Waking the Dead
By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2007 by Sarah Stegall
ABC, Wednesdays, 8/79/8 E/C
Written by Bryan Fuller
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
Just when I thought there was nothing truly original on television, comes the premiere episode of Pushing Daisies. Visually a cross between Big Fish and Wizard of Oz, it’s the story of an unassuming pie maker named Ned (Lee Pace, Wonderfalls) who possesses the weird ability to revive the dead with his touch. The catch (there’s always a catch) is that if he touches them again, they die forever. The other catch is that if he does not touch them within one minute, even though the revived person lives, karmic balance ensures that someone close by will die. Now there’s a moral dilemma to rival just about anything I’ve seen on television in a long, long time. Wake the dead–for only a moment? Only to have to decide whether to kill them again? Wow.
Ned discovers this terrible impasse the hard way at the age of eleven, when he revives his mother only to see his next door neighbor die a few minutes later. Worse, he’s in love with the neighbor’s daughter, Charlotte ‘Chuck’ Charles (Anna Friel, Timeline). At the funerals of their respective parents, they kiss, but then go their separate ways. Ned grows up into a life of self-imposed emotional isolation, walking his resurrected dog and solving murders with a freelance PI named Emerson Cod (Chi McBride, The Nine). It’s pretty easy to solve a murder when you can just wake up the victim and ask him or her who did it. Or so they think, until Chuck is murdered on a cruise ship and Ned wakes her up to ask who did it. Alas, she was strangled from behind and never saw her killer. Ned cannot bring himself to let her die again, and keeps her alive against Emerson’s advice (and Emerson gets the best line of the show, “Bitch, I was in proximity!”). For the rest of the hour, Ned, Chuck and Emerson look for Chuck’s murderer while dealing with a shady travel agent, Chuck’s eccentric aunts, and Ned’s employee Olive (Kristin Chenoweth, West Wing). All the while, shy Ned and naïve Chuck are exploring the possibilities and limitations of a love that dare not touch.
This could be played as a dark farce, but creator Bryan Fuller, who got his feet wet in this genre with Dead Like Me, plays it as a warm and whimsical romance/mystery. Narrated by Jim Dale (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), it takes on the overtones of a magical mystery tale for adults, as if Roald Dahl were filtered through Lemony Snicket. The names are as quirky as the concept: Ned’s shop is the Pie-Hole, and the shady travel agent who runs the Boutique Travel Travel Boutique is named, of course, Dee Dee. The dialogue is at once snappy and formal, with characters veering off topic in mid-conversation the way real people do:
Emerson: Sounds like you’re a narcoleptic.
Ned: I suffer from sudden and uncontrollable types of deep sleep?
Emerson: What’s the other one?
Emerson: Words that sound alike get mixed up in my head.
The most compelling aspect of the show for me is the love story. Two lovers who cannot physically touch is a paradoxically romantic conceit in an age of casual sexuality. The most erotic scene I saw all week was the one where Ned and Chuck, in separate rooms, reach over and touch the wall between them; that moment spoke more of longing than any romp in the sack Sex and the City could produce. Pace and Friel have good chemistry and an appreciation for subtleties like holding their own hands as a surrogate for holding one another’s hands. One impossibly sweet moment at the end has Ned and Chuck using monkey statuettes to “kiss” by proxy. It sounds saccharine, but given the low-key, understated acting in the rest of the episode, it works.
Director Barry Sonenfeld keeps the mood light but intense, and draws from his actors moments of vulnerability and charm. The art direction and production values are nothing short of phantasmagoric; the opening sequence looks like it was shot in Munchkinland. Crayola colors, bright sunshine, and houses out of the Addams family add to the charm. If Tim Burton had directed Amelie, it might look something like this. In a year when every single new genre show is a recycled version of something else (Journeyman/Quantum Leap, Moonlight/Forever Knight, etc), it’s joy to have something on the tube that truly captures a sense of wonder. I don’t think this show will be a major hit–it’s just too strange. It’s certain to become a cult hit, however, up there with death-meets-love classics like Harold and Maude. Pushing Daisies is a keeper.