Note: This is my contribution to Maddy’s “Small Screen Blogathon”, wherein the participants pontificate about a TV show that they remember fondly…
Once upon a time, back when there were only three “major” TV networks in America and half the country was not on anxiety medication, things moved at a slower pace in the world of broadcast entertainment. Once a TV series was approved, it was generally given a generous incubation period in which to prove itself before anyone dared bring up the prospect of cancellation. In fact, many of the shows which are now considered “classics” of the American airwaves actually had abysmal ratings during their initial seasons. But since the networks stuck with their choices instead of cutting and running at the first sign of trouble, the ratings slowly accelerated since viewers had the time to find the shows and appreciate their merits.)
That is no longer the case. These days, if a new TV show is not an instant hit, it can be off the schedule within a few episodes. (This quick-kill situation is exacerbated by the fact that so many of the people currently involved in network planning don’t have the first clue about quality programming. They have financial backgrounds, not artistic, and the only thing they understand is quick return on investment and how to manage a 401k.) The sad thread through all of this is that innovative, high-quality TV shows have very little chance of survival.
Case in point: “Pushing Daisies”.
To be fair, this gem of imagination was not immediately sent out to pasture, managing to last, although in fits and starts, from 2007-2009. It debuted to great critical acclaim and decent-enough ratings, garnering a sizable, devoted fan base. Sadly, the first season coincided with the infamous writers’ strike of that time, and the number of episodes was severely truncated. During the second and final season, ABC executives, who never really knew what to do with this unique show, shoved it around on their schedule and barely ran any promotions. Viewers grew frustrated with not being able to find the show, the ratings dropped, and the show was cancelled mid-season.
All said, only 22 episodes were produced over two years, and the last three episodes were not even aired during the original run. (When ABC is done with a show, they are done.) But despite this relatively low output, the series was nominated for 17 Primetime Emmy Awards and won 7. (Yet we have so many mundane, worthless series that have managed to stay on the air for years without being nominated for or winning squat. This is yet another example of the cultural divide in America. No wonder the British are annoyed when we take one of their beloved shows and desecrate the hell out of it for American audiences.)
So, exactly what was it about “Pushing Daisies” that won my heart and then left me devastated when said lover was torn from my arms?
Thank you for asking, even if you didn’t.
The basic plot: One of the lead characters, Ned (Lee Pace) has the ability to bring people and animals back from the dead just by touching them. If he touches them again, they go back to wherever they were, permanently. (Complication: If he lets them live longer than a minute, then someone nearby dies to balance things out.) Ned owns a restaurant (“The Pie Hole”) which is struggling financially and, long story short, he teams up with a private investigator (Chi McBride) who is happy to pay Ned if he will briefly resurrect crime victims to find out “who done it” and catch the perp.
In the midst of all this, Ned’s estranged childhood sweetheart Charlotte (Anna Friel) dies a mysterious death. When Ned reanimates her to find out the deets, he is unable to let her go with the second touch. They fall in love again (well, they never fell out), but now they can never physically touch one another or Charlotte bites it. And that’s the very basic gist: Each episode involves a murder that needs solving and lovers who can only kiss through a sheet of plastic.
But there’s so much more to this.
The set design is incredible. It’s obvious that every tech person involved on this project was fully invested in creating a unique world. It’s a gorgeous, colorful, time-slip mashup of the best things from different eras, perfectly blended and served up in a such a lush manner that you even want to eat the plate. You can pause an episode at almost any point and the resulting still is a marvel of craft and creativity.
The supporting cast is phenomenal. Everyone shines, with three of the brightest stars being Kristin Chenoweth as Olive (who pines for Ned, doing so in that humbly glamorous way she has) and Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene as Charlotte’s aunts, Lily and Vivian. (Let’s face it, folks. If you want a sparkling sensation in your TV show, bring in The Theater People. They understand charisma and presence, and these three have it in buckets.) There were over 40 guest stars during the brief run, and it’s abundantly clear that those guests relished the opportunity to create some magic instead of just cash a paycheck. They have no limits, and that’s part of the delight.
The individual plot episodes are, at the very least, surreal. Whimsical would be one word; twisted would be another, but in a very satisfying way. None of this is meant to be real. After all, in one of the few times when the ABC marketing department actually tried to do their job with the show, it was promoted as a “forensic fairy tale”. That’s not quite right, but it’s close. This fairy tale is actually one that you hope is happening, somewhere, somehow, and it would be really swell if you could drop by for a visit and maybe never leave.
All of which leads to the real star of the show: The Writing. The dialogue is stellar, from the blink-or-you’ll-miss-it throw-away lines to the witty wordplay of the plot, capped off by the no-place-like-home folksy narration of Jim Dale. This is a smart show written for smart people, which is probably another reason that ABC dropped the ball with this one, aiming as they often do for the lowest common-denominator. As a writer, listening to the words, there were so many times when I wished I had penned an envious bit of dialogue, but at least someone was able to do so, during the short time when “Pushing Daisies” was allowed to thrive in a wasteland of scripted reality shows, formulaic comedies with laugh tracks, and the endless stream of hospital-based dramas where nobody knows your name.
If you appreciate creativity and you haven’t seen the show, seek this one out. Trust me.
Note, Part 2: In case you missed the first link to Maddy’s site, here it is again. She mostly dishes on movies, especially the classics, although she does venture into TV from time to time, as she did with this blogathon. In any case, if you love movies, please give her a visit. I’m sure she’ll appreciate the effort and welcome you with open arms…