Pushing Daisies: “Lighthouse”

Past Imperfect

Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall

Pushing Daisies

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


Written by Chad Gomez Creasey & Dara Resnik Creasey

Directed by Lawrence Trilling

“We’re so gethered, electrons couldn’t get between us.” —Chuck

Here’s another example of the genius I will miss when Pushing Daisies goes off the air. When Lily and Vivian suspect foul play in Ned’s old place, they bust in on him, nearly discovering Chuck and her father (Josh Randall, Private Practice). The undead duo hide in a closet as Ned frantically tries to divert the shotgun-toting Lily. Not to be deterred, however, she yanks open the closet door, and reveals a toy clown. She blasts it to smithereens—and then breaks into hysterics. It seems that young Lily was traumatized by clowns as a youngster, and has been terrified of them ever since. Swoosie Kurtz’s handling of this scene was fantastic: in the blink of an eye she went from feisty avenger to sobbing little girl. And that was just in the opening scene. Where, I ask you, am I going to find writing and acting like this once Pushing Daisies is gone? Desperate Housewives?

This episode featured a refreshingly mature conversation between an angry Ned, who feels betrayed by Chuck’s deceit, and a contrite Chuck, who nevertheless refuses to feel sorry for wanting her father back. That longing for a lost loved one is the point at which Ned can turn back to her, understand her, and forgive her. It’s a brief scene, brilliantly played, with undertones of steadfast love, righteous anger, and painful loneliness rendered subtly, believably, beautifully. Despite Chuck’s role playing, these two behave like adults, without the cutesy-pie sweetness that would be all too easy to fall into, were this show in the hands of lesser mortals. And this level of acting is par for the course for Pushing Daisies, yet neither Lee Pace, nor Anna Friel, nor Pushing Daisies itself was nominated for a Golden Globe the day after this episode aired. I suspect demonic interference.

Ned and Chuck’s tarp-enabled hug is interrupted by a bat signal—a shadow projected onto the heavens by a lighthouse beam. It seems that lighthouse keeper Nora McQuoddy (Kristen Olson,Erased), once thought widowed until her long lost husband Merle (David Koechner, Kath & Kim) came home after being marooned for ten years, has been impaled by a harpooned on the lighthouse lantern. In fact, by the time Ned and Emerson get to her in the morgue, the heat of the lighthouse has turned her into a fried egg, sunny side up. (This is the second time in two weeks that a murder victim has been fried—is this a subtle tribute to Hanukkah or something? Because there is no level of subtlety to which this show will not stoop.) During a blackout, Olive uses a flashlight to great effect in telling the “ghost story” of Missing Merle McQuoddy to a shivering Pie Hole squad, in one of the funniest sequences I’ve seen on this show. She says that Merle murdered his wife and ran away to hide in some sea caves. After she’s delivered her punch line and gotten squeals from her audience, she squeals in turn when the door opens to reveal a silhouette in a sou’wester—Elliot McQuoddy (Alexander Gould, Weeds). Young Elliot wants to hire Emerson to clear his father’s name; Olive and Chuck talk Emerson into it when young Elliot dumps his entire piggy-bank’s worth of dimes and quarters onto the counter.

Eager to help, Olive teams up with Emerson while the pre-occupied Ned struggles to work out how he, Chuck, and Charles Charles are going to get along. The Addams Family didn’t have “family issues” like this. Ned, whose whole life is about boundaries, carefully draws up a book of rules and generally restricts Chuck’s father to a regimen not much better than being underground in a casket. Mr. Charles dismisses Ned’s rules, walks around in the streets despite his strong resemblance to Claude Rains in The Invisible Man, and generally risks exposing Ned’s secret every moment. Worse, he starts asserting parental property rights over his daughter—claiming to be concerned for Chuck’s welfare, he forbids Ned to see her again. While Chuck tries to rationalize this into some teenage fantasy role-playing about the stern father and the kids who sneak around, Ned recognizes this controlling behavior for the challenge that it is. Caught between her father and her lover, Chuck is forced to choose cake (her father) or pie (Ned). Ultimately she chooses Ned, even as her father steals Ned’s car and drives away, intent on one of the global adventures he promised Chuck. That’s right, another father abandons a child in this episode. It’s an epidemic, I tell you.

