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Intimacy issues

Pushing Daisies  hides its feelings; HBO can’t get it up
By JOYCE MILLMAN  |  October 30, 2007

VIDEO: A preview of Pushing Daisies

There’s a fine line between “whimsically surreal” and “Oh God please make it stop.” ABC’s PUSHING DAISIES (Wednesdays at 8 pm) walks both sides at once. I can’t remember another series that was so enjoyable one minute and made me want to tear my own head off the next.

Pushing Daisies had one of the best pilot episodes, ever. Part fairy tale, part detective noir, it created an eccentric candy-colored universe that sucked you in by the hypnotic force of its ingenuity. Produced and written by Bryan Fuller (in Wonderfalls mode rather than Heroes) and directed by quirkmeister Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family movies), the Pushing Daisies pilot introduced the fantastic tale of a young piemaker who can bring the dead back to life with one touch — and will kill them for good if he touches them a second time. Ned (Lee Pace), the piemaker, is a laconic loner who shrinks from intimacy. He reluctantly helps curmudgeonly private eye Emerson Cod (Chi McBride) collect rewards for solving murder cases — he wakes the dead, asks them to name their killers, and puts them back to eternal sleep. One of these victims, a young woman who was murdered while on a holiday cruise, turns out to be his long-lost childhood sweetheart, Charlotte “Chuck” Charles (Anna Friel). Once Ned has awakened her, he can’t let her go, and so his sleeping beauty gains a second chance at life. But Ned’s gift comes with a price; for everyone he revives past 60 seconds, someone else has to die. Details, shmetails.

Anyway, Ned and Chuck pick up where they left off — they are, by necessity, as chaste as nine-year-olds. They can’t touch, of course, but they find other ways to connect while not connecting (kissing through Saran Wrap, holding their own hands and pretending they’re holding each other’s). Meanwhile, back at Ned’s diner, the Pie Hole, lovelorn waitress Olive Snook (Kristin Chenoweth) pines for Ned and resents the intrusion of the mysterious Chuck. Every fairy tale needs a narrator, and this one has the king of narrators, British actor Jim Dale, the voice of the Harry Potter audiobooks in the US.

The pilot was dazzlingly weird and shamelessly romantic. Friel’s effervescent Chuck was instantly lovable, and Pace’s Ned was sweet yet wry. Everybody talked fast and quippy, as if this were an old-fashioned screwball comedy, the zonky color palette was eye-popping, the retro fashions on the women were fun and . . . well, it all seemed special, in a good way. But a handful of episodes into the season, Pushing Daisies often strikes me as special in that not-so-good way — you know, as in “precious” and “pukingly coy.” Take the narration. Each time Dale introduces a character, he tells us the person’s exact age (like, “40 years, nine months, 16 days, five hours, and 43 minutes”). The first million times, it was mildly amusing. Now, not so much. The flashbacks to blank-faced little Ned’s lonely childhood at boarding school, where he kills things and reanimates them, are similarly repetitive. And I have come to dread Chenoweth, who bustles into scenes, elbows jutting, Charlie Brown head bobbling on her tiny stick-girl body, and turns on the Big Acting as if she were projecting to the last row of a Broadway balcony. When she burst into a musical number in the second episode, the anti-Daisies devil inside me nearly pitchforked my inner pro-Daisies angel into Swiss cheese.

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