A Birdhouse in Your Soul
By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2007 by Sarah Stegall
ABC, Wednesdays, 8/79/8 E/C
Written by Katherine Lingenfelter
Directed by Peter O’Fallon
A show devoted to the complications pursuant to raising the dead pulls out all the stops on Halloween, of course, and Pushing Daisies is no exception. “Girth” is one of the best episodes of the series, possibly the best. The ensemble is perfectly balanced, the writing is as clever as always, and the surreal visuals add so much snap to the screen it’s like watching colors that can speak.
The first two minutes of this episode were some of the saddest, most heartbreaking minutes I’ve seen all year. Poor young Ned (Field Cate), lonely and ostracized at his boarding school, waits every day for some word from his father. On Halloween, he gets a pre-printed mass mailed postcard announcing his father’s change of address. He runs away (accompanied by the faithful Digby), dresses as a ghost, and finds his father’s new house–along with his father’s new wife and new sons. He wants a hug from his father, and gets a candy bar. No wonder Ned grows up avoiding touch. The doggerel rhyming voice-over by Jim Dale (channeling Dr. Seuss) was just cheesy enough to take the edge off of what would otherwise be an unbearable opening. Through the rest of the episode, Ned is less concerned with the murder of the week than with trying to come to terms with this ache in his soul. He revisits his old home, the scene of his tragedy, every year–it’s not just his bedroom, it’s the room where his mother died forever and changed his life. Ned’s old house, like Ned, is empty; he haunts it with the sad melancholy of the abandoned and unloved. Just when this show teeters on the edge of too-saccharine, we get a story like this which breaks your heart. Superb balance.
Olive hears of the trampling death of a former friend and fellow jockey, Lucas Shoemaker (Christopher Neiman, General Hospital: Night Shift) and hires Emerson to find out who the murderer is. Emerson gets in one of his malapropisms when he confuses “farrier” with “furrier”. It’s funny enough that the jockey is named after one of the most famous riders in history, but to connect “farrier” and “shoe-maker” is another whole level of pun. I love the way the writers in this show play with the language. First we had the whole narcoleptic/necrophiliac mix-up, and now I fully expect a future episode to involve someone selling furs. Emerson recruits a very reluctant Ned to wake Shoemaker. When Ned balks at working on a case for his own employee/friend, Emerson places a fake call to the money. The fact that this actually convinces Ned to go through with the re-animation is another whole level of hilarious. Unfortunately, the revived jockey can’t speak clearly, and Chuck must “translate” for him. The dead man says he was killed by the ghost of a dead jockey, John Jacob Josephs (Hamish Linklater, The New Adventures of Old Christine), and that the ghost will kill again.
Further questioning of Olive reveals a seven year old conspiracy to cover up the murder of a jockey during the Jock-Off 2007 (seriously, how do they get this stuff past Standards and Practices?). Chuck thinks a real ghost may be at work; Emerson thinks it’s the Mob. Ned opts out of most of the investigation to deal with some “personal and private” business, so Olive takes much of the lead in this story.
This episode spotlights Kristin Chenoweth’s character, Olive Snook, as we learn about her past history as a winning jockey. We also get to see her grow from a spiteful caltrop in the path of True Love to a winsome character in her own right. At the beginning of the episode, she’s chortling with glee (yes, these characters chortle) that she has a secret to hold over Chuck. By the end of the episode, she is sacrificing herself to save Chuck. She does this all without losing the elfin charm and zany energy Olive brings to the ensemble. She is the perfect conversational match for Emerson. Her back-and-forth banter with him is the best dialogue of the episode, maybe of the series to date–clipped, charged, funny and razor-sharp. Chenoweth just shines in this series.
Ned chooses to spend Halloween retracing the contours of his old hurt. He revisits his old home, visits Chuck’s aunts (and learns that Chuck has been sending them pies), lies on the silhouetted image of his old bed to remember his mother’s death and his father’s abandonment. He asks the aunts what they remember of his father and the response is not good: “He was a jackass.” Ned describes his father as “emotionally stunted, afraid of getting close, definitely not the best at good-byes”–a fairly accurate description of himself. But there is room for growth in Ned’s stunted soul–it’s there every time he looks at Chuck.
The genius of Lee Pace’s performance is in his understated delivery of his lines. He speaks in a rapid, frozen monotone that forces us to hear the words at the expense of seeing his expression–the words are honest but his face is a lie. There are two exceptions to this lack of affect: Ned’s smile and his eyebrows. When he smiles at Chuck, or Aunt Vivian, he lets sunshine peek out from behind gray clouds; best of all, he usually does this with little or no dialogue, and it’s a wonderful moment of emotional honesty. And those furry-caterpillar eyebrows are so expressive I am convinced the writers are penning lines for them. No matter what’s happening on Ned’s face, his eyebrows give him away the way a tail reveals a dog’s true feelings.
Chi McBride’s dry, acerbic Emerson is such a brilliant performance there’s nothing really to say. He owns every scene he’s in. His delivery is faultless, his interpretation the perfect foil to the sweetness. Like lemon juice in an apple pie, his acid comments add just the right amount of tartness to a moment that might by syrupy. By himself, Emerson might even be a depressing and one-dimensional character, but against the background of melancholy Ned, fretful Olive and ebullient Chuck he is exactly right. If there is any justice in Hollywood, Chi McBride will earn an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
The supporting cast was excellent. Barbara Barrie (Dead Like Me) as Mamma Jacobs stole her scenes by casting aspersions on Olive’s ubiquitous décolletage: “You wouldn’t need all that bait if your belly was full of fish, dear.” Ralph Martin (Veronica Mars) gives us a small jewel of a performance as feisty jockey/bartender Pinky McCoy. And as always, Swoozie Kurtz and Ellen Greene redefine “charmingly eccentric aunts” in ways that Dickens would have envied.
The usual whimsicality is evident in all the elements of this story–the boy with the grafted legs of a horse, the aunt’s exploding heads, a lawn full of jockey statues, a bar for short people. Yet the producers are not so whimsical that they are capricious; the attention to detail in continuity not only anchors us in the “reality” of this impressionistic universe, it adds its own commentary. When Olive and Chuck team up to track down the living John Joseph Jacobs on their own rooftop, we see the bee skeps from the last episode. Ned’s discovery of the rotted strawberry calls back directly to the pilot. Ned’s eye twitch when he’s lying (or attempting to) no longer needs to be explained; we know about it now, we’re in on the joke. Ned scratching Digby with the wooden arm he tore off of “Lefty” Lem last episode was hilarious–not only did Ned use it, he adjusted the fingers to more efficiently scratch his undead dog.
It’s too bad the word on this series apparently is not getting out. This episode won the 8 p.m. hour, but it was still the lowest ratings so far for this show: 8.58 million viewers and a 2.6 rating/8 share among adults 18-49. This is a decrease of 1.09 million viewers and 19 percent among adults 18-49 from last week. I hope it’s explained by the time slot: 8 p.m. on Halloween night is not a great slot for viewers who are answering doors or going door-to-door. I wish ABC would rerun this show now and then during the week, as NBC is doing for Bionic Woman andChuck. I don’t believe Pushing Daisies will ever be a monster hit–it deserves cult status on a cable network where it will run for years. Let’s hope that even if ABC lets it go, some other wise cable net exec will pick it up. Until that unhappy time, Wednesday continues to be my favorite night of the week. Catch this show while you can.