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October 8, 2008 |

By Sarah Carlson | TV | October 8, 2008 |

The best show to come out of 2007’s new crop of TV — and likely the hardest-hit of all series by last fall’s writers’ strike — is “Pushing Daisies,” Bryan Fuller’s sweet, addictive comedy-romance-mystery-fantasy on ABC. After a nine-episode first season cut short by evil TV executives, “Daisies” returned last week from 10 months away with the burden of reminding viewers of the show’s main gimmick and all the key plot points and convincing them that hardly any time had elapsed. Did it work? Mostly. But the show is good enough that a mostly triumphant Season Two premiere still puts it leagues above a majority of the dreck on the airwaves. Every week is a stylish, visually stunning fable on life and death, love and family, one that hits home in a way not easily defined other than to say “It makes me smile” — and that’s OK. “Pushing Daisies” can be a grand look at humanity and the choices we make during our lives that define us; it’s also a light whodunit full of silly asides and over-the-top plotlines. Life is a mix of both, too. A look at the Season Two premiere is really a look at the first season, remembering what it is we love about the show and readying ourselves for something new.

An extended introduction brings viewers up to speed: Ned (Lee Pace) is the Pie Maker, the owner and chef of The Pie Hole restaurant where he spends most of his time avoiding the romantic advances of his employee, Olive Snook (Kristen Chenoweth), and the potential physical contact with his childhood sweetheart, Charlotte Charles (Anna Friel), or Chuck. Ned and Chuck love each other but can never touch, their tormented arrangement representing the show’s basic gimmick: Ned can bring a dead person back to life with a touch. The catch: With a second touch, the person falls back dead, for good. Chuck was killed at the beginning of the first season and at a time when the two hadn’t seen each other since childhood, and Ned brought her back to life to find out who killed her, a regular occurrence he and a local private investigator, Emerson Cod (Chi McBride), undergo to ask murder victims how they died, solve the mystery and collect the offered reward. Ned normally touches the person dead within a minute of bringing them back; otherwise, someone else has to die in that person’s place. But he can’t bring himself to do that to Chuck, so he lets her have a second start at life, a life spent with him, just always apart from him. Now she lives in hiding from her aunts and the rest of the world, who still think she’s dead.

Ned, Chuck, Emerson and occasionally Olive form their own Scooby Gang, solving a mystery each week in which someone dies in a bizarre way — death by crash-test dummy, horse, bees, giant vat of taffy, etc. Their world is like ours, but brighter and more interesting, and occasionally special effects come into play, such as claymation, as if life were a Tim Burton movie set in the ’60s, just less creepy. The quartet found a rhythm of crime-solving and pastry making throughout the first season, full of quick banter and perfect chemistry, but a few revelations put a kink in Ned and Chuck’s routine. Ned learned of his one-touch-life, second-touch-death gift (or curse) as a child when he brought his just-died mother back to life one day. After his mother’s minute passed, his neighbor — Chuck’s father — fell down dead. Later that evening, Ned’s mother’s kiss goodnight acted as the second touch to Ned, and she dropped dead, for good. Ned was sent off to a boarding school by his father, who moved on and started a new family, and Chuck’s aunts moved in to live with her.

Chuck never knew the reason for her father’s death until Ned decided he couldn’t keep it a secret any longer, and now she must cope with the knowledge that the man she loves is responsible for her father’s death but is also the reason she is back among the living. She’s on the outs with Ned, taking some time to sort out her emotions, when the first season abruptly ends. When season two starts, however, it’s as if nothing had happened and the two are back to being happy. The show’s subject matter is fairly dark, just presented lightly, but perhaps a tested relationship is too rocky a plotline for a premiere meant to win viewers back after a long hiatus. Still, the transition isn’t smooth enough for returning fans and reminds us that the first season was cut short. It was supposed to have a better conclusion, and glazing over that fact and jumping into to season two won’t change that.

Another revelation from the Season One finale was that one of Chuck’s aunts, Lily (Swoosie Kurtz), is actually Chuck’s mother. Her other aunt, Vivian (Ellen Greene), does not even know this, and to keep Olive from telling Vivian, Lily sends Olive off in the season two opener to a convent resembling Maria’s haven in The Sound of Music. Not the weirdest thing “Daisies” has done in and of itself, but it’s weird because it doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the episode. Olive is frolicking on hilltops, presumably in Austria, and we don’t know when she’ll be back. We can tell, though, that she’s coming to better terms with her unrequited love for Ned, and hopefully this season will provide better avenues for Olive to start her own life outside of The Pie Hole.

That’s the best summation for the premiere: It was an introduction of things to come. The premiere had its own self-contained whodunit, but its bigger purpose was letting us know we are in for big character developments this season, as seen with Olive. Chuck moves into Olive’s now-vacant apartment next to Ned, relishing in her independence and the chance to start over, something Ned isn’t thrilled about but has to learn to live with. Emerson has secrets of his own, including a family and a little girl he’s desperately trying to track down. The first season serves as one big introduction into Fuller’s creative world. Now, we’re in for even bigger stories and deeper connections, and it’s about time. Fuller also created the solid “Dead Like Me,” a TV show with similar themes of the undead, or the dead who are brought back to life, or whatever, that routinely had funny moments pop out of ghastly situations. His latest world is just as crazy — “Daisies” begins with Digby being hit by an 18-wheeler before being brought back to life, and soon parents start falling down dead, orphaning their children. Both shows have a great respect for death, but also want you to not be afraid it.

I find it difficult to write about “Daisies” because it’s just hard to quantify. Saying it is cute and funny and sweet isn’t enough and probably makes it sound less-than-appealing to many readers. It’s just good. If that’s a cop-out, well … all right. I’m here to defend cop-outs. But asking why “Pushing Daisies” is entertaining is like asking why Barack Obama is seen as so appealing to so many people. If you even have to ask the question, you’ll never really understand the answer. It is an experience, and it’s fun, and it taps into that part in all of us that needs to be reminded why life is worth living, that part that requires a bit of hope to keep going. It sounds sappy as hell, but it’s necessary.

Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Welsh Corgi.

Death Becomes It

"Pushing Daisies," Season Two / Sarah Carlson

TV | October 8, 2008 |

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