Pushing Daisies: “Oh, Oh, Oh, … It’s Magic!”

The Magic Dies

Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall

Pushing Daisies

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

“Oh, Oh, Oh, … It’s Magic!”

Written by Kath Lingenfelter

Directed by Adam Kane

It died of cute. ABC officially announced on Thursday that Pushing Daisies has been cancelled. Producer Bryan Fuller indicated that he might “continue” the series past its last episode as a comic book; he also indicated that he might be going back to write for Heroes. I suspect we’ll see Fuller’s name on an episode of that show long before we see it on the cover of a graphic novel, and for good reason. Pushing Daisies is a show that belongs on the moving screen, not the static page. It’s colors demand the brilliance of light emitted from a television screen, not the dull colors of the printed page. There’s no way to convey the masculine yet shy charm of Ned without Lee Pace, or the vibrancy and wholesome sexuality of Chuck without Anna Friel. Stick a fork in it, this pie is done.

“Magic” was not one of the best episodes of the series, though not its worst.  Setting the mystery at a magic show is as predictable, in a pleasing way, as setting it at a circus. When Ned’s newly discovered long-lost twin half-brothers ask him to help a fellow magician, The Great Herrmann (Fred Willard, Back to You), he reluctantly agrees. Chuck and Olive are thrilled to be involved in stage magic in any form. But the actual mystery is pretty weak–who is killing off the magician’s animal assistants? And when Herrmann himself is killed and entombed in cement during his own act, the mystery widens.

Not even the writers cared much about this mystery. Most of this episode dealt with parent/child abandonment issues. Ned, abandoned by his father, tries to make common cause with his half-brothers, abandoned first by their father and now by Herrmann. Chuck, having recently learned that her aunt is actually her mother, wrestles with emotions very akin to abandonment, and is desperate to discover her mother’s true feelings for her, while not revealing the fact that she’s alive (a plot device growing more incomprehensible by the week).  With its deliberately limited cast every week, it was not difficult to figure out the villain in this episode, but then, the mystery has never been the chief attraction of this show. Suffice to say that father/abandonment issues took center stage in that affair as well.

The most amusing segment was Ned’s revival of Herrmann long enough to derive the dead magician’s secrets from him. Ever the showman, as Ned prepares to re-dead him, Herrmann insists that he do it with some flair. Ned, the last guy in the world to use flair, gives it his best shot. Later, as a stage geek has taken Olive hostage, he warns Ned and Emerson that he has swallowed a tiny gun and is cocking it with his stomach muscles. That’s the kind of “quirky” humor this show once excelled in with every single line, but is now reduced to one or two per scene.

Wednesday night’s episode was considered a make-or-break episode by both fans and the network, which waited until the ratings were in before deciding on cancellation. I can hardly blame ABC; the ratings dropped like a stone from the show’s premiere in fall 2007, from 10 million viewers to fewer than 5 million Wednesday night. One need not be a genius to see failure in numbers like that.

While I’m unhappy the show’s been canceled, I can’t blame ABC. I don’t know what else the network could have done to promote the show, other than handing out free money to people who watched it. Like all the other networks, they are held hostage to the Nielsens (a complete failure of a ratings system) and to an extremely fickle audience. This show should never have been on network TV. It was never going to be a megahit. It would have done better on a cable network, preferably HBO or Showtime, which managed to keep oddball shows like Six Feet Under on the air for five years.

And I must say, I am getting tired of the press blaming the writer’s strike for everything that goes wrong in Hollywood. If the writer’s strike is to be blamed for the loss of Pushing Daisies, then it has to be credited for the success of other shows such as NCIS, which came back from the strike with higher ratings than ever. I don’t think the strike had any more to do with the demise of the show than any other factor.

I think the show had been going downhill anyway. Since the beginning of this season, the stories have not been as good, the dialogue has not sparkled quite the same. Since the writers are hobbled by the necessity to NOT resolve the number one storyline, they focused on minor quirks, expanded the cast of characters, brought in all kinds of unnecessary and (to me) uninteresting family drama. I yawned over Olive’s stay in the nunnery, and Emerson’s search for his kid. I wanted more of Ned and Chuck, but got much less than I wanted. I think even die hard fans may have been dismayed by the prospect of another endless spin on will they/won’t they, and ultimately turned off the show.

When will Hollywood learn that endlessly spinning out a romance just does not work any more? When are they going to learn that it alienates viewers? When are they going to learn that viewers are not interested in investing potentially years of their time and interest in a couple who will be kept apart by contrived and artificial means as long as the producers can milk it? It worked in the past, so writers keep hauling out this shopworn story device, but I don’t think I’m alone when I say nuts to that. This show had a lot of potential, as long as it was the product of a maverick (excuse the term) imagination. But when Fuller and company started bowing to the conventional wisdom and shaping Pushing Daisies  to the expectations of Hollywood, they lost that special something that had made Pushing Daisies unique.

So in my opinion, what killed this show was an overload of cute romance, with no reasonable prospect of resolution in sight, and a misplaced emphasis on character angst at the expense of the mystery driving each episode. In the end, Pushing Daisies was beginning to lose its way; sensing that, the audience drifted away to more familiar, more comfortable, more recognizable fare. The television industry has spent decades training its audience to be short-attention-span consumers of sound bites and truncated, simple storylines; it is nothing less than a miracle that something as complicated, subtle and unconventional lasted as long as it did. I only regret that Ned and Chuck’s dilemma, the only truly intriguing basis for this show, will never be resolved.