Welcome to our newest column, Prime Time, where different writers pick some of their favorite past shows and talk about what made them standout from the crowd.
Before showrunner Bryan Fuller cast his eye towards the majestically macabre in NBC’s Hannibal, he dabbled in somewhat lighter fare. Clearly holding intrigue for death and the stories surrounding it as demonstrated with his first series Dead Like Me, its follow up Pushing Daisies follows a similar trend but situates itself squarely in the middle of a Brothers Grimm fairytale. As is the case with many of Fuller’s televised outings the series was very short lived, ending after two seasons with little closure and a lot of unanswered questions. However, the journey to that haphazard ending point was poignant, beautifully rendered and yes, a little obsessed with death.
As it should be, considering the show’s official synopsis:
“A pie-maker (Lee Pace), with the power to bring dead people back to life, solves murder mysteries with his alive-again childhood sweetheart (Anna Friel), a cynical private investigator (Chi McBride) and a lovesick waitress (Kristin Chenoweth).”
That is only the start, because there’s a catch to Ned the pie-maker’s abilities. He can’t bring a life back without stealing one from something else, and once he’s brought them back to life he can never touch them again without permanently killing them. Despite the cheery colors and luminescent atmosphere, at its heart Pushing Daisies began as a series deeply rooted in melancholy, a wistful tune that ponders life’s losses and grievances that absurdly happen with little to no reason as people go about their day to day lives.
Of course there is nothing normal about these characters lives, as Ned is forced to bring back to life murder victims in order to help the private investigator with his cases. After being brought back to life, Chuck joins the two on these excursions and her first order of business is to ask those victims if they had anything they’d like to be passed on to loved ones, or any old matters they’d like resolved. It brings a means of peace to these characters who in any other series would be merely bodies for the characters to build their week to week storylines on.
Chuck is the character who plays her hand closest to death’s door, having been saved from it by childhood sweetheart Ned. While she doesn’t hold it in her grasp as often as Ned might, she is the one most intricately moved by the experience and who (for the most part) won’t allow her brush with it to cause her any longstanding grief. Instead, despite new limitations and restrictions on life (as she has been publicly pronounced dead,) she begins to embrace the fresh start she has been given, savoring the smaller moments as much as she can whether it comes in the form of an almost hug or a bite of pie.
In one of the series highlights “Girth” the themes of missing loved ones is brought to a focus, with Ned and Chuck being our gateways to how we process death and loss. Ned’s is less literal as he mourns more the lack of his father’s presence in his life than the man himself and the opportunities having a doting father would have given him as he grew up lonely and detached. Chuck meanwhile becomes a literal and figurative ghost for a while as she shows up on her Aunts doorstep dressed up as someone out on Halloween all in order to catch a glimpse of those she loves who are still present in her life, even if she can’t be in theirs.
“At that moment, in the town of Coeur d’Coeurs, events occurred that are not, were not, and should never be considered an ending. For endings, as it is known, are where we begin.” — Narrator
Even death itself and the gruesome way in which many of the series’ victims die is played to heightened effect. Themes of death and decay were highlighted in Fuller’s Hannibal by way of raising and respecting the grotesque to an art and shining a decorative, superbly shot light on it; the show engulfed us in the this horror story of devils incarnate and men who became lambs in the plight of discovering the meaning in true evil. It was impossible to turn away.
Pushing Daisies meanwhile took a similar approach, but instead of shooting it in muted tones with steel blue and flashes of red being the most vibrant, they instead bleached the entire world of the series with pastel sunshine that made it feel both timeless and singular. While it borrowed some influences the show was very much so it’s own entity, especially compared to Fuller’s other works. Here, death is treated as just another aspect of life where, it just so happens one, a particularly ordinary man has power over it. Rather than be deterred by the bleakness of all of the death Ned and co. encounter on a day to day basis, the color, the costuming, the melodic score, the sweetly played performances and even the opening, storybook narration all hint towards something greater. This is a show that despite being knee deep in the dead is celebratory of life, showing the characters enjoying every moment while being a caustic reminder of how beautiful life is. Ned and Chuck might miss those who have passed before them, but then they look at their friends who are still in their life and feel comforted. Ned’s “gift” may come with a rather large caveat, but look at how he’s able to use that it for good, and learned along the way how to use its perks as a way to maintain his livelihood making pies.
It’s the genuine, simple pleasures of life that are brought into focus in Pushing Daisies, a show that immerses itself in death but never dwells on loss. There is grief to be shared, yes, and even a bout of longing when it comes to the star crossed, meant to be lovers Ned and Chuck, but rather than stewing in the pain of it, the show touches on an air of melancholy instead. They have an innate understanding of just how difficult death is in terms of sheer comprehension and the fallout that comes after to those still living to pick up the pieces but instead of seeing it as a reason to drag the lives of the living down, they are instead used as a springboard. These characters live around death everyday, so there’s a chill that overcasts the series-no matter the character’s cheery dispositions, the sadness is present-it’s just that the big takeaway is how beautiful life can be if you cherish the small, in between moments. The moments that just barely slip through the cracks and plug up the light, trying to shine in as the stressful times and rage-inducing ones threaten to overwhelm them. Pushing Daisies finds that even in loss there can be hope, that even in tragedy there can be humor and that even in death, beauty can be found around the corner, be it in the shape of a golden retriever, a smiling woman, a slice of pie or a pop-up book.