Pushing Daisies: “Bitter Sweets”

A Dish Best Served Cold

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2007 by Sarah Stegall

Pushing Daisies

ABC, Wednesdays, 8/79/8 E/C

“Bitter Sweets”

Written by Abby Gewanter

Directed by Allan Kroekerr

“If I loved you… then I would love you any way I could. And if we could not touch then I would draw strength from your beauty and if I went blind then I would fill my soul with the sound of your voice and the contents of your thoughts until the last spark of my love for you lit the shabby darkness of my dying mind.”—Alfredo Aldarisio

Every time Pushing Daisies opens an episode with a flashback to Young Ned’s growing-up pains, I wonder once again why the Pie-Maker is not a serial killer. We see that he grew up neglected, lonely, afraid, repressed, without family or friends aside from a dog he cannot touch. In “Bitter Sweets,” we see a painful moment from his youth, when Ned tries to make friends with a fellow outcast. He even goes so far as to use physical violence (throwing a book at a bully) in his friend’s defense. But as soon as his new friend discovers Ned’s freak talent for bringing dead things back to life, he runs away, leaving Ned to face retribution from the bully and his friends. An early lesson in vulnerability seals Ned’s lifelong habit of avoidance, repression and stalling.

All the more remarkable, then, to see how his love for Chuck pushes him out of his narrow comfort zone. He’s so happy with her, that in the first few minutes of this episode he blurts out a question that startles both Chuck and Olive: “Am I your boyfriend?” It’s clear from his subsequent nervous babble that this is a question of paramount importance—as it would be for a man who must draw his boundaries with extra care. Little by little, we’ve seen in the last few episodes how Ned’s love forces him to open up to a degree he may never have dreamed of. Whether it’s a kiss shared through plastic or adding cup-pies to the menu, Chuck is helping him discover the heady taste of change. Freedom like this can make a man reckless, and by the end of this episode Ned may have found that he has stepped over a boundary he cannot re-cross.

The challenge in this episode comes head-on: a candy store opens across the street from The Pie Hole, and its owners aren’t just cutthroat competitors, they’re after Ned’s sweet corner location. On a visit to siblings Billy and Dilly Balsam’s Bitter Sweets shop, Chuck brings a welcoming pie. The candy-shop patrons smell it and dash out to The Pie Hole, and the angry new neighbors vow revenge. The next day, the pie shop’s sign has been vandalized to read “The Pie Ho”. Next, health inspector Andrew Brown (Steve Hytner, The Bill Engvall Show) stages a “surprise” inspection and shuts down The Pie Hole; everyone suspects the Balsams of instigating it. Ned is aghast at the idea of a “war.” Chuck is ambivalent. Olive, still smarting from Ned’s rejection of her love, channels her anger and pain into burglary and sabotage.

Ned, still hoping to avoid confrontation, tries to un-do Chuck and Olive’s handiwork, but discovers the body of Billy Balsam (Mike White, School of Rock) in a taffy vat. The police arrive in time for this and Ned is carted off to jail. Emerson and Chuck must find a way to solve this murder without Ned’s special powers, even as Dilly Balsam (Molly Shannon, American Dad) vows to shut down The Pie Hole in revenge. A trip to the morgue leaves Emerson with no clues, although it affords a gleeful Chuck a chance to watch an autopsy.

A finger is found in Billy’s digestive system, leading Emerson and Chuck to wonder how many fingers Dilly has today. Olive distracts her long enough for Emerson and Chuck to sneak into the kitchen of Bitter Sweets, retrieve some vital clues, and take them to the morose coroner (Sy Richardson, Monk). As it happens, Dilly still has all her fingers, so it’s up to the coroner to determine that the handprints Emerson and Chuck brought back from the candy store belong to health inspector Brown. Having been bribed by Billy to shut down The Pie Hole, Brown had hit him up for blackmail. A fight ensued, Billy bit off Brown’s finger, and Brown pushed Billy into the vat of goo. Once this is revealed, Dilly takes revenge on the man who drowned her brother by drowning the killer. Ned is released and welcomed home with a pie baked by Olive and Chuck; even gruff Emerson unbends enough to welcome him home.

And this is just the “A” story.

The “B” story, about a clueless mook in love with a realistic-looking doll, was the first such in the series that left me cold. For once, I could not have cared less what happened to Burly Bruce Carter (Michael Cornacchia, Legion of Superheroes), the late Tony DiNapoli (Reginald Veneziano, Rescue Me), or Bruce’s dollfriend. The only point the two stories crossed was when Carter wound up in the same jail cell with Ned. Although Carter’s story about how he “met” his plastic girl was amusing, I could have lived without this whole subplot. The only fun part of the jail sequence was visiting hour. Emerson groused at having to work harder to solve a case without Ned. Chuck and Ned touched the glass between them in a loving gesture that could have been nauseatingly saccharine, except that it was superbly balanced by Olive’s over-the-top sobbing, Digby’s moaning into the phone, and Olive’s gun-baked-in-a-pie. I don’t know who steals more scenes in this show, Chi McBride or Kristin Chenoweth. Or maybe Digby. Those three could carry their own series.

The strength of this show is not just its quirky take on reality, but the realism and honesty of the emotions of its characters. I love the fact that Olive and Chuck can be such good friends while still acknowledging that Olive is angry over “losing” Ned’s affections to Chuck. It’s a grown-up, honest way of handling the untidy leftovers of a failed romance, refreshingly mature for prime time TV. Ned’s burden of guilt over having “killed” Chuck’s father is so crushing that he’s actually relieved to be arrested for a murder he didn’t commit.

Not everything worked perfectly. Pushing Daisies sticks dangerously close to formula, which would be a mistake in a show whose appeal is its unpredictability. As mentioned, the “B” story was weak. The solution to Billy’s murder felt rushed; we got a two-minute infodump from the Narrator and it was dismissed. I’m not enamored of Emerson as ethical sage—yes, Emerson, lying is the same as “not telling the truth.” The homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds, complete with Molly Shannon in a boat in Bodega Bay wearing Tippi Hedren’s beehive hairdo, came out of nowhere and went nowhere. It felt tacked on for the sake of eccentricity. This show’s best humor is organic, growing seamlessly out of the ongoing relationships. When it’s forced, it feels awkward and contrived.

But then you get a scene such as the one where health inspector Brown cites Ned for allowing a “live” animal into his kitchen, and then you realize that Digby may not actually qualify as a “live” animal, and your head explodes. In a good way. A flawed Pushing Daisies still delights beyond all reason.

We got hit over the head several times in this episode with the “crimes of passion” theme. The best one, and most true to the sensibility of the show, was Olive’s disregard of Alfredo Aldarisio (Raul Esparza), the traveling homeopathic salesman so obviously stricken with her. His “if I loved you” speech should have been set to music, yet Olive looks blankly through him. Only later does it dawn on her in a moment of vivid imagining that Alfredo might be just the remedy her bruised heart needs. At which point the Narrator reminds us poignantly that “Sometimes the crime of passion is not realizing the passion in time.”

Yet sometimes passion is the crime. In Act One, Ned says: “You let your emotions get away from you, and everything falls apart.” By the final act, he’s forgotten that cardinal rule. Lying blissfully in his bed, looking dreamily at the love of his life, he drops every defense and confesses his deepest, darkest secret to Chuck: “I killed your dad.” Whereupon the sweet, sunny world of primary colors and merry-go-round music instantly morphs into a dark, snowy, cold world of grays and shadows, as the music falls into discord and Chuck lies staring in shock. It’s a brilliant ending that left me in awe once again of the art and production design for this show. I’m truly worried for Ned and Chuck’s future together now.