Death needn’t be the end of it all

Times Staff Writer

In 17 days, 20 hours and zero minutes, the television series that painstakingly marks time to show us that it never stands still will finally premiere. ¶ And on that third day of October, ABC will introduce the story of Ned the Pie Maker. ¶ Played by the Lee Pace, Ned is the likable protagonist of “Pushing Daisies,” a sentimental, romantic, modern fairy tale that has accomplished what few shows in the medium can: pure distinction. Because Ned is not just a gifted pie maker. With a single touch, Ned can bring all dead things back to life: people, animals, plants, even fruit. ¶ But as creator Bryan Fuller (“Dead Like Me” and “Wonderfalls”) writes in the pilot, “It was a gift that not only gave -- it took.” That is, the dead can live again only for one minute without consequence. Any longer, someone else dies in his or her place. ¶ If this seems sad or a tad morose, be assured that you will have a big fat smile on your face throughout the course of the episode. Director Barry Sonnenfeld’s (“Men in Black”) vibrant color palette and penchant for wide-angle lenses effectively turn the show into a storybook and leave viewers almost tasting Ned’s pies, feeling the grass under Boy Ned’s feet and hearing Ned’s heart beating when he is reunited with the love of his life.

And this is where the rub of this series lies -- the impossible love between Ned and Chuck (Anna Friel), childhood sweethearts who are brought back together when Chuck is murdered and Ned is supposed to bring her to life for one minute to find out who killed her. But Ned can’t bring himself to let her die, so he vows to never touch her again.

“The goal with the show was to do something that I wanted to watch -- something that was fun and sweet and romantic,” Fuller said. “And also a little ghoulish. We just wanted to do a grounded fairy tale that’s fun and romantic that people can watch and forget about terrorism.”

What other shows on television have towns named Coeur d’ Coeurs (Heart of Hearts), a diner called the Pie Hole (Ned’s establishment), a travel agency named Boutique Travel Travel Boutique and character names like Charlotte Charles and the Darling Mermaid Darlings? The former is Chuck’s real name; the latter refers to her synchronized-swimming-personality-disordered-spinster-aunts, played by Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene.


Even when Fuller gives us the ages of his characters, it’s both refreshing and telling. When viewers first meet Ned, he is “9 years, 27 weeks, 6 days and 3 minutes old.” But then flash-forward “19 years, 34 weeks, 1 day and 59 minutes” and Ned is an adult baking pies who moonlights as a private detective partnered with Emerson Cod (Chi McBride).


“I just thought that every minute was precious,” said Fuller, who spent last year on the writing staff of “Heroes.” “So when the narrative talks about how old somebody is, the motivation is that at the end of your life, down to the minute, you look at every minute as precious.”

“Pushing Daisies” occurred to Fuller as a spinoff of his cult favorite “Dead Like Me,” a Showtime series about a teenage girl who was killed by a flying toilet seat and stays in the undead realm, collecting souls. Ned was supposed to bring back some of the souls that she was assigned to collect. But Fuller left “Dead Like Me” in its first season, frustrated by, he said, MGM’s unwillingness to invest in the show and kept his idea in his pocket. He tried pitching it to 20th Century Fox Television under a deal he had there and later sold it to Warner Bros. Then ABC and NBC got into a bidding war that ABC won because Warner Bros. convinced Fuller that ABC, with its slate of colorful, notable characters, was the best home for his offbeat show.

Part of the show’s charm is in the casting of what Fuller calls his “mod squad”: Pace, who is not that well known in TV circles; the British Friel, who is not known at all by American audiences; and veteran actor McBride, who gets to return to his comedic roots with his sardonic turn as the opportunistic but simple Emerson Cod. Emerson is a private detective who knows Ned’s secret and capitalizes on it by convincing him to work with him on solving murders and collecting the reward money.

“What I loved about the story is that because it was so whimsical in nature, I felt that Emerson was the only sane guy in the group,” McBride said. “The guy is pretty nonplused about all these crazy goings-on. That’s where the humor comes from.”

If the critics have lodged any criticism of Fuller’s third series, it has been in wondering whether he can possibly outdo himself in the series and keep the story going. Pace and McBride said they were thrilled when they received their scripts for the second episode because, as Pace put it, “I think it’s better than the pilot because it makes the world of the show seem really big, so it’s not like we’re going to be kicking around the Pie Hole the whole time.”

Fuller offers a few clues to comfort the worried: The mod squad investigates the death of someone killed by a crash-test dummy in a car called Dandy Lion, which runs on dandelions. The shut-in aunts will have some misadventures in the real world, forcing Chuck to bake antidepressants into their pies. Kristin Chenoweth, who plays a Pie Hole waitress, will be revealed as a former horse jockey. Ned will revive Chuck’s father so that she can say goodbye to him, but he tells her a few secrets. And the stress of having a third wheel -- Chuck -- will force Emerson to take up knitting. If any of this sounds preposterous, heed McBride’s words:

“It’s a fairy tale, man. If you want reality, you have your own life.”