Ned is a humble pie maker. He spends his days doing normal pie-maker things like chopping fruit, making crusts, and waking murder victims to ask who killed them so that he can collect the rewards with his PI partner Emerson Cod. The quiet life.
He is the proud (or often not-so-proud) owner of a magic finger, one that can bring a dead thing back to life with one touch and return it to corpse-hood with a second touch. If he happens to keep the dead thing alive for more than one minute, however, something else must die in its place. These are the rules. Small in number, but large in complexity. Don’t you love a show with a rulebook?
Ned goes around un-deading and re-deading people to his heart’s content until one day he brings back his childhood sweetheart, Charlotte “Chuck” Charles, and can’t bring himself to re-dead her, setting in motion a series of delightful complications and catastrophes in the fluorescent fairy tale of love, death, crime, forbidden touching, and more death called Pushing Daisies.
Pushing Daisies was itself re-deaded in 2009 after only a season and a half, but not before it told us a sweet, zany, and joyfully morbid story that will long be mourned and celebrated. And this is why:
The far-off land of Couer d’Couers
Pushing Daisies is a fairy tale. In classic fairy tale fashion, Ned awakens his true love with a magical touch, and they go on to live happily ever after. Sort of. Happily ever after, but with a lot more crying, murder, and sarcasm than usual in order to make it more appealing to us. Like all the best fairy tales, this one takes place in a beautiful imaginary land of colorful characters and even more colorful colors.
Every location in Pushing Daisies is like an illustration of a vaguely recognizable but much more delightful civilization. It’s a fanciful, over-the-top community of yellows, oranges, and greens where everything is sunny and organic (including the mood-altering drugs). People run through fields of sunflowers, work in buildings shaped like pies, make cars fueled by dandelions, and have names like Sir Leonard Gaswind and Ramsfeld Snuppy, with all the action related by Jim Dale’s deep, whimsical warm hug of a narrator voice that sets the perfect storybook tone. The entire atmosphere is fantastical, optimistic, and completely original and unexpected. What other show looks or feels like this one?
Murder is fun!
But for all the visual charm, it’s really the murdering that seals the deal. Combining the brightness with morbidity and gallows humor creates Pushing Daisies’ distinct style where even vicious murder is a good reason to be playfully exaggerated.
There are no simple gunshot wounds on this show. Please. How boring. Pushing Daisies is more about drowning Mike White in a vat of taffy or having Joel McHale accidentally slip on poisoned coffee and impale himself on a bedazzled dog brush, twice. The increasingly ludicrous methods of killing victims are just as amusing and far-fetched as the sets and costumes, and the aftermath of twisted necks, flattened faces, and full-body bee sting pustules are rendered in a similarly cartoonish way, halfway between live action and animation, straddling real life and fantasy. When I die, I want to be killed by Pushing Daisies.
Gleefully indulging in crazy deaths also helps balance out some of the sentimentality of the show. At least twice per episode, Ned and Chuck are completely adorable, verging on adorkable, but no matter how many cute ways they discover to gaze lovingly at each other or touch without really touching, we know someone is always about to get cut in half by an escalator, which helps.
This show is delicious
It would be a slap in the face to the legacy of Pushing Daisies to go any further without discussing the serious topic of pie. You might say it’s a show about love, or a show about death, or a show about clever repartee and murder puns, but really it’s a show about pie. Rarely is there a scene that doesn’t involve eating pie, or making pie, or grating cheese on top of pie, or dismissing Kristin Chenoweth to go fetch some more pie. They do everything it’s remotely possible to do with pie except make Lee Pace perform a version of N’SYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” rewritten as “Pie Pie Pie.” That never happened. But that’s what Kickstarter is for, right?
As part of the colorful flair of the show, every scene in The Pie Hole is backed by display after display of Technicolor pies full of peaches and berries, to the point that they actually present a viewing handicap. They’re so enticing that it’s easy to get lost in them until you realize you missed a whole scene while distracted by the Everest of strawberry pie looming behind Chenoweth’s eleven inches of height. It’s a real problem. In conclusion, pie.
Next page . . . Lee Pace’s eyebrows and other important topics
Quick-fire dialogue full of witticisms and wordplay is a signature of Pushing Daisies, and its best moments are often the smart-yet-harebrained verbal skirmishes where Chuck’s optimism is volleyed back by Ned’s neurosis, which is then volleyed back by Olive’s energetic pitifulness, until it’s all slammed down by Emerson’s delicious scorn. It’s a well-oiled ensemble of eccentric loons.
Ned, the pie maker (Lee Pace)
As we all know, one of the most reliable recipes for a beloved character is a base of huggable nervousness combined with a mild dash of awkward inadequacy. Works every time. Once you’ve got that, sporting Lee Pace Eyebrows Of Serious Concern™ is just a bonus, so Ned is like the Powerball jackpot of characters.
