Is the fact that Pushing Daisies (ABC, Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET) ranks as the biggest critical hit of the fall season a tribute to its fluorescent charms or proof of the prefabricated drabness of the competition? While any number of shows look like every other show, this one—call it a magical-realist comedy or fabulistic crime procedural—has been crafted to look like nothing else. It’s a breath of fresh air even for those of us who find our allergies stimulated by the countless particles of whimsy suspended in its thick atmosphere. Seeking to fashion the raw materials of indie quirk into a broadly ingratiating swath of pop fairy tale, Pushing Daisies teams with honeybees and fireflies, twins and doubles, spiffy ‘50s nostalgia, and winsome evergreen melancholy.
Also, kids and animals: The pilot was titled “Pie-lette”—much of the series unfolds in a bake shop, all of it proceeds with unabashed preciosity—and it opened on a scene of a boy and his dog romping among golden flowers in a computer-generated meadow. The narrator started in with his plum-sauce baritone, his story-time cadence, his strategically cute text: “At this very moment in the town of Coeur d’Couers, young Ned was 9 years, 27 weeks, six days, and three minutes old. His dog Digby was 3 years, two weeks, six days, five hours, and nine minutes old—and not a minute older.” Digby, trying to the cross the road, was sent spinning aloft by an 18-wheeler. Ned, reaching out to pet his expired pup, discovered that his fingers functioned as an Orphean lute. With a touch, he brought the dog back to life.
The voiceover made a point of declaring Ned’s powers inexplicable and brought us up to speed on their limits. Once he’s revived a pet or a parent or a rotten piece of fruit, he can’t make contact with it again, lest it descend to the afterworld irretrievably. And if he doesn’t administer that second and final stroke within 60 seconds, then some other nearby party will meet its demise.
Thus, when Ned—who has grown up to work with a PI who finds Ned’s gift handy to interrogate the dead—resurrects his boyhood girlfriend and decides to keep the gal around, the funeral director in the next room keels over. If this premise sounds damnably convoluted, that’s because it is, but Pushing Daisies offers it up with a reasonable approximation of narrative elegance. Charging confidently into a realm of mystical logic, the show quickly reaches a safe zone of fairy-tale coherence, proceeding to decorate that space according to an aesthetic informed by thrift-shop zaniness and Broadway-musical flights of fancy.
As a quick test of your tolerance for the show, digest the following: Ned’s love interest—a courtly love interest, perhaps, as theirs is a hands-off affair—was his next-door neighbor in Couer d’Coeur. Her name’s Charlotte Charles, and he calls her Chuck. After Chuck’s father died—an early misstep of Ned’s—she became the ward of two spinster aunts who performed as a synchronized swimming act dubbed the Darling Mermaid Darlings. Is all this compulsive doubling cute? A little too cute? So cute that it goes over the top and lands at arch? A cynic will find something terribly willful in this invocation and feel more than a bit infantilized. A mellower soul might decide that it’s just a nifty match for the show’s daydream visuals and the parable-neat structures of its weekly crime plots. Maybe they can agree that Pushing Daisies nudges prime-time television’s preoccupation with supernatural matters someplace intriguing. Instead of a comic book, it serves up a nursery rhyme.