- Lee Pace ... Ned
- Anna Friel ... Charlotte 'Chuck' Charles
- Chi McBride ... Emerson Cod
- Kristin Chenoweth ... Olive Snook
- Jim Dale ... Narrator
- Ellen Greene ... Vivian
- Swoosie Kurtz ... Lily
- Field Cate ... Young Ned
The Pie-Maker and the Honey Girl
As a boy Ned, mourning his dog after it's struck by a car, discovers he can bring dead things back to life with a touch. Touching his mother after she drops dead of an aneurism while baking a pie, he learns that leaving someone alive that he's brought back for more than a minute causes someone else nearby to die instead -- in this case, the father of his next-door neighbor and puppy-love sweetheart, Charlotte (whom Ned calls "Chuck"). And that night as Mom tucks him in, he learns, to his dismay, that if he touches someone he's brought back a second time, they return to death forever.
Ned understandably becomes someone who shrinks from human contact. Instead he puts his life into pies, and eventually opens a shop called the Pie Hole. But there's only so much pie needed in this world, and Ned is struggling until a detective, Emerson, accidentally sees Ned practice his gift. He proposes a partnership in which Ned wakes up murder victims, asks them who killed them, and returns them to death, splitting the reward money with Emerson.
All this goes reasonably well until they hear that Chuck, whom Ned hasn't seen since he was a child, is murdered on a cruise. Ned wakes her (she was strangled from behind and doesn't know who killed her) but can't bring himself to return her to death, and so the craven funeral director dies instead.
Though she's supposed to be dead, Chuck helps Ned and Emerson solve her own murder, which involved monkeys her travel agent had asked her to smuggle which turned out to be gold. Meanwhile Chuck and Ned are together again -- but they can never touch.
Pushing Daisies had me at hello -- in this case, the opening words of narration spoken by Jim Dale (a West End star best known now as the performer of the Harry Potter audiobooks). The narration is charmingly written and expertly intoned, which is a good thing as the exposition furnished thereby is vitally important both to explaining clearly this somewhat complicated premise and to drawing the viewer into the candy-colored world in which the story takes place.
It's a Lemony Snicket, Steven Fry sort of world, full of dry, arch humor and unexpected twists; and at the same time entirely American, and proof that American humor does not have have to be broad and crass, but can be as tart and exquisite as the dryest and darkest comedy offerings of the BBC.
Much of the humor lies is providing normality with a surreal edge. Pushing Daisies does not immerse us in Monty Python bizarreness; instead, it starts with what's slightly strange about ordinary life and sharpens it. This can provide an unexpectedly keener focus than your average comedy. Many productions in which Kristin Chenoweth appears, for example, go to some lengths to minimize how short she is (it's hard to notice in Bewitched even when she's standing next to Nicole Kidman). But here, her character climbs up onto a coffee table to look Ned into the eye, a moment that's both very funny and more real than the normal, airbrushed Hollywood production. Another example has to do with the reason that Aunt Lily doesn't see Chuck even though she's standing right in front of her -- the reason, and how it's revealed. Brilliant.
Not So Silly
All of this could have spun wildly out of control had not a great deal of effort gone into anchoring the lead character. The brilliant writing (by creator Bryan Fuller, the man behind Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls) and direction (by Barry Sonnenfeld) combine with a solid, perfectly pitched performance by Lee Pace to make Ned more than just a comic figure.
A joke about Ned not even touching his dog, followed up later when we see him scratching the dog with a metal hand on a stick, is funny -- but it's also touching that Ned can't even reach out to his dog for comfort. The ending magnifies this: Ned and Chuck have absolutely amazing chemistry together, and yet, heartbreakingly, they can never even hold hands. Here's the Moonlighting rule -- never break the sexual tension by having your characters get together -- carried to the extreme: resolving the romantic suspense means that Chuck dies!
The lead is strong, but Daisies is carried by the ensemble. Anna Friel, as Chuck, is a revelation: immensely charming and instantly likable (and, shockingly for a female lead these days, not blonde). I have never liked Chi McBride in anything before now, but here he's got exactly the right tone. Even the guest stars were perfect.
Best of all, these characters use the opportunities that arise from Ned's gift to make things better. The dirty travel agent discovers the joys of honesty (in her one extra minute of life). Chuck's secluded aunts rediscover the world. And Chuck, told that she's pushing her luck in helping hunt down her killer, just says simply, "Yeah, well, my luck pushed first."