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Pilot Inspektor: ABC's "Pushing Daisies"

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 recently ordered to series for the fall season. From the fertile mind of Bryan Fuller (Wonderfalls, Heroes), it's unlike anything you've ever seen on television, a Burtonesque 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: he can bring something back to life but if he ever touches them again, they die 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 grey 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 voiceover, 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.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: How I Met Your Mother/Two and a Half Men (CBS); Deal or No Deal (NBC); Everybody Hates Chris/All of Us (CW); Dancing with the Stars (ABC; 8-9:30 pm); House (FOX)

9 pm: The King of Queens (CBS); Heroes (NBC); The Game (CW); The Bachelor (ABC; 9:30-11 pm); 24 (FOX)

10 pm: CSI: Miami (CBS); Law & Order: Criminal Intent (NBC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Waking the Dead on BBC America.

It's the return of the stylish smart UK murder investigation series. On tonight's episode, Boyd and his team investigate the case of James Jenson, a criminally insane man who is released from a psychiatric unit; only thing is two days after his release, the wallets of his victims turn up at their relatives' homes. Creepy.

8 pm: Everybody Hates Chris.

On tonight's episode ("Everybody Hates the Last Day"), with the end of the school year nigh, Chris enacts his revenge on Caruso for making his life miserable for the past year, while Drew becomes so obsessed with his graduation cap and gown that he begins wearing it around the house.

9 pm: 24.

It's Day Six of 24. While FOX doesn't give us much in the way of previews, here's what we do know: CTU reels from the death of Milo while the hostage crisis continues, Jack's dad makes his move, and Jack, well, he's still trying to protect the country from the zillionth international crisis that day. Yawn. I wonder what Bill Buchanan and Karen Hayes are doing.

10 pm: The Riches on FX.

Is anyone else watching new drama The Riches on FX? On tonight's episode ("This is Your Brain on Drugs"), Wayne attempts a drug intervention to help Dahlia, while Dale shows up in Eden Falls.


Vance said…
THIS is the show Kristen Chenowith gave up Young Frankenstein for? Wow, it may actually be a good move (at least quality wise)! Now I'm even MORE excited by this show!
Vance said…
I meant for her career, maybe not the shows. (still, how you can not love her? though maybe she might be too bubbly. I thought she signed on for some 4 camera sitcom, or at least, that's what I had assumed).
Anonymous said…
Jace, thank you so much for your review. I am dying to see this show! Especially now as you've given it such glowing compliments!
I am surprised and delighted to hear that Anna Friel is starring in this show. I loved her in Our Mutual Friend but haven't seen her in anything since. And it sounds like her American accent is quite impressive. I'm also excited to see what Lee Pace can do as I really enjoyed his performance in Wonderfalls and it will be nice to see him in a lead role. All this plus Swoosie Kurtz? Sounds like a cast made in heaven. (Or at least Coeur d'Coeur.)
The CineManiac said…
This is one of those times where I hate you, seriously I'm so jealous that you've seen this show. And before this preview I was intrigued about Pushing Daises, now I'm absolutely salivating at the thought of it, and don't know if I can make it 4 months until it airs.
Anonymous said…
Loved it.

Everything you said is right on.

Big Fish - great reference (though I liked this pilot more than I liked that film). But the analogy is great.

Anna Friel's accent was perfect. I am usually so bothered by Brits doing American. I didn't notice anything from her.

Much as I heart Kristen Chenowith, I have to agree with you. But then, I thought the character was the weak link in the script.

I cannot WAIT till episode 2.
Anonymous said…
It's KristIn Chenoweth, by the way.
Anonymous said…
It was absoloutely brilliant...private practice (which is not too good) should not be the hyped up show. ABC should put its heart and soul into this because it is just fantastic.
Anonymous said…
What a wonderful show. The actors portray characters you want to watch. The leads are very attractive. The premise is quirky. The supporting characters are just wonderfully wierd. The writing is smart. The color pallete has laser like sharp colors. I sat with a smile on my face for an hour. I hope there are enough people who like this style of show. I think most of the TV watching public want low humor. It's just too good for network TV.
ohAmanda said…
I agree about Kristin's character--she was typical dramedy.
Kate Diamond said…
Hurray! I'm so glad other people are enjoying this show. I can't wait for the next episode, and I'm seriously hoping ABC gives it a chance to develop. It was just so delightful. Like Tim Burton meets Lemony Snicket (the snarky books, not the movie).
That's for the PUSHING DAISIES Fans!!!

Error in 4th episode - Pigeon - Chuck touches Ned!!!!

At the cemetery scene, Ned, Chuck and Emerson open the grave of an prisioner.
Instants after Chuck put her glasses on the dead's man face, SHE TOUCHES NED!!!!

Pay Attention!!!

She says: "No, Wait!!!" Touching Ned's arm!!!!

She suppost to falling down, R.I.P., KERPLUNK, Dead!!!!

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