A Birdhouse in Your Soul
By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2007 by Sarah Stegall
ABC, Wednesdays, 8/79/8 E/C
Written by Rina Mimoun
Directed by Adam Kane
Okay, this is how much genius gets packed into the writing for this show: Olive Snook tells Chuck’s Aunt Viviane (Ellen Green) that she should “build a birdhouse in her soul” to lodge hope in. Later, during a drive that leads them to a windmill, Olive and Aunt Viviane sing “Birdhouse in Your Soul”. Cute. But dig a little deeper, and there’s more. “Birdhouse in Your Soul” is a song by They Might Be Giants, a group that named themselves after a movie of that same name written by Jason Goldman and starring George C. Scott. Scott played a deluded man who attacked windmills under the delusion that they might be giants–a delusion which harks all the way back to Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I haven’t seen this many layers to an episode since the glory days of “X-Files” and “Twin Peaks”.
Unlike those shows, however, the plots in “Pushing Daisies” are as tight and intricately interwoven as a lattice-top pie crust. “Pigeon” starts with a flashback recalling how Digby the re-animated dog followed the compass in his heart to re-unite with his beloved Ned, who can kill him with one touch. Nineteen years later, Digby is still alive, testimony to Ned’s restraint and Digby’s acceptance of this obstacle between them. Ned is clearly used to this state of affairs, and accepts the fact that his touch is dangerous, walling himself off from most contact, even innocuous contact. When a pigeon smashes into a window of the Pie-Hole, he does his best to avoid touching it. A four-way argument between Ned, Olive, Chuck and Emerson results in the inadvertent re-animation of the pigeon, and Ned cringes, awaiting the death of some close-by squirrel. As Ned and Emerson anxiously debate “the rate of exchange for the life of a bird”, a crow falls from the sky–and a plane crashes into an apartment building. Ned, Chuck and Emerson race to the scene of the crash so precipitously that Chuck trips and falls. Ned frantically backpedals to avoid touching her, and she is caught by the dazed but otherwise unhurt apartment resident, handsome Conrad (Dash Mihok, Cavemen). Amused, Chuck says, “You caught me!”
At which point, Ned is confronted with something he’s never dealt with before: jealousy. This is usually a character trait I hate, but Rina Mimoun treats this moment with respect and restraint. Ned is as bewildered by his own emotions as he is consumed by them. It underscores Ned’s essential innocence and isolation, not only from the physical world around him but from his own true self. It clearly never occurred to him that Chuck might prefer a man who can touch her, or that this would bother him. Ned is dimly aware that Chuck needs more purpose and independence than life lived in a box can give her. He presents her with a rooftop full of bees, to her delight. “I want to hug you,” she says. “I know,” he says. But knowing is not enough; Chuck needs more. She so longs for Ned’s touch that she enlists Conrad, a relative stranger, in a moment of fantasy fulfillment so she can hold hands–in her mind, anyway–with Ned. Ned, seeing this, is not reassured by her reassurance that she was thinking of him. Lee Pace’s rendering of Ned’s complicated stew of love and anxiety is faultless.
Further investigation of “Conrad” reveals that he is actually an escaped prisoner who hijacked the crop-duster plane. In a wonderful chase scene, Ned slides under his own kitchen prep table as nimbly as a Red Sox batter sliding into first base, grabs the fleeing man–and rips his prosthetic arm off. The one-armed fugitive gets away, and Ned waves the arm in Chuck’s face: “Was this the hand you were holding?” A moment of purest comedic gold. We learn that “Conrad” is actually one Lemuel Wingard, known as “Lefty”, and that he’s in pursuit of some stolen diamonds hidden long ago by Lefty’s former cellmate Jackson Lucas (E. J. Callahan,Bones). To head him off, Emerson persuades Chuck and Ned to dig up Lucas, while Emerson leans on a spade and waxes philosophical. The re-animated corpse of Lucas reveals that the diamonds are hidden in a windmill, and away we go to the windmill museum (what, your county doesn’t have one, either?).There we finally meet someone with narcolepsy, allowing us to complete a conversation begun in the pilot between Ned and Emerson. This show has better continuity than any other I’ve ever watched.
The sub-plot involving Olive and the aunts, a one-winged pigeon, obscure synth bands and a BeDazzler intersects with the main plot at the windmill, where Lefty discovers his soul mate Elsita (Jayma Mays, Ugly Betty), who has concealed the diamonds in her hollow wooden leg. Yes, I said hollow wooden leg. This show is now filtering David Lynch through Baz Luhrmann. Olive, who has been plotting some way to expose Chuck’s secret to her aunts, has grown so close to them that now she undergoes a change of heart and protects them from the shock of finding out Chuck is actually alive. Lefty is hauled off to jail while promising undying love to Elsita, and Ned invites Chuck to waltz with him in matching beekeeper suits on the roof of their building. The show finishes on a sweet note as he dips her, then literally sweeps her off her feet to twirl her. Chuck finally gets a little closer contact with her Ned, and we get another superb episode.
Again, the writing is witty beyond compare: Ned invokes Occam’s Razor, Olive tells Aunt Viviane that “Pidge has left the building,” and Elsita tells her lover that “I was born into a life of windmilling”. Emerson arrests Lefty by bellowing, “Hand up!” The black humor just slays me every time: Ned uncovers Lucas’s corpse and dryly remarks, “I prefer a little more eyeball.” The cops handcuff the one-armed man, Emerson gets shaken down by a morgue attendant, and Ned explains how he learned that the plane was hijacked: “DNA-ish.” The production design is still stunning with its saturated colors, fairy-tale sets and fantastic costumes: Lefty dresses like Dick Tracy in the 1990 Warren Beatty version.
With nearly ten million viewers tuning in, only the World Series drew a larger audience on Wednesday night. ABC has responded to the massive critical acclaim of this show by picking it up for a full season, so we can look forward to a baker’s dozen episodes to come.