By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2007 by Sarah Stegall
ABC, Wednesdays, 8/79/8 E/C
Written by Peter Ocko
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
“You don’t think these bandages make me look fat?” — Jeanine
I was seriously afraid that after the spectacular pilot for Pushing Daisies aired, the next episode would be a let-down. To my delight, it was even better. Without the need for an elaborate setup to introduce the characters and their situation, “Dummies” moves along at a brisk, lively pace, and now has time for a musical interlude. Every episode so far has felt like unwrapping a birthday present from an eccentric aunt; you never know what you’re going to find, but you know it’s going to be amazing.
In “Dummies”, Ned is reluctantly pulled away from his idyll with Chuck to “wake” a hit-and-run victim, Bernard Slaybaugh (Jonathan Mangum, The Half-Hour News Hour) an auto safety engineer. Chuck, fascinated by this resurrection process, goes along and peppers Bernard with so many questions that Ned, desperately watching the clock, barely has time to ask him who ran over him. Bernard says that he was killed by a crash test dummy. Chuck insists that they carry out Bernard’s last wish and tell Jeanine in Public Relations that Bernard loved her. Knowing that such news is always told best with pie in hand, Ned, Chuck and Emerson visit the auto design lab where Bernard worked, and find that he was part of a team bringing a revolutionary, flower-powered automobile to market. If I had no other reason to love this show, the sight of iMac-colored cars designed to run on dandelions would have been enough. As the story unfolds, Ned, Chuck and Emerson discover a grave full of crash test dummies, a storage facility full of corpses dressed as crash test dummies, and a sinister figure dressed as a crash test dummy and armed with a taser. Does the plot hold together? Do we care?
The charm of this show remains its characters, their odd quirks, their tragic situation, the sunny optimism of two lovers in an impossible dilemma. Pie-maker Ned and his recently revived love Chuck live together, sleeping in separate beds, dancing around one another in the kitchen, calling out warnings — “Coming through!” — all to avoid the second touch which will kill Chuck forever. Despite this danger, however, Ned and Chuck are hardly ever out of arm’s reach of one another. “Chemistry” hardly describes the almost molecular attraction of these two. In every scene, they stand as close as possible, like two magnets barely held apart. When they find themselves in plastic body bags, facing death, their instinct is not to fight for life but to kiss, so great is their longing. Their childlike, dreamy romance exists only in the shadow of death, which keeps it from being sentimental and saccharine. “Personal space” takes on new, subtle overtones between these two.
Their separation reminds me of the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, lovers who grew up next door to one another, fell in love, and were separated by a wall. They could talk through a chink in the wall, but never touch. It was a nice shout-out to the ancient myth when Ned and Chuck placed their hands on opposite sides of a wall in the pilot, much as Pyramus and Thisbe were said to have kissed their wall goodnight. I only hope that Pushing Daisies does not end as tragically for Ned and Chuck.
But Pushing Daisies does not rely on the romance to drive the show. Far from it. Even if the plot itself weren’t as predictable as dawn (who didn’t see the CEO as the bad guy?), the little touches, quirks, fanatical attention to detail add up to a superb production. The Narrator’s constant timekeeping echoes the traditional fairy-tale’s “Once upon a time”. Straight-man Emerson Cod, the world-weary detective, knits gun cozies and carries a retractable knitting needle with him at all times. Olive, the lovesick waitress with a crush on Ned, sings “Hopelessly Devoted to You” while dancing around an oblivious janitor. Jeanine, the object of Bernard’s affections, eats pie obsessively while crab-walking behind a car. Dead frogs come back to life in a science classroom. A chase scene with frumpy little Dandy-Lion cars wobbling down the road in the dead of night was right out of The Wizard of Oz–on LSD.
Too much? Far from it. It’s all delivered with heart and panache. Kudos to writer Peter Ocko for not making his murder victim a throwaway character on this show; Bernard was presented as a real, personable human being whose shy love for Jeanine mirrored Ned’s for Chuck. Jeanine herself, for all her bulimic problems, came across as smart, sassy and funny. The show’s ability to deliver these transient characters, while still developing new facets to the main characters, speaks of excellent writing and editing.
The genius of this show is how it plays out otherwise tragic themes against a background of hope. What could be more random and shocking than death? Love itself. This theme could be played with cutesy sentimentality, but is played out instead in an ironic self-awareness that saves it from being cloying. These characters should break your heart–Ned, living in sad, self-imposed exile from life; Olive, the luckless third wheel; Chuck, the semi-recluse whose first adventure outside her books led to her death. Instead, they emerge as avatars of hope and love, whose surreal world perfectly fits them.
Pushing Daisies came in second in its time slot, which would seem to be good news. However, rumors of enormous budget demands, friction between director Sonnenfeld and the studio, and the unconventional nature of the show mean it has to deliver higher ratings than usual to justify its continued existence. Here’s hoping that it manages to overcome all of these obstacles, because it’s just too good to lose. Shows like this come along once a decade; I’m hoping this one is in for a long run.