‘Are you comfortable with “living dead”?’
From the film noir stylings of the silver screen classic The Maltese Falcon (1941) to the romantic comedy dramatics of Moonlighting (1985 – 89), the field of private investigation has long proved fertile story-telling ground for filmmakers. Bryan Fuller’s Pushing Daisies is a unique twist on the sub-genre, a combination of detective drama, murder mystery, romance, comedy, and stylized fantasy (Burger 2011, 3). Closest in tone to Jeunet’s ‘Amelie’ and the films of Tim Burton, it’s a glorious concoction of warmth, whimsy and nostalgia, a meditation on life and death, isolation and community, and [most importantly] unashamedly a love story.
The series revolves around Ned (Lee Pace), a pie-maker who, with one touch, can bring the dead back to life. It’s an ability that comes with certain caveats. If the alive-again (Ned dislikes the terms ‘living dead’ and ‘zombie’) live beyond sixty seconds someone else in the near vicinity will die to restore the balance. Ned discovers his ability aged nine, after he brings his golden retriever Digby back to life. Later he uses this gift to save his mother, who died in front of him from a brain aneurism. Oblivious to the one minute rule, in bringing her back to life Ned accidently caused the death of his neighbour, the father of his boyhood crush Chuck (Anna Friel).
In a cruel twist of fate the young Ned discovers his ability has a second caveat; as the narrator explains in the ‘Pie-lette’ episode, ‘first touch, life; second touch, dead again. Forever’. The two share their first kiss, ‘dizzy with grief, curiosity, and hormones’, between their parents neighbouring funerals, a beautifully realised sequence backlit by the glow of the sun. An orphaned Chuck is fostered by her aunts’ Lily and Vivian, while Ned is sent away to boarding school. Twenty years pass before Ned and Chuck see each other again.
In the present day, Ned runs a restaurant called The Pie Hole and supplements his income by working with private detective Emerson Cod (Chi McBride). It’s a business they’ve become very successful at, because murders are a lot easier to solve when you can ask the victim who killed them. One such case is the murder of Charlotte ‘Chuck’ Charles, dubbed by the narrator the ‘lonely tourist’. Ned, still harbouring romantic feelings for Chuck, cannot bring himself to touch her again once he brings her back from the dead. He takes Chuck back to The Pie Hole, the passing of sixty seconds having already caused the death of a crooked funeral director (‘accidental, involuntary manslaughter’), and she begins her new life as an alive-again person.
Each episode of Pushing Daisies is comprised of two aspects, the case-of-the-week and the personal issues and/or relationship problems of the characters. Pushing Daisies doesn’t linger on the tragedy of death. Instead it takes a humorous approach to the macabre; deaths on the series are quirky, unusual, and darkly comedic. This include the murder of one man by a crash test dummy, a mime who is killed by poisoned make-up, and the demise of one woman in a scratch ‘n’ sniff, pop-up book induced explosion. Usually the temporarily alive-again murder victims aren’t upset by the fact they died, and simply accept the news. Sometimes they’re cheerful, sometimes they’re chatty, and sometimes they’re petty. Chuck’s own response was simply ‘oh. Ohhh,’ choosing not to dwell on the fact she was murdered. As one of the temporarily alive-again victims states, ‘sounds scary, but once you’re dead, you’re dead’. As the series progresses, Chuck’s struggle with her alive-again status is partially related to its price (the funeral director’s life), and mostly to her place in the world.
Some of the issues and problems of the characters’ extend across the series. These arcs include Emerson’s search for his daughter, Chuck’s efforts to take care of her aunts without them knowing she’s alive, and the unique challenges Ned and Chuck face day to day, as they pursue their romance. Each episode begins with a flashback, usually involving young Ned, although several second season episodes begin with younger versions of the other characters instead.
Before Chuck re-entered his life, Ned led a very isolated and lonely existence. As a result of his ability, he disliked physical contact, and feared being discovered and turned into a lab experiment. While his fear does not dissipate with Chuck’s presence, she does [partly] convince him of the positives of physical contact. Sadly the one person Ned really wants to touch is Chuck, a desire which is impossible, when even a hug would kill her. In an early season one scene Chuck laments this fact while explaining the joys of hugging to him, ‘I can’t even hug you? What if you need a hug? A hug can turn your day around … it’s like an emotional Heimlich’. Pace is excellent as the pie-maker who ‘stress bakes’, wonderfully conveying both Ned’s childlike vulnerability and charm, and the more uptight aspects of his nature, such as his fear of change. Before Chuck, Ned led a self-disciplined, ordered life.
