Pushing Daisies, “Pie-lette”
Written by Bryan Fuller
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
Aired October 2nd, 2007
The facts are these: a series about death, loneliness, romance, PIs, and pie shouldn’t work. Especially on network television. And yet for two seasons, it did. Bryan Fuller’s Pushing Daisies premiered in the fall of 2007 as the highest rated new series, with 13 million viewers tuning in for the pilot, “Pie-lette”. It would eventually drop in the ratings, squeaking out a renewal due to uncertainty over the writers strike before being cancelled the next season, but those who tuned in for that first episode were treated to a delightful, whimsical flight of fancy the likes of which are rarely seen on American television.
Bryan Fuller has a history with darkly comedic, metaphysically tricky shows. His previous series, Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls, both feature their female protagonists dying (or nearly doing so) in the pilot. In Dead Like Me, George (née Georgia) stays dead throughout the series, becoming a Grim Reaper. On Wonderfalls, Jaye’s brush with death is short-lived, as she coughs up the sandwich she nearly choked on only to discover that she now hears voices imploring her to help people. The premise for Pushing Daisies, that a young man has the miraculous and unexplained ability to touch dead things and bring them back to life, feels like a natural fit for Fuller. Throw in a dead heroine and comedic hijinks, and we have a series.
What sets this show, and more specifically this pilot, apart from Fuller’s other work is its heightened tone and style. From the very first moments of the pilot, Fuller adopts a fairy-tale aesthetic, with a narrator telling the tale of our protagonist, Ned, and his childhood friend, Chuck (née Charlotte). Practically, there is a tremendous amount of setup needed for a premise like this. The voice-over smooths out the edges of the plot, urging viewers to suspend their disbelief. Creatively, it fills in the audience without forcing exposition onto the rather detached and taciturn Ned, who prefers not to discuss himself. Pilots are always tricky- every detail must be considered and any one choice has the potential to derail a production. For Pushing Daisies, perhaps the single best decision Fuller and Sonnenfeld made was casting Jim Dale as the narrator. Not only does he do a fantastic job, but to a generation of American children, he’s the voice of Harry Potter, having narrated the American audio books, and his voice instantly conveys trust, storytelling, and magic.
That choice meshes wonderfully with the design of the show. Usually in television, the director of the pilot sets the visual tone for rest of the series and Sonnenfeld’s colorful, bold approach instantly sets Pushing Daisies apart. As with so many auteuristic films, a viewer could see a screencap from any scene in this episode, or those that would follow, and instantly identify it. Pushing Daisies looks like nothing else on television, both before or since, and in a network landscape where sameness is encouraged (particularly in procedurals), these bold visuals are a welcome treat.
The actors at the center of “Pie-lette” have their work cut out for them, given Fuller’s heightened dialogue and the core absurdity of the plot. Ned (Lee Pace) is a pie-maker who runs a diner, the Pie Hole, and who can touch dead things and bring them back to life, until he touches them again, killing them permanently. After one minute of life-after-death, though, someone/thing of similar evolutionary complexity nearby will die in their place. Chuck (Anna Friel) is the murdered childhood sweetheart Ned brings back to life (to stay), Emerson (Chi McBride) is his PI business partner (Ned interrogates murder victims to help find their killers), and Olive (Kristin Chenoweth) is the waitress at the Pie Hole.
Lesser actors would let you see the strings or keep you from being swept into this stylized world, but this cast commits fully and doesn’t look back. Pace is particularly strong as the withdrawn Ned, always a difficult emotion to convey, and McBride wrings every laugh he can out of his scenes, providing a much-needed antidote to the saccharine Ned and Chuck. Emerson’s introduction on the roof of the Pie Hole is great, as is Chuck’s, attacking Ned (still in defense mode after her murder), and though Olive could be used better, her blatant amorous overtures to Ned tell us a lot about him while still feeling within the bounds of this larger than life setting. Ellen Green and Swoozie Kurtz are also fantastic additions as Chuck’s shut-in aunts, Vivian and Lily- just odd enough to mesh with the world without pushing it into ridiculousness, and Field Cate does great, understated work as Young Ned.
This is certainly not a series for everyone. It’s bold in its story, aesthetic, and tone. Some will find the central romance treacly and overly sweet. Some will be put off by the gruesome and creative deaths. Others will find the blend of introspection, whimsy, detective noir, and epic romance too fractured for them to enjoy. Fuller and Sonnenfeld don’t care. This is their story and their world; viewers can take it or leave it. “Pie-lette” is a charming breath of fresh air in the often stale world of network drama, a true indicator of the series to come, and one of the most unabashedly unique, creative pilots ever made.