friel, Timeline), keeled over dead on their front lawn.
Today, Ned is a pie maker who, with the help of a waitress named Olive (Kristen Chenoweth, The West Wing), runs the Pie Hole restaurant. He's also a part-time private detective, helping full-time private detective Emerson Cod (Chi McBride, House) solve murder cases by bringing the victims back to life and asking who killed them. As luck would have it, one of those victims is Chuck, murdered on a cruise ship and survived by her eccentric aunts Lily (Swoozie Kurtz, Slap Shot) and Vivan (Ellen Greene, The Adventures of Pete & Pete). But instead of touching Chuck dead again, as the rules dictate, Ned decides to let the love of his life live. Of course, if he wants her to stay alive he can never touch her again.
• "The Fun in Funeral"
• "Bitter Sweets"
I watched the first season of Pushing Daisies on TV, and while I liked it, I didn't love it. For all its style and invention, the murder-a-week format and too-precious dialogue left me lukewarm enough that I didn't much miss it after the strike. When the second season premiere rolled around, I watched it, but didn't go out of my way to do so. Then something happened. Early this year, a switch flipped, the story really grabbed me, and I went from like to love. Though it's probably counterproductive to praise a show's second season in a review of its first, my love for the current season of Daisies changed my feelings for season one. Unfortunately, at about the time its story and my interest picked up steam, Pushing Daisies was cancelled. So it joins a long list of TV shows cut down in their prime—shows like Arrested Development, Freaks and Geeks, and Fuller's other doomed project, Wonderfalls—and knowing we're not getting any more episodes makes those we have more precious.
There may only be nine episodes in this set, but each is a lovingly polished gem. The show's distinctive tone is set early on, in the "Pie-lette," by Hollywood heavy Barry Sonnenfeld, who directed the series' first two episodes. Sonnenfeld and production designer Michael Wylie deserve much of the credit for giving Fuller's world its visual richness. From elaborate crane shots to beautiful widescreen framing, nothing about Pushing Daisies looks like it was designed for the small screen. CGI mixes with clay animation, saturated colors pop from all corners of highly detailed interiors—bedrooms hung with patterned draperies that match patterned wallpaper; a Wonka-like candy shop piled to the ceiling with confections; old houses packed with books, antiques, and European upholstery—and breathtaking vistas, with hillsides covered in daisies or dozens of painted windmills. Where most series rely on location scouting and pre-fab sets, everything in Daisies feels unique, and true to whatever version of reality Fuller's characters live in.
As for those characters, the actors who bring Daisies to life are one of the finest ensemble casts in recent television, including Chi McBride as the gruff-yet-cuddly Emerson Cod (a P.I. who spends his downtime knitting), diminutive Broadway superstar Kristen Chenoweth as Olive Snook (who spends her downtime unrequitedly loving her pie-making boss), Swoozie Kurtz and Ellen Greene as aunts Lily and Vivian (formerly the "Darling Mermaid Darlings" aquatic duo), and Daisies' narrator, the incomparable Jim Dale—best known to American children (and me) as the voice of the Harry Potter audiobooks.
As good as the rest of the cast is, though, the show's true stars are Anna Friel and Lee Pace. They're given the unusual task of playing lovers for whom staying chaste is a matter of life and death, and manage to do more with longing glances and pretend handholding than most pay cable series do with explicit sex. They're sweet, and charming, and their chemistry is fantastic, but the underlying tension between the characters isn't just the threat of a literal kiss of death. Ned is the reason Chuck is alive, but he's also the reason her father isn't—a revelation that threatens to tear them apart in the season's final episodes, and is heartbreaking because Pace and Friel have done such a good job of making believable characters out of an unbelievable premise.
If you watched Pushing Daisies in hi-def when it aired, you got to see it in its true widescreen glory. If not, now's your chance. Even if you don't have the hardware to handle the Blu-ray release, the standard DVD release is plenty stunning—with the bright colors and sharp details necessary to fully appreciate the show. The 5.1 surround mix is fine, though not nearly as aggressive with the rear speakers as I'd hoped or the memorable music deserves.
The "Pie Time—Time for Pie" bonus feature, on disc three, is a collection of short featurettes—one to three for each episode—adding up to about 45 minutes of content. The featurettes range from looks at effects shots and set design to discussions about actors, storylines, and direction. There are interviews with various producers and crew, though the bulk of the talking is done by Fuller and Pace. As a whole, the collection is fun and informative, and almost makes up for the glaring omission of audio commentaries. The only complaint (and it's kind of a big one) is that there's no "play all" option. Considering some of the featurettes are as short as a minute, it would have been handy.
The set's three discs come in packaging made to resemble the Pie Hole's menu, and each episode has the option of watching it with the previous recap on or off.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Pushing Daisies looks fantastic. The premise is terrific. The cast is pitch-perfect. The writing, however, is sometimes too clever for its own good.
Everything about the show is stylized, including the wordy, rapid-fire dialogue, and while I'm not looking for CSI: Couer d' Couers, brevity is definitely not at the soul of this show's wit. The biggest offenders are Ned and Chuck, who bare their souls in long-winded ways. In the pilot, for example, Chuck describes a hug as "an emotional Heimlich…all your fear and anxiety comes shooting out of your mouth in a big wet wad"—a bit too flowery for my taste, even for a show called Pushing Daisies.
As of this writing, it's unclear whether ABC will air the final few episodes of Pushing Daisies, or just save them for the inevitable season two DVD set. Either way, it's doubtful fans will get a satisfying conclusion to the story. There are plans for Daisies to continue its life in comic book form—a pretty smart move, though certainly not ideal. As sad as those of us who have stuck with the show since the beginning will be to see it go, don't let our gloom keep those new to the series from jumping in with this beautiful first season set. Pushing Daisies isn't perfect, but it's magical, and it proves that, as a visual medium, television is capable of more than we usually get.
For the record, this verdict has nothing to do with the crumble crust three
plum pie I received in the mail last week: Not Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
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