Buckle and Swash
By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2007 by Sarah Stegall
ABC, Wednesdays, 8/79/8 E/C
“The Fun in Funeral”
Written by Bryan Fuller
Directed by Paul Edwards
It’s the little things that make this show pure genius. In an early bit during the third episode ofPushing Daisies, young Ned (Field Cate, Without a Trace) experiments with fireflies to figure out the parameters of his “gift” for resurrection. He learns that if he touches a dead creature and brings it back to life for more than one minute, some other creature must die in its stead. Horrified by the implications, he rationalizes that “his gift is beyond his control”, and vows never to bring another person back to life for more than one minute. It’s a simple, easy code, childlike — and dangerous — in its simplicity. It should work, right? Until love steps in.
Cut to the present, where we see Ned the Pie-Maker working in his pie kitchen with Chuck, the childhood love he brought back from the dead. Ned picks up rotten peaches from a bowl, and at his touch, they come back to life, subtly changing color to become full and ripe. Ned tosses each one playfully to Chuck for peeling, then winces as a planter full of daisies wilts and dies to balance out the rejuvenation of the fruit–reminding him of the price he paid for Chuck’s continued life. Through all of this, Ned and Chuck smile, flirt, and tease, until Chuck ambushes Ned by slapping a swath of plastic wrap across his face and kissing him through it, in what must rank as one of the more sensual kisses on record. All of this is before the credits roll. This show is too good to believe.
Pushing Daisies could be just a cute romantic comedy full of slapstick moments and unslaked sexual tension, but like all good fairy tales it has a darker, serious side. Episode three is all about responsibility, and how Ned is forced to acknowledge the fact that resurrection carries a terrible price, one he has been avoiding paying. In a call back to the series pilot, Ned and his PI partner Emerson Cod are forced to re-visit the funeral home where Ned revived Chuck and inadvertently killed the closest person in proximity–the funeral director. Seems the funeral director’s brother Louis (Brad Grunberg, NYPD Blue) is suspicious of brother Lawrence’s death, and hires Emerson to find out who killed him, and what happened to all the jewelry that Lawrence was stealing from the corpses he buried. Of course Emerson, to whom irony is meat and drink, is well aware that Ned killed Lawrence, and he insists that Ned “wake” the dead man to find out where the loot is. Ned is terrified not only of waking a man he “killed”, but of Chuck finding out how and why he died.
The rest of the episode is all about Ned learning to accept the implications of his gift/curse, working out a more grown-up code, justifying to a shocked Chuck why he let a man die so she could continue to live. Lawrence (Brad Grunberg in a dual role), wakened for his one minute, wonders if he is a human sacrifice, and to some extent, he is. Chuck is stricken to learn that “all these moments I’ve been celebrating weren’t really mine after all”. Ned protests that he’s not really a killer, that there was no intent, that he’s not really responsible, but Chuck’s accusing eyes demand a better response from him.
This episode is as densely packed as a mincemeat pie. While Ned desperately flees the responsibility entailed by his gift, Chuck actively seeks to fulfill her responsibility to her shut-in aunts, Lily and Vivian (Swoozie Kurtz and Ellen Greene). About to leave on their comeback tour, the aunts succumb to despair and agoraphobia at a reminder of Chuck’s death. She bakes them a pie loaded with anti-depressants, which Olive delivers. In the course of conversation with the aunts, who still think Chuck is dead, Olive figures out who Chuck is and what her relationship to Ned is. Olive herself makes a new friend — Alfredo the traveling herb salesman (Tony-award winner Raul Esparza), who offers her homeopathy and sympathy. There’s even a cute bit with the morgue attendant. No one is overlooked.
The missing loot from the deceased becomes both the linchpin of the plot and a symbol of its primary question of ethics. When Emerson proposes to keep the items stolen from the dead, disavowing any accountability for second-hand theft, Chuck debates pirate ethics with him An angry relative of one of the robbery victims frames Ned for murder, to recover a stolen Civil War cavalry sword. In a smashing finale, the angry relative turns out to be one Wilfrid Woodruff (Eddie Shin, Love, Inc.), the Asian-American descendant of a Confederate war hero. Ambushing Ned, he fights a sword duel with him on a staircase, a la Errol Flynn. Hearing Scarlett O’Hara’s thick Southern accent coming out of the mouth of a Korean sword master was nothing short of hilarious. When he boasts of his swordsmanship, Ned rejoins, “I wanted to be a Jedi.” Of course he did. This could all have been played strictly for laughs, on a level not much deeper than a standard sitcom, but the production design, the rapid-fire, heavily ironic dialogue, and most of all the superb ensemble acting elevate this episode above even the high standards set in the pilot.
And in the midst of all this fun, all this buckle and swash, Ned manages to find a way out of his moral dilemma. As he tells Wilfrid:
“Everything we do is a choice–oatmeal or cereal, highway or side street, kiss her or keep her, we make choices and we live with the consequences. And if someone gets hurt along the way, we ask for forgiveness. It’s the best anyone can do.”
Pushing Daisies, a romantic dark fantasy with an ethical compass, is about the best anyone can do, ever.