Thursday, June 28, 2012

Bryan Fuller's Inevitable Failure: Pushing Daisies: The Complete First Season

The Good: Moments of acting and general concept
The Bad: Terribly repetitive, Very limited concept, Not terribly funny or dramatic
The Basics: A thoroughly average series hits DVD with an anemic first season that holds up poorly over multiple viewings.

Bryan Fuller is a writer and producer whose work I respect immensely. Fuller was one of the geniuses behind the clever and dark dramedy Dead Like Me and later Wonderfalls (reviewed here!). He has a loyal fan base for good reason: his shows might be short-lived, but they tend to be clever, character-intensive and have something impressive to say about the human condition. So, if anything, I was eagerly awaiting Pushing Daisies when it debuted as part of the troubled 2007-2008 television series.

By the time the Complete First Season of Pushing Daisies debuted with its nine episodes on DVD, I was already tuned out. Having given it a chance again on DVD, I renew my apathy toward the series and for a while I felt bad about that. Now, I'm mostly just bored and largely it is because series creator Bryan Fuller has created a series that has such limited potential that it was largely doomed from its first episode. Indeed, when I watched the pilot with a friend, when it was over, she just shrugged and said, "Yeah, how long can they keep that up?!" And she was right; by the end of the first season, the strain in the concept has already been stretched well beyond capacity.

Ned is a decent guy who lives as a pie maker baking pies and fending off the advances of his neighbor and coworker, Olive Snook when the love of his life - his childhood neighbor - Chuck (Charlotte, actually) is murdered. As a private detective named Emerson Cod investigates Chuck's murder, Ned gets access to the body and reveals a skill he possesses: he can resurrect the dead with a single touch. Unfortunately, reviving the dead in this fashion comes with two consequences: he must put the dead to rest with a second touch within a minute or someone nearby will die and if the person he resurrects is kept undead, he may never touch them again or else they will die.

Thus, Ned resurrects Chuck and quickly finds that she shares his feelings for her, but given that he cannot touch her, things become complicated. Also complicating their budding relationship is Olive, who wants Ned for her own and Chuck's aunts, Vivian and Lily, who she misses dearly. Soon, though, Emerson sees the benefit to Ned's gift in his business as a p.i. and he enlists Ned to aid him on high-profile cases with fantastic rewards. Soon, the gang is balancing pie making with detective work in a somewhat ridiculous romance where a man has a second chance at love, provided he never touches the woman he adores.

The nine episodes of the first season of Pushing Daisies tend to be rather formulaic with Emerson getting a case that Ned's ability has the potential to make much easier and solvable. Ned is enlisted, the pair discovers that things are actually more complicated and with Chuck and/or Olive "assisting" the case gets solved. Cases include such things as an environmentally beneficial car that seems to be using corpses as crash test dummies, the murder of jockeys - with Olive being a potential target -, and a novelist whose scratch-and-sniff book blows up in his face. There are some twists and turns, like a dog breeder who has four wives and a candy store that opens up to threaten the business at the Pie Hole, but largely, these are fairly common and unsurprising murder mysteries for those who are fans of the genre.

Unfortunately, the concept is rather quickly realized. Ned can take Chuck with him in his car, provided they are separated by a significant barrier (in this case, a plexiglass wall he has installed between the driver's side and passenger side). Ned can hide Chuck in his apartment and they can lay near one another, provided they have enough barriers between them. They can even kiss, so long as there is plastic wrap keeping their lips apart. The only real complication of interest is that soon Ned discovers that for some reason Olive is immune to his death/life touch . . .

Unlike most of Fuller's works, Pushing Daisies is more gimmick and plot oriented than actually character-driven. In Dead Like Me, the Reapers had limitations and taking souls was a conscious act, preventing exactly the type of mishaps that occur in this series. Similarly, Jaye in Wonderfalls might be plagued with prophetic abilities, but the underlying question that caused the series to move - "what if divine forced were truly talking to someone in modern times?" - gave Jaye and the writers of the series virtually limitless options to explore. In Pushing Daisies, the limitations are all concept-based and playing it out offers very finite options and ultimately, the series must create a story that is always mired in frustration or defy its own tenants. Indeed, given that the series is billed as a dramedy, odds are it will not surprise the viewer by turning devastatingly tragic by having Ned accidentally re-kill Chuck. So, instead, the characters plod along somewhat formulaically.

In the first season, the principle characters are:

Ned - The pie maker, he has a secret which involves the way he first discovered his ability and inadvertently killed Chuck's father. Having gotten a chance to spend his life with his childhood love, Ned takes the chance and he now surrounds himself with a woman and a dog whom he can never touch. He resists his neighbor's advances and clear interest in him and allows himself to be impressed into Emerson's service as a detective where he uses his ability to resurrect the dead to find out clues to murders,

Emerson - A private detective who quickly determines that Ned might be his key to an early and happy retirement, he opts to keep Ned and Chuck's secret in order to solve cases and make himself wealthy. Soon, though, he develops a genuine affection for Ned,

Chuck - Finding herself resurrected after more or less figuring out she was killed, she misses her guardians who raised her. She and Ned reconnect quickly and she refuses to be kept hidden as his plaything and she joins Emerson and Ned on many cases to keep herself busy and happy,

Olive - Ned's neighbor and employee at the Pie Hole, she has an obvious love of Ned. She is a former jockey and is known to break out into song while baking. She quickly becomes both jealous of Chuck and more curious about Ned,

and Vivian and Lily - Chuck's eccentric, shut-in aunts who were part of a mermaid act until one lost an eye. They take Chuck's death hard.

Pushing Daisies is further hampered by a narrator who provides voice-overs on every episode and that's just annoying. The stories are largely clear enough that the viewer can understand what is going on without being told what we are already seeing on screen. Fuller and his creative team take a pretty obvious concept and then spend time each episode explaining it more and it is insulting to the viewers.

Given that there are no great leaps of character, the best Pushing Daisies can hope for in most episodes is that the actors will do their best with the material they are given. Kristen Chenowith plays Olive with the same enthusiasm and perkiness she seems to have in every role and the addition of her musical talents (something she was diversifying into professionally between her time on The West Wing and the premiere of this series) seems more like an actor choice than an actual necessity to making the character or show work.

Similarly, Lee Pace plays Ned much the same way he played his character on Wonderfalls. He's good, but the performance is nothing extraordinary or different. Pace plays good guy well but this role uses the talents we have already seen him portray. In fact, on the acting front, it is Chi McBride who is most impressive for going a different place than one has seen from the actor before. McBride plays Emerson and he does it with a stiffness that is very different from his portrayal of principal Steven Harper on Boston Public or his businessman on the first season of House, M.D.

Ultimately, though, Pushing Daisies is a limited concept show that is played out well before the end of the second episode. As I write this, the second season of Pushing Daisies is on-the-bubble for cancellation and for those who are thinking of picking this set up, I'd advise patience: odds are, a "Complete Series" boxed set will be available sooner as opposed to later.

For other works featuring Kristen Chenowith, please check out my reviews of:
The Pink Panther
Stranger Than Fiction
The West Wing - Season 6
The West Wing - Season 7
Four Christmases


For other television reviews, please be sure to visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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