TV Rewind: Why Pushing Daisies Is the Perfect Romance Story for a PandemicPhoto Courtesy of ABC TV Features Pushing Daisies
Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new column, TV Rewind. As the pandemic continues to halt television production for new and returning shows, the Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
Perhaps there is no better moment to watch a show about the bittersweet nature of life and death than during a global pandemic, but there is honestly no wrong time to watch Pushing Daisies. A multi-genre mashup from the mind of Bryan Fuller, it remains one of the most innovative and gorgeous series to ever air on network television.
There’s been nothing on-air like it since its unfortunate cancellation in 2009, which took place after just two seasons. But perhaps, if nothing else, this time of uncertainty and strangeness in our own lives will give rise to a new level of appreciation for this beautiful weirdo show, that speaks so perfectly to this uncertain moment we’re all in.
A dark fantasy comedy, Pushing Daisies follows the story of Ned, a piemaker with a particularly macabre superpower: He can resurrect the dead. But only for a minute. Literally. Otherwise, the standard fairy-tale life-for-a-life trope kicks into gear, and the cosmos claims another, unspecified soul in trade for the one that’s been restored. And there’s one further rule, as well: if Ned touches that formerly dead being a second time? They’ll die again, and this time it’s of the more permanent variety.
Despite its grim-seeming subject matter, Pushing Daisies is one of the brightest, most hopeful, and generally adorable series in recent memory. It’s a story about life that’s told by way of being a story about death, a sort of visual memento mori that reminds us all we’re going to pass on, even as it tells us how necessary it is to embrace the love and beauty in our lives right now.
The basic premise involves Ned and his partner Emerson Cod solving crimes by using his special ability to reanimate murder victims, ask them who killed them, and split the reward money after seeing justice served. But this isn’t a typical case-of-the-week drama, and the deaths in each episode are generally used to illustrate larger philosophical points rather than procedural ones.
On one of these investigations, Ned revives his childhood sweetheart, Charlotte “Chuck” Charles (murdered while on a cruise for sad singles), and can’t bring himself to let her die a second time. Of course, thanks to the rules of his mysterious power, it also means he can literally never touch her again, either, but that somehow makes this cosmic second chance feel all the sweeter.
At its heart, Pushing Daisies is a love story, albeit one which is constantly framed by many outlandish, macabre, and over-the-top varieties of death. This is a show that features everything from a Colonel Sanders-esque chicken impresario murdered in deep fryer, to a literary assistant done in by exploding pop-up book, and a competing sweet shop owner who winds up dead in a vat of taffy. Yet the combination of its bright, colorful palette, oddball secondary characters and whimsical voiceover narration add a surreal, fairytale feel to every episode, and keeps its bloodier elements from ever feeling too much like real life.
In Pushing Daisies, like many other Fuller properties that would follow it, death is a simultaneously literal and abstract concept. The show’s dark tone is fascinating, but never exploitative, and its obsession with mortality generally ends up being a celebration of life more than a commentary on death. It is the definition of vibrant—every frame is full of light, color, and lush, kitschy sets. Characters dress in perfectly accessorized outfits and visit cutely-named local businesses. (How there isn’t a shop on every corner in America known as The Pie Hole right now remains a mystery to me.) Sometimes they even burst into song.
Yes, horrible things still can and do happen here, but we aren’t asked to voyeuristically experience them ourselves. Instead, Ned’s powers give the dearly departed one last minute to speak for themselves, whether that’s to explain the manner of their deaths, ask a question, or something else. In a different kind of show—in virtually every kind of show since this one—this would definitely not be the case. (Don’t believe me? Look at literally any crime drama on right now, in which the victims of grisly murders barely even get names, let alone peace.)
The same is true of Ned and Chuck’s romance. In a different kind of series, the fact that the primary couple can’t kiss or even hold hands would be considered a tragedy, a curse that needs to be broken, or some otherwise unacceptable fate. On Pushing Daisies, it is merely one piece of this couple’s story, an obstacle to be managed the same way that, say, living in different states might be.
While Ned and Chuck may not have what most of us would consider a traditional relationship, their love story is still sweepingly romantic, anchored as it is in the things of the spirit, rather than the things of the flesh. The two may not be able to touch one another, but their physical separation doesn’t make their emotional connection any less real or important. And in an age where we’re all terrified to just stand too close to one another, let alone engage in any sort of physical contact, their love story is both a soothing balm to our collective souls and an inspirational how-to guide.
They kiss through plastic wrap, slow dance in beekeeper suits, and boop giant dandelions together as a sign of affection. They use cute monkey statues as personal stand-ins, and clasp their own hands behind their backs to indicate they’re thinking of holding their significant other’s instead. Ned and Chuck constantly find sweet, silly ways to indicate how much they care, and while the no-touching rule is a fact of their lives, it’s never used as a reason they shouldn’t be together.
So much of television romance these days is laser-focused on the whens and hows of whether a couple in question will kiss or sleep together, that there’s something strangely refreshing about one where that’s not really a concern in any capacity. Ned and Chuck’s connection somehow feels more genuine, more earned when they aren’t allowed to default to the ease of physical intimacy, but instead must talk to each other, and find creative solutions to the problems they face, both as a couple and as investigators. And their lack of physical contact makes any stolen moment between them—be it a Saran Wrap-covered smooch or a caress from inside a body bag—that much sweeter, no matter how weird it may look on the surface.
In our new world of social distancing, Pushing Daisies is a reminder not just that there are plenty of creative ways around a bad situation, but that love can still conquer anything. And maybe that’s something we could all hear right now.
Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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