Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Grave Importance of Pushing Daisies

It has come to my attention that, like a lot of things that came and went before I started blogging in earnest, Pushing Daisies, though one of my all-time favorite shows, has never really gotten covered on Kiss My Wonder Woman. It just hasn’t come up. I’ve mentioned that I like it a couple times, I think, but I’ve never told all of you why I love it, or even what makes it special.

Well. That changes now.

Pushing Daisies is another show from Bryan Fuller’s catalogue of meditations on death. I mean, his work includes this, Hannibal, and Dead Like Me. Just saying. Dude thinks death is fascinating and I can’t really blame him for that. Death is a really interesting subject, and he always does really neat things with it. In this case, the plot revolves around a friendly necromancer who uses his ability to raise the dead to solve murders and collect the reward. Also it’s pretty much the cutest story in the world, and those two facts do not contradict each other.

So the hero of our story is Ned the Piemaker (Lee Pace), a gentle soul who discovered as a child that he could bring people (and animals) back to life with a single touch. The catch is that if he ever touches them again they’ll be dead forever. Oh, and if he doesn’t touch them again within a minute of waking them then someone else nearby will die. It’s a random proximity thing.

Ned learned of his power in possibly the most traumatic way possible, first by rescuing his dog Digby, but second by accidentally raising his mother from the dead, leaving her alive too long, inadvertently causing the death of his next door neighbor, and then having his mother kiss him on the forehead later that night and die forever. Ned’s a super sweet guy, but for some strange reason he has a few issues.

At the start of the show the only person in the world who knows Ned’s secret is Emerson Cod (Chi McBride), a private investigator who stumbled upon Ned haplessly raising a man from the dead one day and decided that this would be useful as all get out. Emerson convinced Ned to use his powers “for the greater good”: by waking up murder victims and asking who killed them. 

It’s a system, and it works. But things get awfully complicated when Emerson brings Ned in to wake a new victim and he discovers it’s the love of his life, Charlotte Charles aka Chuck (Anna Friel). She was his next door neighbor growing up, at least until he accidentally killed her father, and he’s been in love with her his whole life. Now she’s dead.

He brings her back to life and then he kind of sort of let’s her stay there. Now he’s got two massive secrets to hide from the world: his powers and the dead girl living in his spare room. But together they solve crime! And fall in love! And make pies! But they can never ever touch or Chuck will die forever.

I also forgot to mention that most of the action in the show happens in and around Ned’s pie shop, which is called The Pie Hole and shaped like a pie. He lives upstairs above it, as does Chuck now, and his next door neighbor is also the lead waitress at the restaurant, Olive Snook (Kristen Chenoweth).

So that’s the basic setup of the show. But the actual reality of the show is all this and so much more. Ridiculously more. 

Like, for example, while Ned and Emerson are two of the most important characters and both men, all of the other major characters are female. You’ve got Chuck and Olive, who quickly get over their very mild (and entirely one-sided) rivalry for Ned’s affections to become great friends. But you’ve also got Chuck’s two aunts, Vivian (Ellen Greene) and Lily (Swoosie Kurtz), a pair of agoraphobic former professional synchronized swimmers. Oh, and Olive is a former professional jockey. So that’s awesome. 

The murders that the team solves throughout the show are somehow charming and bizarre and wonderful, and I know that shouldn’t be a thing one can say about murders, but it’s true. They’re kind of amazing. 

Most of all, though, I think I like this show because something about the premise speaks to me so much. Actually a lot of things about the premise speak to me. For starters, I love the idea that this whole show is centered around letting the victims of horrible crimes speak for themselves. The whole point of the show and of Ned’s powers is to give the powerless, the literally dead, a voice. 

It’s awesome. It’s not really ever shoved in your face, but there’s something so amazing about a show devoted to letting the dead, in their own words, tell their stories. Though it is slightly undercut by the fact that Emerson is standing behind them with a stopwatch to make sure they don’t go over sixty seconds.

