Death, love and pies in ‘Pushing Daisies’

December 6, 2019

It turns out that one of the best television series ever made was cancelled ten years ago. “Pushing Daisies,” in a two season run, delved into a genre somewhere between fairytale, murder mystery and magical realism. It’s a world where the sky is always robins-egg blue, city morgues are striped like candy-canes, the dead are key witnesses in their own murders and everybody loves pie. 

This television show is so phenomenal that in just 22 episodes (aired from 2007-2009), it was nominated for 17 Emmy Awards, won seven of them, received enormous critical acclaim and currently has a 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. If you’re looking for something to binge-watch this winter break, “Pushing Daisies” is it, and it’s available to stream for free through CW Seed. 

In the words of the show’s narrator (Jim Dale—yes, the same Jim Dale who did all the Harry Potter audio books), “the facts were these:” Ned (Lee Pace) is an emotionally repressed pie-maker. He also just so happens to be able to bring the dead back to life. The rules of this ability are as follows: one, first touch brings the dead person/thing back to life; two, second touch, the dead person/thing dies again, this time permanently; three, if the alive-again person/thing stays alive for more than a minute, something of equal value has to die. 

Now, when Ned uses his gift to simply re-ripen rotten fruit for his pies, some flowers outside his shop (The Pie Hole) wilt and there’s not much of a problem. When he reanimates murder victims to get the information needed to catch their killers, he touches them again before a minute is up and no one has to be the wiser. But when Ned finds himself unable to let his childhood crush—Charlotte “Chuck” Charles (Anna Friel)—stay dead, after her 60 seconds are up, someone nearby dies instead. Naturally, shenanigans ensue.

And of course, as per the rules, now that Chuck is alive-again, if Ned were ever to touch her she would be dead-again. This barrier becomes an issue when the pair fall in love, giving the show’s central romance plot the ultimate stakes: wanting something you can never have, on pain of death. It’s ridiculously poetic and heart-wrenchingly earnest in a way that’s hardly ever seen on network television.

Bryan Fuller, the show’s creator, said in a 2017 interview with “Vanity Fair” that much of Ned and Chuck’s relationship was based on his own experiences as a member of the LGBT community during the AIDS epidemic. When “unprotected sex meant death for so long…there was danger associated with intimate touch. I think a lot of those things were probably at the back of my mind as I was creating a universe where something so simple, something that is common in heterosexual relationships, was something that would kill you.” 

This intention is clear as “Pushing Daisies” perfectly captures the longing and passion of loving someone when everything in the world seems to say you shouldn’t be together. And in a way which continues to resonate with LGBT audiences, it also depicts exactly what it’s like to stare those odds in the face and decide to love anyway. 

Unfailingly optimistic, “Pushing Daisies” manages to tackle a lot of heavy content while staying hopeful and hilarious. “I hoped in the telling of this tale about pies and dogs and love and lost childhoods and reclaimed romance, we could find respite from what was essentially death, death, death,” Fuller said in the “Vanity Fair” interview. “We’re surrounded by death every day. If anything, [‘Pushing Daisies’] allows us to look with greater affection at the living moments rather than spending time wallowing in depression.”

Fuller succeeds in this regard, due in huge part to the show’s unique aesthetic. Prominent use of primary colors and geometric shapes in the set design, combined with similarly stylized costuming, make watching this show a quirky, visually pleasing experience. Olive (Kristen Chenoweth), a waitress at The Pie Hole and a friend of Ned, lounges around her apartment in pajamas made from the exact same fabric as her duvet and drapes. The Pie Hole itself is shaped like an actual pie, complete with a pie-crust roof and cherry-shaped light fixtures. It’s all straight out of the pages of a storybook.

Even the dialogue feels slightly elevated from reality, its lines packed with puns, repetition and wordplay. Chuck and Ned hail from a town called “Coeur d’Coeur.” Chuck died on a trip she booked through Boutique Travel Travel Boutique. People go around saying things like, “You’re either living, or you’re dead. When you’re living, you’re alive; when you’re dead, that’s what you are. But when you’re dead and then you’re not, you’re alive-again.” And somehow none of it feels out of place, but rather perfectly incorporated into the show’s inherent charm.

The close work between the writers, the cast, and the production team shines through, turning this show into a masterpiece. Not one detail feels accidental; every movement, line, set, and costume works together perfectly. All the best aspects of television are rolled into this one show. “Pushing Daisies” is, to put it plainly, a genuine delight. Its whimsy, wordplay, stunning visuals and a star-studded cast make it well worth a watch—even 10 years later.

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