Once upon a time I sat down to write a review of “Pushing Daisies,” a lovely, toy-colored new series about a man who can bring back the dead, with restrictions.
Fairy tales have been told to children for years, but they weren’t “made” for them the way, say, “The Backyardigans” or “Hannah Montana” are. They’re shared currency, the myths and yarns of our world, and the charge they carry flows across borders and time and age brackets. There’s an old story at the back of “Pushing Daisies” -- the one about Orpheus fetching Eurydice from the underworld. Forbidden to look back at her as they trudge Earthward, he does anyway, and she’s dead again. Whatever that is supposed to tell you about having your cake and eating it too or listening when teacher talks, the tragedy of losing again what you managed extraordinarily to regain is clear and powerful enough.
ABC’s “Pushing Daisies,” which premieres tonight, is a comedy, however, so the only redying dead will be the ones we don’t love. Created by Bryan Fuller, it is a close cousin to his previous creation “Dead Like Me,” about a girl who becomes a not-so-grim reaper, and his co-creation “Wonderfalls,” about a girl who receives cosmic instructions from animal statues.
“At this very moment in the town of Coeur d’ Coeurs, young Ned was 9 years, 27 weeks, 6 days and 3 minutes old” is how “Pushing Daisies” begins. The narrator is Jim Dale, whom you may know as the audio-book voice of the “Harry Potter” books -- which I would guess is what got him this job -- or remember as a regular in Disney films a few decades back or as the Tony-winning star of the musical “Barnum.” Though he is only an omniscient voice, it’s a pivotal element in the music of the show. It tells us that we are not in Kansas anymore.
The “very moment” that Dale alludes to is the one when Ned, not yet played by the appealing Lee Pace -- he will need to age 19 years, 34 weeks, one day and 59 minutes for that to happen -- brings his dead dog back to life with a touch. This ability, we are told, was “a gift given to him, but not by anyone in particular. There was no box, no instructions, no manufacturer’s warranty.”
In the course of time, Ned divines the rules: If he touches a formerly dead thing a second time, it will be dead beyond reviving, and unless he returns it to death within a minute, some other nearby creature will die in its place. He learns this only after accidentally rekilling his own rekindled mother and causing the death of the man next door, who is father to the little girl he loves and always will.
She is nicknamed Chuck and played by the exquisite Anna Friel, and Ned will meet her again when he’s grown into Pace -- a “Wonderfalls” star, not coincidentally. Adult Ned, when not making peerless pies at his pie-shaped pie shop, the Pie Hole, helps private investigator Emerson Cod (Chi McBride) collect rewards by asking briefly revived murder victims who killed them. This is how Ned and Chuck meet again, in fact, with the difference that he does not return her to the other side -- an evil funeral director goes in her stead.
And so begins a love story between two people who cannot touch one another. In a time when it is too easy to show too much, it is quite the most romantic thing on TV.
Chuck also has a pair of “Grey Gardens"-style recluse aunts (“a renowned synchronized swimming duo, they shared matching personality disorders and a love for fine cheese”), played by Tony winner Swoosie Kurtz -- her character lost an eye in a cat litter incident -- and Tony nominee Ellen Greene (“Little Shop of Horrors”).
Kristin Chenoweth, who plays Pie Hole waitress Olive Snook, is the comedy series’ third Tony winner.
Visually, the series cleaves to compositions and colors more often seen in Target commercials and “Teletubbies” episodes. It is luminous and numinous and ominous, to create a heightened sense of life, and of death. You may forgivably be reminded of Tim Burton, David Lynch and the Coen brothers -- for whom executive producer and pilot-director Barry Sonnenfeld worked as a cinematographer and with whom he shares a taste for altered reality. It is all very beautiful.
And then the review was finished, and I lived happily ever after, for now.
When: 8 to 9 tonight
Rating: TV-PG-LV (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for coarse language and violence)