But more than this, I love the premise that this show is primarily a love story between two people who can never ever touch. It’s not something that gets fixed or retconned out of the show at any point, and it’s also not something that causes Ned and Chuck to break up. Nope. Instead the show gives endless examples of the two of them coming up with creative solutions to their problem, but above all, choosing to love each other despite the complications.

I love that so much.

I love it because there’s a tendency in media to boil romantic relationships down to their basest aspects. This isn’t to say that sex isn’t important, but rather that there are other things that matter too. Unfortunately in television and movies, romantic relationships are often condensed down into a matter of sexual attraction or lack thereof. Why? Because sex is titillating and cinematic. It’s easy to express visually, and film is a visual medium.

But in the emphasis on physical attraction and sexual chemistry, movies and television tend to neglect all the other stuff that goes into a relationship. The dumb stuff. The part where you make each other laugh at stupid things. The inside jokes. Making each other breakfast. The quiet pleasure of having someone else in your space. Giving someone a ridiculous gift because it’ll make them happy.

And even more than this, because it puts such a huge obstacle in between its central lovers, Pushing Daisies is in a perfect position to comment on the importance of choosing love continually and the value of compromise.

For example, Ned and Chuck can absolutely never touch or else she will die forever. So how do they hold hands? How do they kiss? Do they kiss? How do they even exist in the same apartment without bumping into each other at some point?

I love the show because it addresses every single one of these issues. They hold hands using a massive rubber glove. They kiss through plastic wrap and only very rarely and carefully. They put bells on their slippers so that they always know where the other one is when they’re at home in the apartment. They have separate twin beds. They make it work.

But it doesn’t happen naturally. They have to make it work. Their relationship, like any relationship, requires sacrifice on both of their parts. It would arguably be a lot easier for both of them to just say screw it and go date someone else. But they don’t, and I think that’s the most powerful message the show could send. All of those frustrations are inconsequential when faced with the simple fact that they love each other and have the opportunity to share life with each other. It’s worth it.

For that matter, whether or not it's explicitly worth it or not is up to them. And even that is an issue addressed in the show. Olive, who's carried a torch for Ned for some time before the show starts, eventually comes to find out the nature of his relationship with Chuck, and is deeply confused. How could two people want to be together even when they can never really be together? What's the point?

The point is that Olive doesn't get to decide what's worth it and what isn't. Chuck and Ned both agree that their sacrifices are worth it, and that's really that. Why fix what isn't broken?

It's worth noting as well that this doesn't mean Ned and Chuck have a perfect relationship. They still argue and fight and lie to each other. But we get to see the resolution to that, and we get to see the honest truth that, in reality, stuff like that is rarely solved with sex. It's nice, but it doesn't solve all the problems. Instead, we see Ned and Chuck negotiating through their relationship and working their problems out in real time. 

Because the show eschews the physical side of their relationship, it pulls into focus all of these other issues that get glossed over in pretty much every other show. It's relatively rare to see a show or movie that openly addresses the everyday minutia of a relationship without making it out to be frustrating or meager or not enough. We rarely get to see the everyday negotiating that every somewhat functional couple I've ever met has to do. It's just as much a part of real life as sex is, and yet for some reason we almost never see it. And certainly not in a celebratory light.

Oh sure, there are a lot of other reasons why I love Pushing Daisies, but this is what immediately springs to mind. It's a shockingly wonderful show and at its heart is a very human connection between two broken people. And you know how much I love those.


  1. you have managed to hit upon one of my very very favorite things about this show! I love seeing how relationships play out on my screen, watching established relationships figure out how to just *be* is one of my favorite things. So rarely do we see it though, since TV loves using the will-they-won't-they (and audiences love it too of course) to create drama and interest in the relationship. I love how Ned and Charlie just love each other, and that relations are interesting because they are about people not just about whether they will do the deed or not.

    1. Totally agreed. There's a lot of breathing room in their relationship and in the show, and I think it's all the more powerful and engaging for it.

  2. My mom loved this show and tried to get me to watch the first season. After 3-4 episodes I had to quit. Too much eye candy. I felt like the one boy at an all girls school in a manga.

    1. There is no such thing as too much eye candy.