Charlotte ‘Chuck’ Charles’s reappearance in his life challenges Ned, forcing him to, at times, exist outside his comfort zone. Raised by her agoraphobic aunts (the cynical Aunt Lily and the sensitive Aunt Vivian), Chuck felt it was her responsibility to take care of them and so did not venture far from home. She occupied her days by reading books of the places she couldn’t go and experiences she couldn’t have, while pursuing her hobby of bee-keeping. Deciding to take a chance, she went on a cruise, her holiday ending when she was suffocated to death with a plastic bag. Prior to her death and alive-again status, she lived vicariously through the books she read and the language tapes she learnt from. Her accumulated knowledge proves useful in the business of crime-solving and she gets a somewhat macabre kick out of working murder cases with Ned and Emerson. A free spirit at heart, Chuck is determined to live her life properly the second time around, to experience the things she missed out on. She’s a compassionate character, asking the alive-again if they have any last requests or thoughts before they die again. Friel is delightful as Chuck, beautifully conveying the character’s vivacity and optimism, her morbid fascinations, and the conflicting emotions Chuck feels in regards to her alive-again status.
Emerson is the opposite of Chuck. He’s in the business of private investigation purely for monetary gains. He’s a straight-talking character, unconcerned with hurting the feelings of others. When questioned about the relationship between Chuck and Ned he tells the lovesick waitress Olive that Ned ‘digs her [Chuck] in a way he definitely doesn’t dig you’. This blunt attitude is exemplified in the season two opener, ‘let me just say I’m sorry about your loss, and I do except credit cards’. Yet there’s a softer, less prominent side to Emerson. He secretly loves knitting, crafting cases for his many wads of cash and, my favourite, gun holsters. He authors a children’s pop-up book in the hope it will help his daughter find him, and in the season two episode ‘Circus Circus’ is the only one able to coax a teenage girl out of hiding.
Olive Snook (Kristin Chenoweth) is The Pie Hole’s (seemingly only) waitress. She suffers from an unrequited love for Ned, and is the only one of the quartet not to know of the supernatural aspect of their private investigative dealings and Chuck’s alive-again status. At first she believes Chuck bears an uncanny resemblance to ‘that dead girl. That’s a complement, she was pretty’, but later believes Chuck faked her own death. She initially views Chuck’s presence with hostility, believing Chuck is the only reason she and Ned are not together, but eventually reciprocates Chuck’s feelings of friendship. In an effort to get over Ned, and keep several secrets she’s bursting to tell, Olive retreats to a European nunnery (complete with homage to The Sound Of Music) for part of season two.
The omniscient Narrator of Pushing Daisies is integral to creating the fairy-tale qualities of the series. The character is used to great effect to convey exposition – ‘the facts were these’ – and provide insight into the characters. As voiced by British actor Jim Dale, the Narrator falls somewhere in the realm of old-fashioned newsreader, documentarian, and storybook narrator. The Narrator often states ages and passages of time, down to the minute. His presence results in, and allows for, the quirkiness of the series, and ensures the fusion of genres runs smoothly.
The combination of detective drama and murder mystery (the whodunit) of Pushing Daisies is used to provide the series with structure, and was originally intended to allow for the series longevity (for various reasons the series only ran for two seasons). Although Ned’s power to revive the dead allows the trio to learn of the culprits, the actual solving of the case comes down to the group’s investigative work, thanks to the often puzzling words of the temporarily alive-again, such as ‘I was killed by a crash test dummy’, and a polygamist poisoned by one of his wives. Mostly, the reviving of the dead takes place at the City Morgue. In the early episodes, the trios bluff their way in, claiming to be dog experts, toxicologists and people ‘from the government safety place’. As the series progresses Emerson simply bribes the coroner.
