By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
"Sorry to disturb you," Ned the piemaker says politely to a hideously disfigured corpse he has just awakened with the touch of a finger, turning the cadaver into a kind of pop-up pastry right there on its metal morgue platter. It seems that Ned, for no apparent reason, has the ability to bring people back to life.
Before clergymen start shouting "Sacrilege!," it should be noted that there are severe limitations on Ned's talent, as described to him by the unseen voice who bestowed it: "First touch, life; second touch, death, forever," he's told. The revived can remain conscious for only a minute "without consequences -- any longer, someone else has to die," apparently whoever happens to be nearby.
Thus the unlikely premise of "Pushing Daisies," the zaniest novelty on any network's fall schedule and, if only because it will be all the buzz by tomorrow, the show you least want to miss. But the series may prove to be a bit like Ned's supernatural abilities: one exposure, gratifying and mesmerizing; any more, possibly deathly, or at least maddeningly repetitious and excessively adorable.
The lovingly and imaginatively produced pilot has to be the most gorgeous piece of television airing anywhere tonight, perhaps even if "Planet Earth" were to get a one-night marathon HD rerun. A collaboration of brilliant craftsmen Bryan Fuller and Barry Sonnenfeld, the "Pushing Daisies" premiere is a colorful, cockeyed cocktail, either a lighthearted tragedy or a dungeon-dark comedy on the diciest theme of all, mortality -- mortality, great avatar of the unfair and the curse from which all other fears derive.
Over-narrated like so many current shows, but shot and edited with movie-quality wizardry, the premiere opens with Ned as a child playing in a field of, naturally enough, daisies. Gazillions of 'em, thanks to computer imagery. When an accident occurs (the first of many signs that the series, however childlike in tone, is not for children), "young Ned realized he wasn't like the other children," the narrator says. "He could touch dead things and bring them back to life." Yes, that's a definite distinction.
The rest of the hour takes it from there, populated with such quixotic characters as the Darling Maids, a former synchronized swimming team who have two eyes left between them: Vivian played by Ellen Greene and Lily played by the ever-estimable Swoosie Kurtz. Like "Chuck," this show has a Chuck, but this one's a young woman and nearly Ned's girlfriend, a character played by fresh Anna Friel.
Kristin Chenoweth plays Snook, a bighearted but slow-witted waitress at the Pie Hole restaurant, Ned's haunt. How dumb is she? It is said of her that "she used to think 'masturbation' meant chewing your food." Pies are a continuing motif, a bit unfortunate since a pie also figures prominently in the cyberblitz of data buzzed into the hero's head on "Chuck" (again). Similarities between "Pushing Daisies" and any other show on the air are similarly superficial; the tone seems reminiscent of the Tim Burton movie "Edward Scissorhands," but not to the show's disadvantage.
Lee Pace plays Ned himself, the whitest slice of white bread in the loaf, and bland to the point of near transparency. But then Ned by nature is reactive, even passive, and certainly more implosive than "ex-." He is stupefied with wonderment about his magical power, and for a while, viewers may be, too. Chi McBride personifies practical reality as Emerson Cod, a private eye determined to put Ned's talent to profitable use, as in solving murder cases.
Apparently, but not conclusively, "Pushing Daisies" will be a kind of weekly murder mystery with a heady ethereal air. When ABC says it's "a whodunit with a twist," that's not even hype. It's almost an understatement. The show is a matrix of twists -- a "matwist." Even the twists are twisted.
How fitting that "Pushing Daisies" comes from the network of "Desperate Housewives" and of such former shows as "Twin Peaks," "Cop Rock" and, to go way back, "Max Headroom." ABC continues to be the network most likely to take a leap onto the flying trapeze with a truly daring show -- although CBS may be trying to steal that title away with its upcoming "Viva Laughlin." But where that show is merely laughable, "Pushing Daisies" is formidable. Also flaky, whimsical, flighty and magical -- not only TiVo-worthy but veritably On-Demandable.
Pushing Daisies (one hour) premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 7.