Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall
ABC, Wednesdays, 8/79/8 E/C
Written by Bryan Fuller
Directed by Adam Kane
Pushing Daisies returns for its second season with most of the charm and magic of the first season, and all of the visual delights. This dark and irony-laced fairy tale for grownups continues to defy all convention by presenting the adventures of Ned the Pie-Maker and Chuck the Dead Girl as a fable drenched in flat, brilliant color, told in riddles and puns, and wrapped in a combination of pathos and comedy. The only questions in my mind are “How long can Bryan Fuller et. al. keep this up?” and “How long will ABC let them get away with it?” I suspect the answer to both questions is “not long”. Pushing Daisies are a carnival fun house resting shakily on a foundation of gallows humor, a combination that takes an expert to pull off. This is landmark television, the kind that becomes a legend and a standard for later series to aim for.
“Bzzzzzz!” picks up where the season finale left us so abruptly last year: Chuck is still grieving after learning that Ned inadvertently caused her father’s death, Olive is still mooning hopelessly over the Pie-Maker, Emerson Cod is still entertaining himself with pop-up books, and Ned just wants to be with Chuck every hour of the day. Relations seem to be still warm between them, as Chuck chooses a novel method of curing a mite infestation in her beloved beehive: she dumps all the dead bees over Ned’s naked body. The contact with his skin revives them (and kills the waterbug infestation in the basement) in a magical scene full of golden sparks, bright colors, and happily swarming bees.
And by coincidence (or ironic metaphor), Emerson Cod comes to Chuck and Ned with a new case. A woman named Kentucky, a model for a line of cosmetics made with honey, has been stung to death by bees, and her husband is convinced it’s the result of an affair at her workplace. Ned, Emerson, and Chuck team up to question the corpse in their usual fashion. The late Kentucky resembles nothing so much as a roll of bubble wrap with a face. She reveals, in her alloted one minute resurrection, that she was actually sabotaging the bees but was interrupted by a mysterious stranger and a swarm of bees. Chuck goes undercover at the cosmetics company over Ned’s objections, and discovers a hive of political infighting between the founder of the company and the man who now runs it after a hostile takeover. Naturally, she snoops around, and just as naturally she gets “caught” by the mystery person covered in bees. Only her long experience with bees saves her from death. When Ned and Emerson find her, she is covered by living bees; all we can see of her is her eyes. Ned opens a window for the bees to fly away, the three of them chase down the mystery bee person, who turns out to be the embittered founder, and all is resolved. Along the way, Olive enters a nunnery at the behest of Aunt Lily, and Chuck moves into her apartment despite Ned’s unhappy objections. Whereas the first season threatened to become a little too claustrophobic, with all the episodes taking place within the same few locations, this season appears to be opening the stories out into a larger world.
The usual wry touches that absolutely make this show are out in force. From the opening monologue, in which narrator Jim Dale actually says “(TM)”, to the endless pie-based puns (“You’re a flake!”, “…your pie-ty…”), Fuller plays with language as if it were brightly colored Play-Doh. Olive very nearly reprises Julie Andrews’ famous moment in The Sound of Music, spinning on an Austrian hillside in a novice’s habit, as she attempts to reconcile herself to life in a nunnery. And it’s some nunnery—the nuns wear two-toned turquoise-and-white habits that look like nothing so much as a 1955 Plymouth Bel-Aire. As usual, color saturates the environment; all the scenes at the cosmetics company look as if they were filmed inside a lump of amber. The nunnery is a study in Art Nouveau, and the haunted bee-house in the climactic scene is as dark and spooky as anything Tim Burton ever dreamed up. Equal care is lavished on the costumes, from the aforementioned nun’s habits to Emerson Cod’s explosive shirts to Aunt Vivian’s paisley dress.
It’s not a perfect episode, however. “Bzzzzzz!” opens with a long recap of the entire first season. I think this is a mistake, for two reasons. First of all, the audience for this show is either on board or it isn’t. Even a long recap cannot give newcomers the flavor and nuance of an actual episode; it would be better to simply go into the story and let its inherent charm seduce its audience. Second, it takes too long. The relationships between the characters are very tangled; sorting them out in a two-minute precis is futile. Let the writers work into the script the hints that illuminate these ever-changing relationships, or leave it out. It would not, for example, have been necessary in this opening episode to recount how Chuck’s aunts were recluses until she started medicating them with homeopathic drugs. There were several similar details that could have been left to dialogue or a later episode. It might be smarter in the short run, at least, to concentrate on hour-long stories that don’t require viewers to know a lot about the backstory of the characters. Right now, this show needs more viewers; brand loyalty can come later.
Pushing Daisies started its second season with 6.3 million viewers, down from its series debut last fall of 13 million and well below its last original episode 6.8 million, finishing fourth in the 8PM timeslot. Worse, Pushing Daisies also trailed NBC’s Knight Rider, which raked in 7.6 million viewers, about a million more than last week. Seriously? I mean seriously? Viewers really prefer a bland retread over a stunningly original work of whimsy and genius? I hope this is merely a reflection of a larger trend, in which post-strike numbers are down all across the board for television.
Future episodes are rumored to include a trio of look-alikes challenging Emerson, Ned, and Chuck, as well as several appearances by Stephen Root, one of the funniest men on television. Here’s hoping they’ll draw in more viewers, like bees to, er, honey.