Copyright © 2009 by Sarah Stegall
“Window Dressed to Kill”
Written by Abby Gewanter
Directed by Julie Anne Robinson
“You don’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you get what you need.” — Rolling Stones
The facts are these: this show is dead and not even Ned can revive it. The sets are gone, the actors released, creator Bryan Fuller has gone back to Heroes. ABC decided that shows like I Survived a Japanese Game Show and The Unusuals were a better value for their dollar than a carefully scripted series like Pushing Daisies. So be it. I might make a case (and probably will at some point) that Pushing Daisies never had any business on prime time broadcast TV. It is too perfectly suited for the quirky corners of Showtime or even the SciFi Channel, back when it showed quality TV. Cable is more patient, but then again, rarely has the budget for an expensive show like Pushing Daisies. I guess we’ll have to wait for an alternate universe to see what a third season of Ned and Chuck would have been like.
Talk about your graveyard shift. The antepenultimate (next to the next to the last) episode of this fascinating yet flawed enterprise aired on Saturday night at ten, a slot guaranteed not to embarrass ABC by reeling in higher ratings than the cancelled show’s premiere run. “Window Dressed to Kill” pulled in a mere 2.3 million viewers and a stunningly low 0.7 share among viewers 18-49 years old. I’m surprised ABC let the episode finish airing; if this had been on the Fox Network it would have been replaced during the first commercial break.
True to form, this episode echoed a classic comedy. This time around it was the Coen brothers’ iconic Raising Arizona, with its themes of kidnapped children and escaped convicts on the run. On top of that, a subtext deeply interwoven into the plot showed us that, as the Stones said, you may not get what you (think you ) want, but sometimes you get what you need.
Olive, for example, wants Ned in a bad way. Like so many desperate lovers, she looks for the tiniest hook to hang hope on, and finds it in Ned’s admission in an hour of need that sometimes he looks at Olive “that way”. In typical fashion, she blows this offhand remark out of proportion, convinced that she can make Ned say the words she wants to hear if only she can find the right lever. Surely a passion so intense must be reciprocated. When two men from her past show up believing that she and Ned are an item, she is all too ready to help pressure Ned into a “relationship” that’s as false as a mustache on Madonna. Jerry Holmes (Richard Benjamin, He & She) and Roy ‘Buster’ Bustamante (George Segal, Just Shoot Me), were wrongfully accused of kidnapping Olive when she was a child, and have recently escaped from prison for that crime. Far from harboring a grudge, they are fond of their Olive, and have kept in touch all these years. Unfortunately, Olive has been indulging her fantasy life in her correspondence with them, and they believe Ned and Olive are engaged.
Ned wants a normal life, and a normal relationship. He has “quit” touching dead things and people, as a result of which he can now eat his own pies. He still can’t touch Chuck, but he is now happy to walk down a street with her wearing gloves so they can hold hands, as close an approximation to normal as they’ve ever gotten. He thinks he will be happier as Clark Kent than Superman. When he discovers the escaped cons in his pie shop, he is so anxious to get them out of his life before they bring in the cops and break up his new normal life, that he even agrees to a pretend engagement with Olive.
Chuck wants more of a life than hiding behind the counter of a pie shop, wrapped in Ned’s safety netting. She eagerly persuades Emerson Cod, whose investigative business is suddenly bereft due to Ned’s withdrawal, to take her on as a partner. Emerson is investigating the drowning death of Erin Embry, window dresser for Dicker’s Department Store; Chuck not only theorizes that her death is a murder but manages to drum up some payment for Emerson. Unfortunately, their prime suspect ends up murdered.
With the usual facile handling of these writers, all of these threads tie together in a complex but fascinating plot. The Aunts celebrate Ned and Olive’s “engagement” so thoroughly that even Olive finally realizes that she can’t lie to herself or the world any longer, and breaks up with Ned. Ironically, Olive finds the love and attention she needs, but not from the man she wants. Roy and Jerry, like the convict kidnapers in Savannah Smiles (1982) give her the love and support her parents withheld from her as a child. As an adult, she finds a wholly unselfish love in taxidermist Randy Mann (David Arquette), whose devotion to Olive rivals Ned’s devotion to Chuck.
