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Pushing Daisies - season one
cast: Lee Pace, Anna Friel, Chi McBride, Swoosie Kurtz, and Ellen Green

creator: Bryan Fuller

360 minutes (12) 2007
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Warner DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 3/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Before I start my assessment of Bryan Fuller's latest series, I want to stress how much I enjoyed Dead Like Me (2003-4). That particular series started incredibly strongly and only went off the boil when the network executives decided that they didn't want a series with 'fag stuff' in it and fired him (also citing the fact that, as a gay man, Fuller does not know what a beautiful woman looks like). If you want proof of the utterly craven and reactionary attitudes embedded in American network television then look no further than the treatment received by Bryan Fuller. However, Pushing Daisies is no Dead Like Me. It is the type of palliative bilge which, along with High School Musical, Britain's Got Talent and The X-Factor would clog the schedules every night had the Nazis won the Second World War.

Pushing Daisies is about Ned (Lee Pace), a pie-maker who has the power to bring people back to life for a limited amount of time. If the resurrected person is allowed to live on longer than a minute then they survive, but someone else is killed off at random and because of this, Ned has become an introverted and greasy fellow who is terrified of touching anyone. Despite this fact, he is lusted after by two women; his diminutive waitress and former jockey Olive (Kristin Chenoweth) and the smiley brunette Chuck (Anna Friel) who was his childhood sweetheart and who he resurrected permanently, and now is in love with but cannot touch for fear of killing her permanently. This sets up a love triangle and the three join up with a private investigator to solve crimes by asking people who killed them and then catching the person responsible.

The series is visually arresting in that it looks and sounds exactly like Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie (2001). Pushing Daisies' world is full of vivid greens and deep reds, its characters are whimsical in speech, mannerism and dress, and every action in the series is accompanied by an earnest-sounding narrator who spells everything out for us and refers to characters by their full names and informs us how long they have been alive down to the second. Lazy and derivative art direction does not even begin to cover it.

In the context of a film, whimsy can pass for characterisation. Films have less time to lavish on characters and as long as you flesh out the character traits that are relevant to the story, you can sneak your cardboard cutouts by without anyone noticing. In a television series where the characters are on-screen most of the time, this does not work. At all... For example, Emerson Cod (Chi McBride) is a surly black private detective and - he's a knitter! That's right! A black person who knits! How wonderfully offbeat and transgressive! And here was I thinking that black people spent all of their time killing each other in loose-fitting trousers. That's shown me, and no mistake! The same goes for pie-maker Ned, who is a bit neurotic, makes pies and that's pretty much it. But both of these are fully rounded and well-drawn creations when compared to Chuck whose sole characteristic is that she grins. All the time... Oh sure, sometimes she's a bit sad and she has some kooky aunts, but Friel clearly got the gig for her smile and that's pretty much all that she ever does.

Having said that, Friel is very pretty when compared to Chenoweth (who clearly got the job based upon her great performance as a diminutive pink PR person in The West Wing). Three or four years ago, Chenoweth was small and cute but in the mean time she has exited her mid-thirties and drawn closer to the big four-oh. Faced with not being able to play someone 'young' anymore, Chenoweth has clearly followed in the tracks of the cast of Friends by thinking that if you lose a lot of weight and lie on a sunbed all day then you can convince people that you're not middle-aged. The result is an actress who looks like the kind of hideously grinning and leathery corpse that you might well have found out in the Arizona desert back when the mob still ran Las Vegas. No wonder Ned is not attracted to her character, he's clearly terrified of what appear to be the shrieking mummified remains of his waitress!

Visual issues aside Pushing Daisies is a desperately dull series. Though nominally a mystery, the series' mystery element tends to be downplayed because by and large the characters can just ask the victims who killed them. So most of the plot tends to be split between unconvincing aimless sleuthing and the series' longer-term plot arcs. These are also desperately anaemic, uninteresting, repetitive and depressing, as effectively the series never moves on from any of the plots that are introduced in the pilot. This means that for nine episodes we're reminded again and again that Ned and Chuck are in love but cannot touch, that the Screaming Skull loves greasy-fringed Ned, that Ned involuntarily caused the death of Chuck's father, and that Chuck misses her aunts. This is the dramatic equivalent of listening to tube announcements; mind the gap! Do not touch Chuck! Please stand clear of the closing doors! Beware the Screaming Skull's angry corpse-lust!

However, all of these criticisms of the series, though more than sufficient for rejecting it as the tommyrot it undeniably is, do not really matter because the series does not want to be visually original or even particularly well written. Its aims are, instead, far more disturbing. Like many mysteries, Pushing Daisies is ultimately palliative. The mystery genre operates on the assumption that death is never random and that it is always the product of a series of comprehensible decisions and events. The world of the mystery makes sense and it is a world in which justice can be had. Pushing Daisies accepts this assumption and adds to it the idea that even after death you can be involved in the apprehension of your own murderer. This is not a senseless, indifferent and random world; it is a world where people care and people do things for good reasons. Add this heart-warming thought to the series' ill-written but astonishingly cutesy romantic plotlines and what you have is a series that appears to be designed to make you feel good as long as you do not ask too many questions.

It is tempting to slate Pushing Daisies as empty-headed chewing gum for the eyes, the kind of cognitive heat sink that television networks have been pumping out for 50 years. However, Pushing Daisies is not just dull and stupid, it is also cloying and that makes me think that it is more useful to look upon this series not as chewing-gum for the eyes but rather as a kind of televisual candy-coated chewable anti-depressant. It has been a while since I have come across a better reason for not watching television. It saddens me to say this about the man who wrote Dead Like Me but, clearly, after overseeing Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me, Fuller has decided that he cannot beat them; he has decided to join them by producing a series that will last more than a series and a half simply by virtue of its complete lack of ambition. Still, after a few years pumping pabulum into the skulls of middle America, he might decide to write something decent again. So, hooray for that...
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