Wednesday, October 03, 2007

"I can hold my breath for a long time.": Pushing Daisies

Pushing Daisies, even in its pilot, combines so many things I usually find hard to take in television that I'm sort of surprised with how much I like it. But, indeed, it's a fine, fine pilot, and unlike everyone else, I think it would be setting us up for a fine, fine show, sort of a fairy tale Moonlighting, if you will. I could be proven wrong on this (I seem to be horrible at predicting what will and won't work this fall), but I'll stick by it for now.

The pilot (or "Pie-lette," as everyone involved with the show insists on calling it) starts out a little too bustling for its own good. And it's here that I'm going to talk about what I thought maybe worked a little too hard to make the show stick the landing -- the direction of Barry Sonnenfeld. Now, I liked Sonnenfeld's Maximum Bob well enough (ABC, while we're remaking old, relatively unknown shows I enjoyed, consider picking this one up too!), but here, he just tries too hard to make the whole thing look like a movie. Some of the stylistic choices here overwhelm the slightly sad core of the show, as though the desire to make this thing look like a million bucks overcame any sense of decorum ("And now we'll throw in some Claymation! And how about some zany camera angles?!"). This is most obvious in the show's first 10 minutes, which work overtime to establish the world's complicated universe and the rules it lives by. It's nice to have the rules upfront (it can be a little disorienting to not get the rules at all) for once. The world post-Lost has decided that disorientation is the way to go because that show nailed it so well. But to make disorientation work, you need a killer cast and a scenario that makes the disorientation seem normal and acceptable. Most of the new disorienters don't bother with this, so we end up with stuff like, say, Journeyman, which is an OK show, marred by how hard it is to figure out just what the hell is going on (I think it's more noticeable there because the time travel stuff is wedded to a fairly standard procedural). So when Pushing Daisies tells us upfront "Here's how the world here is going to work," it's a nice change of pace.

Still, the direction works so hard to slip all this exposition by us that the first ten minutes are headache-inducing. I honestly, honestly thought I might hate this. The combination of twee and showy was grating on me. But after those first ten minutes, the show settles down considerably and turns into something that lavishes attention on the justly praised script (by the great Bryan Fuller). I couldn't tell you exactly when the pilot turns from strained to confident, but I peg it as roughly at the point where we see Chuck's sad little life until she got on the cruise ship. From there, the thing is on the rails, setting up how Ned's life is going to work now that Chuck is in it and allowing Emerson (Chi McBride, one of our most underrated comic actors) to puncture the twee just as often as is needed. Without Emerson, this show wouldn't work (much as I liked Wonderfalls, that show could have used a skeptical private eye to roll his eyes at Jaye's wacky escapades sometimes).

What I like about the show so outnumbers what I don't like that I should spend a little time talking about it, I suppose, but it's much easier to just do a full paragraph of things that I thought were nifty. Anna Friel on her own is a LITTLE too much like the magic pixie girl (I believe the AV Club coined that term to describe Natalie Portman in Garden State) in every single indie movie where some sad boy finds that life still has a purpose, but she reins it in enough for me to figure she'll have it figured out by midseason or so. I like Lee Pace a lot. He's just the right sort of offputtingly interesting that you need at the center of a show like this. He's probably this season's America Ferrera, unless the show absolutely tanks (and with the amount of money spent on making sure it doesn't, I'd be surprised). The rest of the cast is good, especially Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene as Chuck's shut-in aunts. I'm not completely sold on Kristin Chenoweth, who just doesn't have enough to do yet, but she's an actress the small screen will eventually figure out how to harness properly. Again, faith.

What works most for me is the chemistry between Pace and Friel. The show simply doesn't work if we don't buy the doomed romance between Ned and Chuck. It's easy to screw up a will-they/won't-they pairing, especially when that's a central tenet of your show. So many shows have tried to force it by just pushing two attractive people together and hoping sparks fly. I don't know how the casting directors landed on Friel and Pace, but whatever they did worked. The chemistry is palpable, and that's going to help the show get over the hurdles of turning this whole thing into a series.

(Random caveat: I wish the show had been a little more serious about the way that Ned killed the funeral director indirectly. They almost got there by having Emerson give him a hard time, but it still swept that sort of thing under the rug too much. Hopefully the ramifications of what Ned did come back to bite him later in the season.)

I don't know if Pushing Daisies is a series. The degree of difficulty here is incredibly high. But it has been on a lot of shows of this ilk, and some have pulled it off. If anyone is going to make it work, it's Bryan Fuller, whose corkscrew plots and deadpan dialogue are a perfect fit for wherever this show might go. I realize I should probably be more cynical about this show's chances, but here's hoping they're unfounded. There's a great series lurking in here somewhere, and I have faith it will find its way out.


