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The creepy perfection of Pushing Daisies
Bryan Fuller loves death. To be more specific, the beloved television writer and showrunner has a real thing for strange and oddly beautiful death. Check out his illustrious and sinfully underrated filmography for a whole array of weird, gripping, and stylistically adorned series and the chances are you'll find some of the most unforgettable deaths in any TV show. If you love Hannibal then you'll know all about this, from the totem pole made of people to the torso twisted into the shape of a heart to the man who giddily ate his own face (although, technically speaking, he didn't die from that — he died from having an eel shoved down his throat after having his prostate massaged with an electric cattle prod). In a pop culture atmosphere dominated by casual murder and women being killed off for narratively suspect reasons, there's something refreshing and subversive about Fuller's creative approach to death: equal parts baroque and flippant and radical.
Hannibal may be his magnum opus, but the show that fully established that approach is Pushing Daisies. ABC ran this curious genre mish-mash for two brief seasons, with the show being one of many casualties of the writer's strike at the time. Despite stellar ratings and reviews in the first season, circumstances got in the way, and now the series has a reputation as yet another gone-too-soon Bryan Fuller show that his dedicated fan-base forever dreams of seeing revived one day, just like the myriad corpses that litter its technicolor madness.
Pushing Daisies centers on Ned, a nervous piemaker played by the ever-so-delightful Lee Pace. He has been gifted/cursed with the ability to reanimate the dead simply by touching them. If he doesn't touch them again after one minute to send them back into an eternal slumber, someone else within close proximity to the dead will have to pay the price. He mostly uses this skill to revive rotting fruit to make delicious pies he can never consume, although the canny and financially-savvy P.I. Emerson Cod (Chi McBride) offers him a strange deal: help him to solve murders and he'll split the reward money. It's all fun and games until Ned revives his childhood sweetheart Charlotte "Chuck" Charles (Anna Friel) but never gets around to killing her permanently. Now he has the change to rekindle a lifelong romance.
The only catch is that he can never touch Chuck or she'll die for good.
People die a lot on Pushing Daisies, and it's seldom in clean or simple ways, be it the polygamist murdered by one of his wives via poison in his coffee or the lowly assistant killed by an explosive pop-up book. One especially morbid parody of KFC's iconic colonel sees a man deep-fried to death in his own secret spices. Fuller and company don't skimp on the grossness either, even as everything around the scene of the crime looks primped and polished straight out of a fairy tale. It's in that contrast — the brightness of life versus the horror of death — where Pushing Daisies gets its bite.
Turning death into a fetish can be a tricky thing for any storyteller to tackle. Watch any crime procedural and the chances are you'll see a veritable little of corpses before the first ad break, each shot with the empathy of a robot and the style of a perfume advert. Shows like Criminal Minds and the many CSI franchises have faced heavy criticism for the ways they seemingly make murder cool, sexy, or even aspirational. They invite you to leer over corpses (all too often those of sexualized women) like a circus display, making you all too aware of the realism at play here. These are very real horrors we face every day, more so in marginalized communities, something these shows seldom reflect.
For Bryan Fuller, death is weird and kind of cool but only when we have an appropriate distance from it. Pushing Daisies, like Hannibal, works because it clearly doesn't take place in our world. Everything in Ned and Chuck's life is too neat. Her clothes are too perfectly pressed and accessorized. The Pie Hole is too much like a doll's house. Kristin Chenoweth breaks out into song and the skies are almost retina-burning in their blueness. People don't die in the real world like they do in Pushing Daisies. When a jockey is trampled, he doesn't resemble a Looney Tunes cartoon like he does in the case investigated by Ned and Cod. Fuller famously said of Hannibal that the big line he would never cross with the show was rape because there was nothing fantastical or surreal about something that is a daily threat to half the population. Pushing Daisies is macabre but never voyeuristic to the terror of real life. It gives its viewers a way to process death that finds the oddness within, and that's something we could definitely use more of.
Of course, Pushing Daisies also feels rather relevant right now as we all deal with the panic of COVID-19. We're all suddenly in a position where we are afraid to touch or embrace those we love, and Ned and Chuck have become our heroes of the moment. The many romantic ways they find to embrace one another without full contact of flesh are quirky and sweet and kind of inspiring. Can't kiss? Get some plastic wrap then lock lips with a healthy barrier! Can't touch your partner's face, or that of your resurrected dog? A wooden arm will do the trick. Just want to hold hands? Have you considered taking up beekeeping? It doesn't hurt that Anna Friel and Lee Pace have such wonderful chemistry. Somehow, Pace manages to be the perfect dork while looking like the hottest man who ever lived (John Krasinski wishes he had that kind of energy).
Pushing Daisies finds its sweet spot somewhere between incandescent escapism and the brutality of death. We will all die one day, although the chances are it won't be in as unique a way as any of the series' murders, and we'll all spend a good chunk of our lives trying to reconcile with that fact. It's no secret that we're all obsessed with death — just look at the rise in popularity of true crime over the past decade. It's become an oddly escapist activity to dive head-first into unsolved murders, mystery series, and seemingly endless podcasts about famous crimes. In an increasingly dark world, having a fascination with death needs a healthy outlet, something pop culture is perfect for. Pushing Daisies is doing exactly what, say, Serial and CSI are doing, but in such an over-the-top and ludicrous manner that it exposes our deepest fears in a more palatable manner. Death seems a lot less final when Ned is on the scene. That doesn't make it any less vomit-inducing, of course!