Pushing Daisies: “Smell of Success”

For Your Nose Only

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2007 by Sarah Stegall

Pushing Daisies

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

“Smell of Success”

Written by Scott Nimerfro

Directed by Lawrence Trilling

The paradox of TV writing these days is that the most sought-after demographic in TVland—the 18-to-49 age group—wants stories that are part of a larger arc of mythology, yet appear not to have the patience to endure long-winded stories. Writers and producers are pressured to establish a closed universe for a series, while leaving it open and accessible enough for drop-in viewers. The story has to build over several episodes, leaving enough tease behind every week to draw the viewers back, but at the same time has to avoid boring an audience alien to the concept of delayed gratification.

This is an almost impossible juggling act, one which most series try to resolve by locking in a large audience very early, before the unfolding myth arc becomes too recondite for a latecomer. Anyone who tries to get into, say, Heroes or Lost these days is at a woeful disadvantage, and must either resign himself to being confused by half the dialogue or to spending inordinate amounts of time online catching up. And woe betide the show which fails to catch an audience early, because the long, slow build is no longer in the networks’ DNA. The days when The X-Files was allowed a couple of seasons to find its audience are long gone; that same network cancelled Drive before the third episode had rolled credits.

So it is refreshing to see that Pushing Daisies is hanging in there, hanging onto its small but rabid audience week after week. For the sake of those new to the show, I don’t complain that the “cold open” every week is a recap of the series’ premise and its major turning points. And I am delighted that so far, each episode is self-contained enough to stand alone while also fitting into the overall mythology growing up about this show. Pushing Daisies is an artistic high-wire act to start with, with its quiet, ironic humor played out against what sometimes looks like Pee-wee’s Playhouse. And beyond the visuals, Pushing Daisies intrigues with puckish word play and an ear for the rhythms of poetry.

This week’s mystery hinges on the explosive death of Anita Gray (Sarah Jayne Jensen, Across the Universe). Anita tries out a prototype scratch-and-sniff book written by her mentor, olfactory specialist Napoleon LeNez (whose surname is French for “the nose”), and it blows up in her face. Emerson, Chuck, and Ned make the usual visit to the candy-cane colored city morgue to wake her for her one minute of life. I loved Ned’s squeamish reaction to her smoking remains, as she wonders what that bright flash was. I also loved Emerson’s outrage at this abrogation of what he perceives the natural order to be: “Death by scratch and sniff! What the hell ever happened to people shootin’ each other with guns!” Ah, what corrupt days we live in, Emerson.

A visit to Anita’s boss, Napoleon (Christopher Sieber, It’s All Relative), is an exercise in clean room technology, as the olfactorist sniffs each of the team in order to learn their true natures. He pegs Emerson as a “knitting detective,” leaving us to wonder if there are subcategories of detective such as crocheting, quilting, and tatting sleuths. One nose-full of Ned tells LeNez that the Pie-Maker carries “the subtle waft of musky pheromones,” leading him at once to Chuck, who smells of honey… and death. Emerson tells Napoleon his book was booby-trapped and speculates that a rival may have it in for LeNez. Back at the Pie Hole, more awkwardness between Ned and Olive ensues as they try to work around her unrequited feelings for him. I love the way dialogue tangles itself on this show:

         Narrator: The Pie-Maker feared Chuck and Olive bonding was like a chemical accelerant bonding with an oxidizing agent. An explosion was bound to pop up.”
Emerson, looking through book catalog: “Oo! Pop-ups! I love pop-up books!”

Sure enough, Napoleon’s closest rival on the publisher’s release list is Chas Spielman (Tim Conlon, Rules of Engagement), whose name means “player” in German. Spielman doesn’t just make pop-up books, he makes pop-up books about building bombs. He maintains that LeNez’s book, rather than being bumped ahead of his on the release list, was taken off the holiday release list and dumped. Emerson begins to suspect that LeNez may be enjoying the publicity attendant on the explosion too much. Following up on a dirty sock planted in the Pie Hole, the trio discover that a third party, LeNez’s former partner Oscar Vibenius (Paul Reubens, Pee-wee’s Playhouse) carries a long-standing grudge against the lofty olfactorist. They find him in the sewers, which in this Oz-like land are actually made of yellow brick. While following the “yellow thick hose,” they find Vibenius in the act of blowing up LeNez’s car.

The facts are these: Oscar is actually trying to foil LeNez’s efforts to gain publicity for his book by staging a series of attempts on his own life. He chats up Olive and Chuck, who then join him in rescuing Ned and Emerson from death at the hands of a reverse-engineered clean room at Chez LeNez. Oscar reverse-engineers the reversed engineering and LeNez chokes on the city air he has excluded for so long.

And that does not even account for the sub-plot of Olive and the Aunts. Enough to say that when Aunt Vivian (Ellen Greene) breaks into song at the end of the episode, singing Cat Stevens’s “Morning Has Broken,” it is poignant and simple and sweet. Like the entire episode, it leaves us feeling safe and warm and loved, even in the midst of the kind of madness that creates pop-up books about bombs, and books rigged to explode. I can go on forever about the visual delights of this story—Aunt Lily’s “monopticon,” LeNez’s dressing gown of coins, young Ned curled up around a pie that reminds him of his mother.

Sometimes the show is too subtle—it was not until my third viewing that I caught the significance of Ned’s tale of “intimate relations” on a bearskin rug that came back to life. Whoops! This show is so rich in detail that a third viewing still yields nuggets like this—proof that this is no ordinary piece of work. (And of course now I’m curious to know the limits of Ned’s gift—what would happen if he ate a hamburger? Would it start moo-ing?)

We learned a lot of new information about the characters this week—more of that reveal-it-all-before-the-viewers-get-bored task I mentioned up front. The producers are pacing these revelations well, with just enough to lure us in. We learned more about Ned’s former lovers than maybe Chuck wanted to know. We learned, through some superbly subtle acting, of the deep grief of Chuck’s aunts, and how they yearn to emerge from it into a new happiness. We learned something about Chuck’s mother, and found a new character—Oscar, whose nose tells him there is something very strange about Chuck. Ellen Greene and Swoosie Kurtz turn in their usual outstanding turn on the aunts, and Paul Reubens makes a welcome debut as Oscar. Kristen Chenoweth and Chi McBride continue to dominate every scene they’re in—Chenoweth keeps Olive so relentlessly perky without being annoying, it is a work of art. And Lee Pace and Anna Friel continue to charm, showing us intimacy in the subtlest of gesture, look, and smile.

Pushing Daisies once again won that all important 18-49 demographic in its timeslot, though with only 7.25 million viewers, making it the second-highest rated show on Wednesdays at 8. These are numbers that would have killed the show in any other year. It’s not that people prefer some other show to Pushing Daisies; it’s that no one is watching TV at all in that timeslot. Maybe it was the fact that this episode aired the day before Thanksgiving, but Pushing Daisies‘s numbers have not been that good all season. It’s niche programming in a broad market; I hope it lasts long enough to build its audience. Certainly creator Bryan Fuller and company are doing all they can to make it succeed. I haven’t seen a single misstep in eight episodes so far. As Aunt Lily would put it, for the love of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, this series deserves a long run