New network shows these days seem to get cancelled practically before the first commercial break. Before you know it, the pilot you were watching is gone, and some So You Think You Can Spelunk mid-season replacement stands vacuously in its place. Which is why I’m rooting for Pushing Daisies, which premiered last night on ABC. It’s too cute, almost sickeningly quirky, but its heart is so pure, and its fanciful world so fully realized that I can’t help wishing it a fighting chance. (Watch for an official review in a forthcoming issue of EW.)
The easiest references tend towards the big screen — think Tim Burton’s 2003 fantasia Big Fish or 2004′s Lemony Snicket — both in the super-saturated colors and deliberate magical realism of the characters and storylines. In the first episode (called "Pielette," a double entendre that actually makes sense in context; wait for it), we are introduced to the town of Coeur de Coeur (yes, that’s French for Heart of Hearts), as a boy named Ned bounds across a spectacular CGI-flowered hillside with his beloved dog, who runs into the road and is promptly smooshed by an oncoming truck, leading to a spectacular revelation. Cue the plummy narrator — whom books-on-tape fans may recognize as Jim Dale, the voice of the Harry Potter tomes — telling us, "Young Ned could touch dead things and bring them back to life." And indeed, the pooch bounds back up like a whack-a-mole, alive and well. But, as the narrator also tells us, this particular gift came with "no box, no instructions, and no manufacturers’ warranty."
Accordingly, when Ned’s mother drops dead of a blood clot whilebaking pies in the family’s Norman Rockwell kitchen, Ned brings herback, only to discover that while his first touch brings life, thesecond touch brings death; a goodnight kiss sends Mom promptly back tothe netherworld. Also, as we are told, the dead can be be brought backfor only one minute without consequence; beyond that, someone else inclose proximity has to die. So it is that Ned accidentally kills thefather of his beloved next door neighbor, a freckled pixie of a girlnamed Chuck. Her dad’s death means poor Chuck is sent to live with twowacky maiden aunts, thus signalling the end of Ned’s first — and mostimpactful — love affair.
Cut now to grown-up Ned (Lee Pace, a Thomas Cavanagh doppelgangerwith wounded eyes and very expressive brows), now an emotionallycrippled piemaker — Mom’s pastry-related moment of departure made him alittle bit obsessed. His best friend remains, actually, Man’s BestFriend: the same dog he saved so many years before (which, of course,he can’t pet without killing, calling for the use of surrogate "hand"made of wood). His circle of friends seems to consist of DetectiveEmerson Cod (Chi McBride), the only soul who knows his secret, andwaitress Olive Snook (the bodaciously curvy Kristin Chenoweth), whopines secretly for Ned, and lives next door to him in an apartment thatcan only be described as a floral nursery vomiting all over ten tons ofchintz.
Ned and Emerson are a team of sorts, having discovered that "murdersare much easier to solve when you can ask the person who killed them."Thus, the pair awaken deceased victims for less than a minute, get thegoods, and collect the rewards. Enter the case of the Lonely Traveler:a young woman fished out of cruise-ship waters, strangled mysteriously.It doesn’t take a Mensa member to suspect that once Ned opens thecoffin, he comes face to face with childhood sweetheart Chuck (Britishactress Anna Friel, being resolutely American here). A minute, ofcourse, turns out to be far too brief for smitten Ned, and he lets theshady funeral-home director take the fall. Honestly, so would we;"luminous" is a word way overused, but Friel (pictured) is absolutely charming, akewpie-faced Zooey Deschanel type with cupid’s bow lips and a twinkletoo alive to be, well, dead. Also, she uses expressions like "hoistedby my own petard" and calls hugs "emotional Heimlichs." Sold!
Watching the two embark on a mission to solve her murder — it involvesa shady travel agency, her two housebound aunts (nice to see SwoozieKurtz again, and in a jeweled eye patch, no less), and twoceramic monkeys — isn’t so much about the destination but the journey.All we know is that as much as they may wish to, Chuck and Ned cannever share another kiss… leading them to touch the two monkeystogether in a smashing makeout session, which in turn leads to thediscovery that said monkeys are not so much ceramic as solid gold.Wherever this leads — and whether I can involve myself in theVictorian idea of a love affair without physical contact — I am,frankly, a little smitten. Still, I can see the kind of diabetic comasuch kooky cuteness could induce.
Readers, what do you think — is thisone of the most original shows of the season, or merely a networkexec’s bad acid trip? Can Ned and Chuck sustain a life without regularwhoopie, let alone hand-holding? Do monkeys not make everything alittle bit more awesome?