Thursday, October 18, 2007

Pushing Daisies

There has been some excitement about Pushing Daises from folks who like smart weird TV. For those that are watching it the attitude has been the sadly appropriate "this is great: this will be cancelled any second now." It was created by Bryan Fuller who also brought us Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls -- similarly quirky shows that deal with death and spirituality in a very pop-silly way.

Pushing Daisies has an exhausting premise. For no reason a guy has the ability to touch things and bring them back to life. If he touches them again, even accidentally, they go back to being dead, this time forever. If he brings something back to life for more than a minute the universe "course corrects" (as Desmond on Lost would put it) and takes the life of a random person in proximity. I got tired just writing that, but nowhere near as tired as I get hearing it reiterated at the beginning of every episode by a condescending, if endearingly sweet, narrator. Joss Whedon has said that the first six episodes of any show are the pilot -- you have to keep reintroducing your concept in your first six episodes because anyone of these might be a viewer's first one. Firely does this deftly. Pushing Daisies tries to use variations on the lesson to keep us from getting bored -- at least they do not repeat the rules the same way again and again over the opening credits for example -- but there is so much that needs explaining, I cannot imagine there is any way to do it where you do not feel like you are getting punched with the exposition fist. At least one reviewer said the narrator makes it work because he is so perfect; the narrator does a yeoman's job, I agree, but in my opinion there is no way to pull it off gracefully. Explaining the premise is like one guy lugging a sofa into the room every week. (To make matter's worse this is not the only place the narrator intrudes -- constantly the show is telling when it should be showing). And the arbitrary rules do not grow from the story -- they feel imposed by the screenwriters to gives their characters good conflicts: Ned brings his childhood sweetheart back to life, but they can never touch now (ten bucks says the creator's favorite star crossed lovers were Rogue and Gambit); Ned went over the one minute mark when he was a child and accidentally killed his sweetheart's dad; keeping his sweetheart alive killed someone else. And so on. Good conflicts all, but not natural ones.

The show feels like nothing else on television, but it feels a lot like early-1990s Tim Burton, especially the colors, and whimsical stock characters. Since even Tim Burton is no longer Tim Burton, I suppose this is necessary, I still feel like I am watching re-runs.

On the other side of these problems, however, is a charming cast, possibly the most charming I have ever seen -- in part because none of the actors is overexposed, none of them are standard issue. Lee Pace, who plays Ned, is a relatively new actor but I already love him. He has the weirdest part to play, the strangest mix of emotions about his powers, and he carries it off brilliantly. Suppressed friendliness, love forever chained to fear.

I fell head over heals in love with Anna Friel years ago when she did Pantene Commercials in the UK (and this new wonderful Virgin Atlantic commercial there as well). Pantene is pronounced Pan-TEN in the UK by the way. (and Adidas in the UK is prounced AHD-ee-das not Ad-EE-dis).

She is elfin, but completely approachable, beautiful in a unique and specific way. I would describe her as quirky-beautiful -- exactly the mode the show is going for. Plus her name is "Chuck." My heart absolutely melts.

And Chi McBride, whose best role was the principle on Boston Public (a show I loved) -- has tremendous presence, and does weird better than I would have expected. Swoosie Kurtz is great to see again, and even Kristin Chenoweth, who I kinda hate, really gets the part she is supposed to play.

The show has a lot of problems, but the casting alone is enough to keep it afloat for me. This is the TV equivallent of buying a comic book just for the art. It probably will not be enough to keep it afloat for the network so watch it now.


Christian said...

I find that, while I like a lot of stuff from Fueller's work, the fatalism just really grates me to the point where I don't bother watching his shows anymore. The mostly-meaningless fascism just pisses me off.

Which is to be expected from an existentialist I guess.

Geoff Klock said...

Christian: you gotta expand on that a little. I can maybe guess what you mean but you think Fate is not a good subject for a TV show? Film's as well? Theatre? Shakespeare?

Christian said...

It's much more of a personal opinion than anything else. I think TV and entertainment in general should be about all subjects, even if not everyone is going to enjoy it.

If your theme through three TV shows is that "Fate is always right and there's nothing you can do but flow with the stream and everytime you go against it something bad happens and you deserve it," then I'm going to get aggitated, no matter how good it is, because it goes fundamentally against everything I believe in.
I mean, I really like The Incredibles, but the idea that "some people are more special than others and if the others try to become special as well then they're going to fail on a massive scale" is still going to get my blood boiling. That's just me though. Everyone else is welcome to enjoy it.

Christian said...

PS. It's also why I enjoyed Pan's Labyrinth so much. Following arbitary rules without reasoning or an ethical basis isn't behaviour I would condone or encourage. To bring it back to the comic book'y, it's the Anti-Life Equation.

Matthew J. Brady said...

I'm digging the show, but I understand your reservations. I think I like the quirky, whimsical atmosphere the most, but the cast is also incredible. The rapid-fire dialogue between Ned and Chi McBride is great, and Kristin Chenoweth is pretty enjoyable, coming in just under annoying (I liked the song and dance with the dog in the second episode). I haven't watched last night's episode yet, but it's saved on the Tivo, so my wife and I will probably get to it tonight.