Ned realizes that he’s unhappy being Clark Kent, and that he really needs to be Superman. He gleefully revives a dead rhinoceros as a distraction so that the convicts can escape the police, and then happily re-animates two dead window dressers to confirm Emerson’s theory of the crime. By the end of the episode, Ned seems to have made some kind of peace with himself over his “gift”, finally resolving the lingering guilt he feels over the deaths of Chuck’s father and others. Far from wanting a normal life, he finds he needs his super-normal life. It is who he is.
Emerson: “How long you think she been dead?”
Medical Examiner: “Oh, I’d say about fifty dollars.”
As always, Chi McBride shone like silver in moonlight. Emerson Cod’s dialogue for this episode was among the most convoluted, complex and witty of the entire series, yet he made it all look natural and effortless. This may be the first episode in which Emerson solves the case on his own, without Ned’s help. The trouble with the character of Emerson Cod is that the mysteries he solves are always going to be secondary to the real mystery of Ned’s gift, and the overwhelming dilemma of Ned and Chuck’s separation. Given that, this mystery plot was better than some, although still plagued by plot holes you could drive Randy’s taxidermy van through. For example, if store owner Dick Dicker was killing window dressers under the mistaken impression that they were the creative geniuses behind the display, how did he make the windows mirror their deaths? If he had access to the real creator’s drawings beforehand, he would have known that Denny, not Erin and Coco, was the real genius. But then, this was a character who thought that a man tied to a chair and decapitated with a chainsaw could be passed off as a suicide.
This sort of plotting was always a problem for Pushing Daisies. While I loved the show, without question, it was beginning to flounder in the last couple of episodes. “The Norwegians” was just plain confusing to anyone not deeply invested in the show, and other second season offerings seemed pointless. Characters appear randomly and disappear without explanation–what happened to George Hamilton as Ned’s father? I got the feeling that Fuller and his staff did not really know where they wanted to go with Ned and Chuck, whose relationship keeps coming back to square one after every adventure. Nothing ever really changed between Ned and Chuck, leaving the character development pretty much in Olive Snook’s tiny hands.
Kristen Chenowith was the shining star of this and many other episodes. Beyond her rendering of Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello”, her portrayal of the ever-optimistic, unquenchable Olive Snook is a memorable piece of work. Olive loves Ned for the man he is, not for the “cape”, the supernatural gift that makes him so uncomfortable. By contrast, Chuck shows relatively little interest in Ned, being more concerned this season with her father, her Alive-Again Avenger persona, or her aunts’ well-being. The chemistry that once sizzled between Lee Pace and Anna Friel in episodes like “Bitches” was entirely absent from this episode, and I have to wonder if it had already burned out before the show was cancelled.
But lest I be misunderstood as dissing the show, let me speak only in declaratives and affirmative adverbs to note some of the gems in this show: Jerry calling Olive “pickle”; Vivian saying that they had not had this many visitors since their last home invasion; a rampaging rhino; the stacks of cheese wheels in the Aunts’ storeroom; a store called “dicker”; Pearway to Heaven pie; and Richard Benjamin wearing a skunk on his head. With moments like these, I can forgive any plot holes.
The final season average ratings for Pushing Daisies put it well ahead of shows like Dollhouse, Friday Night Lights, and Better Off Ted, all of which were renewed. This kind of thing leaves critics scratching their heads and looking for explanations other than “bad ratings” for a cancellation. I’m pretty sure what really killed Pushing Daisies in the end was a combination of high production costs, falling audience share, and the fact that this show was never going to be part of a network “brand”. No matter how well it did, it was always going to be the red-headed stepchild, a show that fit nowhere else, that didn’t quite jive with a programming worldview that thought Samantha Who? was quality “science fiction”. In short, it was a square peg in a round hole (or more likely a dodecahedral cylinder in a pentagonal orifice), doomed from the start.
Next week’s episode will include guest star Gina Torres (Firefly), one of my favorite actresses. With the return of Simone (Christine Adams) from “Bitches”, we can look forward to one hell of a triangle between Emerson, Simone, and his baby mama. “Water and Power” will be broadcast June 6 on ABC at 10/9 central. I’ll be there, torn between joy at seeing the last of a good thing, and what Jerry called “mad, multiplied by the power of pissed” over its demise.