ABC’s fantastical new series Pushing Daisies tends to unsettle cynics to such a degree they may be compelled to ruin the show for everyone else. (You with the smirk and the folded arms: Please just leave the room.) While a modest hit, Daisies attracts a shocking number of hecklers. People sniff and groan about pie maker Ned (Wonderfalls’ Lee Pace), who can bring the dead back to life with a single touch — but kill them again with the next one — and his newly revived childhood sweetheart, Chuck (Anna Friel), whom he loves but can never touch. Well, skeptics, sarcastics, defenders of disbelief?phooey on you. Not to make this an oh-grow-up pissing contest, but those who can handle an irony-free hour will find Pushing Daisies a sweet, unabashedly romantic, flower-filled fable. And, despite its puppies and pies and blue skies, it’s a deceptively mature one.
What makes Pushing Daisies unique isn’t that it’s about two nice, unassuming people. After all, this TV season is about the underdog: Chuck, Reaper, Aliens in America, even Samantha Who? are all, ultimately, about decent people struggling to do the right thing. But these formulas generally involve a lead mensch and his or her same-sex best buddy, who assists the hero on the path to rightness. Girlfriends, boyfriends, and spouses don’t really figure in, except as objects of consternation. Members of the opposite sex, in fact, tend to be treated with a distinct otherness. That’s fine for Aliens; they’re teenagers. But wow, most of these characters are deep into their 20s (or, in the case of ABC’s Big Shots, 30s and 40s), still professing an unseemly naïveté about basic human interactions. That’s because, aside from a few lovely exceptions (Jim and Pam on The Office, Coach Taylor and wife Tami on Friday Night Lights), TV has no interest in functioning relationships. Men and women stay on opposite sides — comparing notes, strategizing. If they do come together, they turn into one of those screeching, bickering, eye-rolling sitcom duos. It’s as if the majority of TV shows were written by people who never dated past 10th grade.
Think couples who actually like each other aren’t dynamic enough to hold interest? Check out a Thin Man movie. Or an old Hart to Hart episode. Or better yet, watch Daisies, in which Ned and Chuck solve mysteries and adore each other — they’re like Nick and Nora without booze or sex. It’s a start. The duo dote chastely, but that’s appropriate for this cartoonish world, created by Heroes’ Bryan Fuller and exec-produced by Men in Black’s Barry Sonnenfeld (with, one supposes, a bit of influence from Howard Berman’s ubiquitous photo, Pie in the Sky). Ned and Chuck and gruff detective Emerson Cod (The Nine’s Chi McBride) chase bad guys through a make-believe town that’s wondrously anachronistic, packed with woody station wagons and morgues painted like candy canes. People don’t e-mail here, they write letters; Ned doesn’t own an iPod, but a phonograph; Chuck, clad in clip-ons and swirly skirts, is like a brunet Grace Kelly in Rear Window. She’ll dash headlong into danger and look swell doing it. Happily, even pop culture references — those lazy signposts of cool — are verboten in Daisies, except for a Star Wars line so jarring it almost ruins its scene. Otherwise the most au courant joke involves Winnie the Pooh.
The whole thing is done more with a twinkle than a wink: Narrator Jim Dale — best known for the Harry Potter audiobooks — lends a fairy-tale tone but isn’t above setting up dry, omniscient jokes. ”The pie maker felt a mixture of happiness and trepidation,” he says, to which Ned mutters, ”Why is it always a mixture?” McBride’s hilarious air of fed-upness undercuts most of the remaining sugar. The balance isn’t perfect yet, and when Daisies oversells its cuteness, it’s like a preening toddler at a tap-dance recital. For instance, Broadway crooner Kristin Chenoweth is peachy as Olive Snook, Ned’s besotted pie waitress. But her name is Olive Snook, and she’s a besotted pie waitress. She shouldn’t be singing ”Birdhouse in Your Soul” on top of it, tempting as it is. Mostly, however, Daisies is just the right level of adorable, and almost daring in its sincerity. You have to smile at a smitten couple who find ways to touch through dishwashing gloves and cellophane. You have to like a show that makes being in love an act of heroism. Stop smirking. A-