David Sims said...

One of my big problems is that the Chuck/Ned romance is it's not really will-they-won't-they. They really want to, but can't cause SHE WILL DIE. DIIIIIE. If he touches her. It's a great idea but surely they'll get sick of it after a couple seasons?

I like this pilot a lot, I think the cast managed to sell what could have been an impossibly twee concept. Let's see the next few episodes though, and see where this thing is going.

Jon Delfin said...

There are two main variables here: 1. Can the show sustain this level of cleverness and visual interest, and 2. Will enough of America watch it? I'm on the fence about the former, but there's no question about the latter. Not a chance. Cynically yours,

Todd said...

I dunno, Jon. This sure looks like the sort of thing that would be canceled instantly, but a lot of people watched last night (just a hair short of 13 million). I think the American audience is generally more savvy than we give them credit for and also very susceptible to carpet-bombing promotion. And, honestly, I can't see very many people watching the pilot and NOT being in for a couple of episodes.

David, the fact that ABC has sent out no further episodes is troubling. Very troubling. But I laugh in the face of troubling. Also, "will-they/won't-they" was a bad descriptor, but I wanted to describe the sort of chemistry Friel and Pace have, and that works better than "They can't! And they're sad about it!"

Wally said...

Todd -

It seems you and I were in nearly complete agreement about this one, though I'm less impressed with the dialogue than everyone else apparently is. (Zany, impressive dialogue isn't actually difficult to write; making it gorgeous and functional and meaningful (metaphorically rich) is nearly impossible.) Yes, Fuller creates a unique, addictive verbal texture with his rapid back-and-forth dialogue, but to what end? There's not a lot to the show yet beyond its atmosphere and the adorable leads (Lee Pace is awesome).

Some pilots - Deadwood, John from Cincinnati, Buffy/Firefly, Galactica, The Sopranos, Seinfeld, even the 'sensational' (in every sense) Lost etc. - play like mission statements and aesthetic declarations by hungry artists who need to tell a particular story; others play like advertisements for writers who want to see their stuff make it to the screen and will find the meat of their story, if they can, after the fact. (Actually, I might count Angel's pilot as one of these, to an extent.) Pushing Daisies is in the latter group. That's not to say Fuller doesn't have all manner of great ideas about what the show can be; it's that, unlike e.g. Wonderfalls (an underrated show with brains and balls), Daisiesdoesn't seem forceful or insistent at all, at least one hour in. That doesn't bode well.

One for the 'duh' file: Minear would knock this shit out of the park.

Todd said...

Wally --

Part of the reason this, Chuck, Reaper and any other distinctive pilot were a little overpraised this year (yes, even by myself) is because, Jesus, this is a dismal development season. There were a number of interesting scripts (some of which even went to pilot) that just didn't get picked up for whatever reason, while the networks went with boring things like Life and Cane. Neither Life nor Cane is unspeakably awful, but they're decidedly middlebrow entertainment, as though the networks still haven't figured out that the breakout hits of the last few years -- good AND bad -- have had something definitively different and striking about them, whether it was the island setting and big production values of Lost, the soapy tone of Desperate Housewives or the deliberately belligerent main character on House (just to switch networks for a bit). I don't like all of these shows (I borderline hate DH), but they were all pretty different in at least one major way from what was on at the time. Scared by how ratings are plummeting in the face of a TV world where no one knows how to count the viewers (DVR penetration went from 9 percent to 20 percent IN ONE YEAR), the networks played it safe. Something like Pushing Daisies, which isn't perfect but has a little AMBITION at least, was the beneficiary of this. Last season, it might have gotten lost in the shuffle of bold, ambitious new shows. This season, it's pretty much it.

That said, I think many of your problems stem from Sonnenfeld (though maybe I'm reading my reaction too much into yours). This could be because I read the script a while back and really connected to it, but the direction just overwhelms the sad heart of the tale. Next week's episode is apparently more of the same (it's the one that went so overbudget that Sonnenfeld was forced to stop directing episodes of the show), so I'm curious to see what happens in week three when Fuller has to go it alone and mostly use standing sets. I think he's got the skills. I realize dialogue writing is an overrated skill, but when it's done well, it's nice to hear, y'know?

Anyway, I'm all kinds of frightened about all of the ways this could go wrong, but somewhere in this is a show I'd really love to watch week to week. I hope that show finds its way out at some point.

(Side note: Tim Minear is working at ABC now. Maybe Fuller will let him do a freelance or something? Say what you will about ABC's shows, but they're working hard to get all of the best TV producers under their roof. Bring back Whedon and Apatow/Feig, McPherson!)