Send in the Clowns
Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall
ABC, Wednesdays, 8/79/8 E/C
Written by Peter Ocko
Directed by Lawrence Trilling
There are three major ingredients in Pushing Daisies: the witty dialogue, the quirky characters, and the eye-popping locations for each story. A distant fourth would be the murder mystery that this alleged forensic show is supposed to be solving every week. So far, most of the series has consisted of tweaking one of the three major ingredients, usually the location. In this week’s episode, Pushing Daisies ran away to the Big Top. While it would seem to make perfect sense to set an episode of this candy-colored series in a circus, in practice, the experiment does not quite work. Maybe it’s a matter of contrast–as in, complete lack of contrast between the oddball world of Ned, Chuck and Emerson, and the “real” world around them. Maybe it’s a matter of tone. Whatever the reason, “Circus, Circus” just did not come off with the same oomph that earlier episodes have shown. Maybe it’s time to start tweaking something else in this mix.
We start off with one of the flattest characters yet; an emotionless, affectless woman who constantly apologizes for outbursts of emotion she is not, in fact, displaying. Maybe this sounded funny in the writer’s room, but on the screen if falls rather, er, flat. Deadpan delivery versus deadpan delivery is a recipe for backfire. Georgeann Heaps (Rachael Harris, Notes from the Underbelly) comes to Emerson Cod in search of her runaway daughter. Emerson, brooding on the loss of his own missing daughter, acerbically takes the case. Chuck discover sthat Nikki Heaps (Hayley McFarland, Winged Creatures) ran away to the circus; Ned and Emerson pursue. The remainder of the episode is the usual stew of oddball characters, few of whom delight because, really, who else would be in a circus but oddball characters? That element of surprise and contrast that makes comedy funny is missing when the foreground matches the background.
Meanwhile, a secondary storyline with Olive Snook and Aunt Lily is literally going nowhere. Still stuck in a nunnery, Olive confesses all her secrets to a pig (named Pigby, after the dog Digby) but gains no relief. Mother Superior, played by Diana Scarwid (who played the mother of Lee Pace’s character in Wonderfalls) pops in now and again to remind Olive that it’s time for “late mid-afternoon prayers”. Aunt Lily infiltrates the nunnery again to try to unburden of her own secrets to Olive, or at least to explain them. None of this confessing and praying has helped Olive, who is only slowly figuring out that her unhappiness stems not from all the secrets to which she is privy, but from unrequited love. Ned is still head over heels with Chuck, who has moved next door into Olive’s apartment in a quest for independence that really is only an extension of the restlessness that took her out of her aunt’s home and onto that fateful cruise in the first place. Ned struggles with feelings of abandonment. Chuck feels smothered and controlled. Everyone is out of place, everyone is restless, everyone is nervous about their place in the order of things.
Meanwhile meanwhile, we get some moments out of classic farce: Aunt Vivian comes to the Pie Hole and Chuck has to hide, Aunt Lily hides a flask of whiskey in a Bible, a dwarf is shot from a cannon. The coroner’s assistants carrying clown after clown after clown after clown out of the drowned clown car was completely foreseeable. (Not, however, the fact that one of the clowns is dressed as the Wicked Witch of the East, right down to the ruby slippers.) These moments were funny when Buster Keaton ruled Hollywood as the funniest man in movies; they hold up tolerably well today but still leave me wanting more of the dark and ironic humor, not the slapstick, that made this series great to begin with.
The truly original moments of whimsy were few but effective: I absolutely loved Pierre the Aerialist (Theodore Zoumpoulidis, CSI:NY) dangling head downwards into the frame at random moments, to the surprise of no one. Aunt Lily’s turquoise eyepatch (matching her two-tone habit) made me laugh. And like Emerson, I’m not really sure I want to know what kind of “contraptions” Ned has devised to overcome the untouchable status of his and Chuck’s relationship. And yet, I do. Kind of.
The plot bogs down among angry circus audience members with odd names, fugitive would-be clown apprentices, dead mimes and a host of pink plush teddy bears. When he’s supposed to be concentrating on the plot, Ned is more concerned about the fact that Chuck has moved out. Emerson seems focused on the case but is somewhat distracted by his memories of his own lost daughter. Chuck moves from disingenuous interrogator (of Nikki’s best friend), to angry defiance (towards Ned) to fearful hiding (from Aunt Vivian). Emotions are all over the place. While this probably reflects writer Ocko’s continual mantra of “change” (you could base a drinking game on the appearance of that word in this episode), it doesn’t really help us keep track of what’s going on or who’s pining over whom. Yet even so, the show manages to wrap up the last few minutes in a fine moral–when the person you love changes, love need not. “Love what’s there,” Emerson says. If anyone else had said that, it would come across as sticky sweet. The genius of this show is that it has characters like lemon-tongued Emerson, the only one who could get away with that line.
This show desperately needs more viewers. Clocking in at 5.6 million viewers, Pushing Daisiesdeclined from last week’s already disastrously low debut. Even Entertainment Weekly, an early booster of this show, is sounding red alerts over this season’s plummeting ratings. I suspect a lot of viewers are time-shifting their viewings, or watching online, but of course those practices don’t register with the Nielsens, the only oracle to which ABC listens. Ironically enough, the very tech-savvy, high-spending demographic that television is most desperate to reach is the one whose viewing habits are least likely to register on traditional indices. Here’s hoping ABC takes the long view, and picks up the “back nine” to give Pushing Daisies at least one full season. And here’s hoping the writing steps back up to the high standards set last year.