The unconventional love story between Chuck and Ned is essential to the success of Pushing Daisies. By placing the two characters in such a unique situation, Fuller and his team of writers were required to find alternative ways of forging and sustaining the romance. This includes the practicalities of the two conducting a relationship. Whenever Ned is standing near Chuck he takes certain precautions, such as linking his hands behind his back, or keeping them in his pockets. Their first kiss as adults is through the safety of plastic body bags (after being thwarted by the killer in the season one episode ‘Dummy’), their second through a sheet of cling wrap Chuck impulsively holds between them. In order for Chuck to sit beside him in his car, Ned installs a glass partition with a hole that allows for a rubber glove to fit through, enabling them to hold hands, a practice later adapted for their sleeping arrangements. Sometimes Ned demands an unwilling Emerson hug Chuck in his place. Other times Chuck takes similar measures, ‘I’m going to hug Digby and pretend he’s you’ (Berger 2011, 85).
The stylized fantasy of Pushing Daisies is beautifully established in the opening scene of the ‘Pie-lette’, as young Ned runs across a field of daisies, the hyper-real yellow of the blooms gloriously contrasting against an impossibly blue sky. A flashback of a costumed young Chuck and Ned playing make believe (the former in a dinosaur costume, the latter dressed as a parrot), destroying a city of plastic toys is another zany example as the toys are brought to life through animation, and the miniature figures run screaming from their giant antagonists. The fantasy element of the series is also at play across several musical numbers performed by Olive to an imaginary audience, such as her rendition of Grease’s ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’:
‘Narrator: Olive often imagined there was an orchestra in her heart. Music, heard only by her except when her heart broke open, and it spilled out into the world…
Olive (singing): Guess mine is not the first heartbroken, my eyes are not the first to cry. I’m not the first to know, there’s just no gettin’ over you, I’m hopelessly devoted to you (a man and woman enter The Pie Hole) Excuse me! We’re closed.’
Pushing Daisies’ spectacular costume and production design is instrumental in crafting the stylized fantasy. Production designer Michel Wylie’s goal was to create ‘a storybook come to life’, for ‘everything to look like an illustration’. This is achieved through the bright use of colour, from bubblegum pink to lime green, and a lot of patterns. The eccentricities of the series are reflected in various aspects of its design, such as Olive’s matching set of pajamas, sheets, and bedroom wallpaper. The headquarters of the business Betty’s Bees in the episode ‘Bzzzzzzzzz’ reflects the nature of the business, a hexagonal motif incorporated throughout the building’s design. There’s a also a retro style to Pushing Daisies; The Pie Hole is reminiscent of an old-fashioned milk bar, Chuck’s wardrobe is inspired by the 1950s and other bygone eras, and all the vehicles are vintage.
Key to the visual style of the series is the use of a circular motif, reflecting Ned’s pie-making business. The motif is sometimes used in the transition between scenes, using a circular wipe, and to frame shots. It’s a partly stylistic choice, and partly a reference to the community theme of the series. The Pie Hole is the most obvious example. The building itself is circular, the windows round, and the roof resembles a pie crust. Inside cherry-shaped lights dangle from the ceiling and the shop counter is also circular. Ned began baking pies at boarding school, the activity acting as his connection to his deceased mother. Pies are comfort food, and The Pie Hole is a comfortable, safe place for the Pushing Daisies characters, a place for their community to exist.
Each main character of Pushing Daisies experiences some degree of loneliness and isolation. For Ned, these feelings were caused by the fear of his magical ability and of its discovery by others. With Chuck’s help Ned begins to reconcile himself with this unique ability. Similarly, Chuck, Emerson, and Olive all progress beyond their initial isolation, and together the quartet forms one unique and unconventional family.
In the ‘Pie-lette’ the Narrator explains the nature of Ned’s gift; it was something that was given to him, ‘but not by anyone in particular … it just was’. With its dazzling mix of bright colours, bizarre crimes, black comedy, and lovable characters, Pushing Daisies is also a gift, but one that is unmistakably Fuller’s. It’s a unique and enchanting viewing experience, a glorious exploration of life and death, love and friendship.
Berger, Alissa 2011. The television world of Pushing daisies : critical essays on the Bryan Fuller series. Jefferson, N.C.