His special touching powers and massive “I keep a formerly dead woman as my hidden love” secret put him in a constant state of twitchy uncertainty. He is a tightly wound little ball of pie and worries who sidles around in a permanently tense shrug and speaks in a rapid, high-pitched squeak of overwhelmed anxiety. Ned is very sweet and very terrified, and all he wants is for everything to be calm and easy and stay the same. It’s a futile hope, but an understandable one that makes him lovable. I may or may not want to kidnap him. I don’t care that he’s fictional. That just means it’s not a crime.
Olive Snook (Kristin Chenoweth)
Kristin Chenoweth. What else can be said? It’s remarkable that a person could be as adored as she is. At this point, she could make a drastic career change to professional puppy drowning, and we would all think, “Those asshole puppies had it coming.”
In Pushing Daisies, she is at peak, over-the-top greatness as Olive, the Pie Hole waitress, butt of every joke, and beacon of general ridiculousness. She’s all cleavage and desperation, constantly proclaiming her unrequited love for Ned and hoping he will notice her instead of sending her away to get pie just when things start to get good. Pushing Daisies wholeheartedly embraces being nutty, and Olive is the nuttiest, shrillest, silliest screwball of them all, so fundamentally strange that there’s nothing the show can’t do with her. Of course she’s a former champion horse jockey. Of course she runs off to join a nunnery. Of course she muses on the idea of setting people on fire. She’s definitely insane, and it’s definitely great.
Emerson Cod (Chi McBride)
In this ragtag crime-solving team, there is a lot of cheery optimism floating around, but thankfully Emerson is there to put an end to it. He is the pragmatic member of the group, a mostly curmudgeonly figure who disapproves of all these lovey-dovey, ill-conceived shenanigans with the dead girl. He would much rather go back to the old system of being a private eye who uses Ned’s magical powers to make a ton of money by doing very little.
While his main pastime is bringing conversations back around to money, he’s also not immune to the eccentricity and softness that grip the people around him, maintaining adorable obsessions with knitting and pop-up books. But even more than his childlike giggle when reading pop-up books, it’s the constant sarcastic and critical asides that make Emerson the frontrunner for Most Delightful Character. “Oh, look at that. A dumb idea just found a friend.” You get me, Emerson.
Charlotte “Chuck” Charles (Anna Friel)
Chuck is a caged creature. Her new life status (i.e., being alive) is top secret because no one can know about Ned’s powers, which makes for a lot of staying hidden, ducking behind counters in the nick of time, and adopting sunglasses-based disguises. Still, her secret life doesn’t stop her from being a ray of sensitive sunshine. In a show with a lot of yellow floating around, she is the yellowest, committed to being accepting, loving, and thankful in her second life.
Chuck is usually seen helping others, half-crying about wanting to tell her aunts the whole story, and hanging around having feelings. She is a necessary complication to the detached practicality of Ned and Emerson because she cares. A lot. And she continually forces them to care too, often with problematic consequences, which may solve the mystery of what exactly her job at The Pie Hole is supposed to be: Senior Vice President Of Leaning On Things And Creating Nothing But Trouble. Seriously, just because you’re dead doesn’t mean you can’t grab a mop. Get to work.
Lily and Vivian (Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene)
Kooky supporting characters always deserve kudos, so let’s not forget Lily and Vivian, Chuck’s devoted aunts (well . . . ) and guardians. They’re a former famous synchronized swimming duo, The Darling Mermaid Darlings, who have since become mistrusting recluses. They act as a depository for all manner of wonderfully random eccentricities, from their preposterous clothes, to their cheese obsession, to their menagerie of taxidermy birds.
Olive’s regular deliveries of drugged-up, mood-enhancing pies to them always provoke the revelation of some new quirk from shy, nervous Vivian or some fresh insult from Lily, the cantankerous one-eyed drunk. Ah, cantankerous one-eyed drunks. You’re the best. Every show needs one of you.
It’s a shame that Pushing Daisies never had a chance for a true ending. It spent its whole run building up all kinds of intertwining familial complications and teasing big reveals only to be forced to either forget them or rush through them in a slapdash, two-nanosecond “I’m alive! Daughter! Mother! Daughter!” ending to the finale. It was cancelled without a satisfying conclusion, but with its imaginative, cartoonish sensibility, snappy dialogue, and unconventional characters, it was probably too quirky to live, anyway. Almost everything about it screams cult following.
More than anything else, there is a sense in watching Pushing Daisies that everyone involved has been allowed to play and go entirely crazy. Every aspect is larger than life. The show has no interest in being reserved, basic, or unremarkable, and that’s its biggest success.
Now it’s your turn to un-dead your own feelings about Pushing Daisies in the comments.