Marc Caputo said...

I find that I'm watching a lot of "sci-fi/fantasy" TV: Journeyman - fairly good, Reaper - a LOT better than it should be, even if it is the umpteenth iteration of "Clerks", Heroes - which I'm getting to like more and more but don't LOVE and Pushing Daisies, which I really like. With the exception of Heroes, all the others feel like they need to pull the rug out on the viewer soon to shake things up or else it's samey-samey-samey.

But I'm charmed by Daisies (and totally smitten with Friel as well). Yes, the voiceover can get intrusive, but I'm taken by the whole artificial atmosphere and affected dialogue.

One thing I've noticed that I REALLY like - the way the narrator speaks of time in very specific terms - years/months/weeks/days... It underscores the theme that life is very precious. A little pie-in-the-sky, even for me, but Jim Dale throws it across without explaining it.

Also, is it just me or is there a WHOLE LOTTA cleavage being thrown around? Not that I mind, but it's not like Desperate Housewives, where it's encoded in the DNA...

Matthew J. Brady said...

Ha ha, pie in the sky. Was that intentional? We just watched yesterday's episode, and it was quite good. It seemed to shake things up a little, hinting at continuing storylines rather than a "mystery of the week" formula. I enjoyed it a lot.

And yes, I also noticed the abundant cleavage. I would ask if my wife noticed it, but then she'll be glaring at me every time it's on screen.

Oh, and I'm digging Reaper and Journeyman as well. Good shows.

neilshyminsky said...

christian: I mean, I really like The Incredibles, but the idea that "some people are more special than others and if the others try to become special as well then they're going to fail on a massive scale" is still going to get my blood boiling.

I nearly threw up when I realized that aspiring to be special was something that only a villain would do. Seriously twisted. (But damned if it isn't otherwise a lot of fun to watch.)

Geoff Klock said...

Marc: Reaper IS a lot better than it needs to be. I was surprised by that too.

Christian and Neil: the only problem I had with the incredibles was some storytelling errors. I actually admired the way they thought there little premise all the way to the end. It is a nasty thing to think, but at least the film did not half-ass its thesis.

I have been wanting to say this about brad bird for a while -- I feel like when he saw the movie Amadeaus he really sympathized with MOZART.

neilshyminsky said...

Geoff: Minor correction - I can appreciate that The Incredibles manages to be very consistent with respect to its ostensible lesson. But I find its politics so despicable that I can't possibly admire it as a film.

(For the same reason that I can appreciate the rhetorical skill of a politician whose ideology I find racist/sexist/homophobic but never admire him or her - my distaste for the content overrides my appreciation for the skill every time.)

DoktorJericho said...

I am posting solely to see if my photo comes up and, if so, what I look like in it. As an aside, Dead like me kicked ass, though I would be hard pressed to say why, particularly since it seemed to change face every couple of episodes (What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Welcome Home Roxy Carmichle (sp?), Dilbert, Cops. The show lacked personality but that was almost entirely off set by the personalities. All the actors made "great face" on screen. I remember almost nothing they said, but I remember how they looked together. But, like I said, I'm seeing if my photo posts.

DoktorJericho said...

Aw heck. No photo.

Dr. K said...

I love Pushing Daisies, and I'm not bothered by the things that bother you, Geoff. In fact, I like the recap at the beginning of each episode--it reminds me of efforts in 70s Marvel and DC comics to keep them "new reader friendly." I get the feeling the creators know that this series is going to live or die on word of mouth, as ABC seems to have abandoned publicity of it, and every episode may be someone's first.

And in Pushing Daisies, each one of the "recaps" seems to give us new information. For example, the last one showed us how Ned figured out the one-minute rule.

And in terms of style, while Burton is certainly there, I also get the sense that Barry Sonnenfeld (who directed the first two episodes) was harkening back to his own earlier style, where he did a great job of creating artificial worlds, like in the Addams Family movies.

Also, the style, narration, and overall tone are reminiscent of Amelie--perhaps too much, and that would be my only complaint about the series.

Marc Caputo said...

Just watched the third episode, paying closer attention to the voiceover narration. I found it to be 2/3 punctuating and 1/3 intrusive. That ratio works for me - sometimes, maybe the audience needs a little hammer over the head.

Also, Chenowith's character's name - Olive Snook - is totally Seussian, which is another vein they're probably trying mine.

Amy said...

I'm sorry I won't be adding to your philosophical discussion about the show, which I've enjoyed (the show and the discussion). I'm confused and must have missed something (I haven't been able to watch all the shows all the way through)... why can Ned touch some people and not kill them? Like in the bird episode Olive grabbed his hand and touched it to her chest.

Alec said...

I was google-ing (googling?) the topic and found this, and I'm wondering the same thing as Amy. Why can Ned touch some people like the swordsman, the narcoleptic lady, or Olive Snook but they don't die?

Also, did anyone notice in the most recent episode, Smell of Success, that it looked like there was more funding than the previous episodes? The Pie-Hole animation looked smoother and there was a new opening.