Although in the past I may have grumbled about the intrusion of a lame murder mystery into what is otherwise a bitterly funny and ironic soap opera, this episode shows what a really good balance between the two can achieve. Olive and Emerson make one of the best PI teams since John Steed and Emma Peel; he’s beefy and caustic, she’s teeny and perky. It’s like teaming a bear and a hummingbird, but it works wonderfully. Emerson’s world-weary cynicism did not pair as well with Ned’s permanent melancholy as well as it does with Olive’s perennial optimism. Her smile outweighs his grunts every time. Their stereophonic rendition of Emerson’s iconic, “Oh HELL no!”, his nicknaming Olive “Itty Bitty”, and Olive’s exuberant “Boo-yah!” chest-bump (in which she bounced off Emerson’s belly) were the funniest and almost the warmest parts of this episode. If I have to lose Pushing Daisies, can I get a spinoff of Emerson and Olive detecting? Chenoweth and McBride challenge Anna Friel and Lee Pace for top acting honors not just this week, but every week. Yet neither Kristin Chenoweth nor Chi McBride won a nomination for best supporting actor/actress in the Golden Globe nominations. Definitely demonic interference.

It’s time to mention the use of plastic in this show. If I remember no other object from the 22 episodes that will be the whole of this canon, I will remember three plastic raincoats thematically matched to their wearers: Olive’s olive-covered raincoat, Ned’s pie-covered raincoat, and Emerson’s cod-covered raincoat. When I realized how appropriately decorated each raincoat was, I laughed so hard I missed the dialogue for the next two scenes. And then there’s the Saran-wrap make-out session between Ned and Chuck; it’s not just a reprise of an earlier kiss, it’s a reaffirmation of the physical longing between them, a reminder of the sexual frustration of their relationship (just take a look at Ned’s smoldering gaze as he watches Chuck leave) and a nice conclusion to their earlier argument. They argue like adults, and they make up like adults—as much as they’re able.

The none-too-subtle theme of this episode was the disappointments inherent in the return of a loved one after long absence. Nora McQuoddy finds that a ten year separation from her husband did not make her heart grow fonder after all. Chuck is slowly coming to realize that twenty years of idealizing her father does not make him the walking saint she has made him into. Chuck just wants everything to be like it was, as she nestles into her undead daddy’s arms. But her idea of “how it was” is a fantasy built up over lonely years of grief and loss. The actual man she lost at age nine has feet—and arms and hands—of clay. She should know by now—never trust someone who does not like pie.

There were more allusions to other shows than usual in this episode. The entire lighthouse story owes a lot to the 1977 movie, Pete’s Dragon. The dragon’s name was Elliot, he was sheltered by a lighthouse keeper’s daughter named Nora in a town called Passamaquoddy. Other characters in the movie include a Merle and a Willie, and the villain of the piece was played by narrator Jim Dale. Nora was played by singer Helen Reddy, whose song “Candle on the Water” from the movie was sung by Olive in this episode. When Ned complains to Emerson about the uncooperative Charles Charles, Emerson urges Ned to “Trip over an ottoman. Dick Van Dyke his ass”. This is an allusion to The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), which opened every week with Van Dyke tripping (or not) over an ottoman in his own living room. Finally, I must give grateful thanks to Ned (and the writers) for getting it right: “Hate to break it to you, Charles, but no one cared about Dr. Frankenstein. They were after his monster.” Charles Charles really is the soulless monster from the grave that those pitchfork-waving mobs feared.

All in all, this week’s episode was one of the best of the series, with a brilliant and witty blend of physical comedy (loved the kitchen duel between swashbuckling Ned and broom-wielding Mr. Charles), romance, mystery, and black humor. Josh Randall, despite being completely hidden under bandages, gave a completely convincing performance as the rascal ne’er-do-well whose acidity is matched only by Emerson Cod. The only false note was Emerson’s characterization of the underachiever in a local family as “the Rosemary Kennedy of the bunch”. No, sorry, jokes at the expense of the mentally challenged are not cool, even when said by the very un-PC Emerson Cod. That stumble aside, however, tonight’s episode was a golden moment in a series of golden hours, a wonderful and unpredictable blend of mystery, wonder, wit, and art, whose art direction, writing, and scoring surpass anything I’ve seen in ten years, whose self-awareness does not descend into self-absorption. The writing is of that quality that ensures repeated viewing will uncover a previously overlooked nugget, every time. I will miss this show very much: it’s the television equivalent of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.

And seriously—Not one single nomination for Pushing Daisies for a Golden Globe? Not one? Are the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association drinking their bathwater?

ABC’s Pushing Daisies came in third with a 3.2/5. That’s right, five million viewers. More than last week. Now that the series has been officially axed, curious viewers may be showing up to see why their friends have gone into mourning. Next week will be the final episode of the year, and some sources say there are three more episodes left. Bryan Fuller is said to be re-working the last into a series finale of some kind, which would be nice. There’s nothing like leaving us hanging after a gangbuster series goes under. No word yet on when the final three episodes will air, if at all, but I’m hoping for a three-hour marathon finale. If ABC can only be persuaded to quit chopping the episodes up with so many commercial breaks (seven? Really?), it will be a trip of a marathon.