In the past 20 years, the American League Rookie of the Year has gone to future superstars including Mark McGwire, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Ichiro Suzuki. In that same period, other players to win that same award include Pat Listach, Bob Hamelin and Marty Cordova. As we're at the start of both the fall television season and the baseball playoffs, I use this analogy to make a simple point: Sometimes a great start is an indication of a legendary career, but other times it's better to quit while you're ahead.
Case in point, if I'd given a Rookie of the Year award for last season's best two pilots, I'd have gone with NBC's "Friday Night Lights" and ABC's "The Nine." In the case of the former, the quality of the pilot set the foundation for a full season of the best new show on television. In the case of the latter, it was clear almost immediately that the innovation and creativity and scope of the pilot just wasn't maintainable. "FNL" would be Jeter, "The Nine" Listach, just in case you aren't keeping up.
Into which category will ABC's "Pushing Daisies" fall? Looking merely at pilots, projecting nothing at all about the show's potential as a viable ongoing series, "Pushing Daisies" is the smartest, funniest, most romantic, most inspired, most magical network offering of the fall.
Described by producers as a "forensic fairy tale" and narrated by thespian and audio book legend Jim Dale, "Pushing Daisies" is the story of Ned (note-perfect Everyman Lee Pace), a young man with a very peculiar gift. At a young age, Ned discovered he can bring the dead back to life, a blessing with a few prickly caveats -- One touch brings them back, while a second touch puts them in the ground again, plus if they return from the dead for more than one minute, the Grim Reaper has to compensate by taking another life. It's an aptitude that comes in handy when your dog gets killed in the road, but becomes complicated when you just want to pet that same dog. So Ned owns a pie shop, where the berries are always extra-ripe (assuming he doesn't come in contact with them repeatedly) and helps Emerson Cod (Chi McBride, showing his comic chops), a local private investigator, collect rewards by asking murder victims how they were offed. Additional trouble comes in the form of Ned's childhood love Chuck (Anna Friel, instantly loveable), a victim herself, granted eternal life as long as she doesn't so much as brush past the man who saved her.
That's a mouthful, isn't it?
Created by Bryan Fuller and carrying the very obvious fingerprints of earlier Fuller shows like "Wonderfalls" and "Dead Like Me," "Pushing Daisies" looks like nothing else on TV. The pilot was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and is cluttered with all manner of visual whimsy. It isn't just the claymation animated sequence, or the bookshelves that fill with literature to mark the passage of time or the fact that the color in every frame has been heightened, enhanced.
No, "Pushing Daisies" is also fueled by Fuller's whimsical love for language. It's a pilot that includes musing on the differences between masturbating and masticating, plus another character distinguishing between types of rumination (thoughtful contemplation versus cud chewing). And every time you fear things might get too cutesy, somebody like Chuck comes along and describes a hug as an emotional Heimlich with "Someone puts their arms around you and they give you a squeezed and all of your fear and anxiety come shooting out of your mouth in a big wet wad and you can breath again."
Actually, even with snarky moments of cute-diffusion like that, "Pushing Daisies" still comes across as mighty cutesy, as mighty twee, as more precious than any mainstream network television show should ever be. Viewers will either get instantly sucked into this world of agoraphobic synchronized swimmers, mysterious ceramic monkeys and impossibly star-crossed lovers, or they'll never warm up to them, as they never embraced the talking wax lions of "Wonderfalls" or the post-it note distributing reapers of "Dead Like Me." There's an audience for whom Fuller's warped idealism is resonant and then there's everybody else. I don't judge.
Figuring out how "Pushing Daisies" will prolong its premise on a week-to-week basis (if anybody actually tunes in in the first place) may be the TV season's biggest mystery. Even if the show's creative team is able to figure out a different murder case for Ned and Emerson to investigate every week and a different contrivance to keep Ned and Chuck physically separated, it won't matter if the dialogue loses its back-and-forth intellectual sparkle or the show's production values dwindle even an iota.
ABC has actually done a fine job of promoting "Pushing Daisies" and the network has given the show a timeslot that suggests some confidence. As much as "Pushing Daisies" ought to be a crowd-pleaser, it still feels more like a quickly cancelled cult favorite to me. I can't predict what will happen to the show, but for one episode at least, it's something special.
TV Review: 'Pushing Daisies'
Whimsical and magical, but will that be enough to make anybody watch?
Lee Pace and Anna Friel of 'Pushing Daisies'
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