Pushing Daisies: The Complete First Season

(2007) *** 1/2 Unrated
379 min. ABC. Director: Barry Sonnenfeld. Cast: Lee Pace, Anna Friel, Chi McBride, Kristin Chenoweth.

/content/films/3218/1.jpgCreator Bryan Fuller (the dearly departed Wonderfalls) succeeds in bringing a modern fairy tale to prime time with Pushing Daisies, a wacky weekly comedy-mystery-adventure-romance that the whole family can enjoy, in colors that haven't been so super-saturated since the 1966 Batman.

The concept is downright wild: a 9-year-old boy named Ned (Field Cate) discovers he has the power to bring the dead back to life with his touch, but with a hitch. If he brings someone back to life, a second touch will kill the person. If he allows the dead person to live, someone else will die instantly to maintain the natural balance. Ned's learning curve proves especially awkward when bringing his mother back to life spells instant death for the father of his neighbor and schoolboy crush Charlotte "Chuck" Charles (Sammi Hanratty). Worse yet, he loses his mother a second time.

Years later, the grown Ned (Lee Pace of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) has learned how to take advantage of his gift: by touching rotten fruit and baking it into fresh pies as the proprietor of The Pie Hole, and by assisting private investigator Emerson Cod (Chi McBride) in solving murders by interviewing corpses (then splitting the reward monies). Ned's world goes topsy-turvy when Chuck (now Anna Friel) turns up murdered, and Ned cannot resist bringing her back to life for good (the story of the fallen bystander becomes the subject of a later episode). Chuck muses, "I suppose dying is as good an excuse as any to start living."

While Ned rekindles romance with Chuck, his Pie-Hole co-worker Olive Snook (Kristin Chenoweth, best known for her Broadway musicals) pines unrequitedly for "the Pie-Maker." Since Chuck cannot reveal her resuscitation to the world, she must watch painfully while the aunts (Swoozie Kurtz and Ellen Greene) who raised her mourn. (And dig Alex Cox regular Sy Richardson as the deadpan coroner.) Every week deepens the issues of each character and amongst the characters while spinning a clever, surreal, comic mystery.

In the first nine episodes of its Writers Strike-shortened inaugural season, Pushing Daisies proved it could produce film-quality stories without breaking TV's swift stride, and established a pattern of bringing in whimsical guest stars in keeping with the tone of the show. Standout examples in this first crop of episodes include Paul Reubens as olfactory expert Oscar Vibenius, Broadway musical star Raul Esparza as Olive's hapless suitor (and traveling pharmaceutical salesman) Alfredo Aldarisio, and Mike White and Molly Shannon as Billy and Dilly Balsam, proprietors of Balsam's Bittersweets Taffy & Sweets Emporium (a threatening competitor to the Pie Hole).

Though Fuller's vision is crucial, executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld also deserves a great deal of credit for establishing the series' visual style by directing the first two episodes. Sonnenfeld's use of wide-angle lenses, cranes, and dynamic camera work provide crucial support to the series' flights of fancy, and he and Fuller clearly have compatible senses of humor. Viewers will be reminded not only of Sonnenfeld's work as director (The Addams Family) and cinematographer (Raising Arizona), but of the films of Tim Burton, especially his sunny tall-tale epic Big Fish.

/content/films/3218/2.jpgAs narrated by Jim Dale (the beloved audiobook narrator of the Harry Potter series), the fast-paced, whimsical stories reward viewer attention with running jokes that cross episodes and endless surprises proving the show's cachet as wholly original TV (a dandelion-powered car, a "windmill city," anti-depressant pie, a heroic sword fight). The strange romance of Ned and Chuck includes the proviso that they mustn't touch, causing creative alternative methods of sharing affection (from plastic wrap to beekeeper suits).

As if the show weren't perfectly lovely enough, Fuller also deploys those Broadway stars as secret weapons who, when you least expect it, burst out with song: Chenoweth doing "Hopelessly Devoted to You," Greene's cover of "Morning Has Broken," and their duet on They Might Be Giants' "Birdhouse in Your Soul." (It's only a matter of time until Esparza gets in the act.) With the nine episodes of the series' Writers Strike-shortened first season, Pushing Daisies proved it could produce film-quality stories while keeping stride with the punishing pace of weekly television. Let's hope a full second season after an unfortunately long break can continue the trend and recapture viewers' imaginations.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 3

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1

Street date: 9/16/2008

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Warner delivers an appropriately bright and peppy package for Pushing Daisies on Blu-ray and DVD. Both formats offer three-disc sets, though Blu-ray's resolution means a sharper image, one that's as inviting as the series itself: these discs handle the series' bold colors accurately and without bleeding, the level of detail is exceptional, and I could find no digital artifacts. That the series at times draws attention to the unnatural perfection of its storybook look is a conscious style choice (or a matter of taste, when it comes to certain designs and special effects), but the transfer is basically unim-peach-able (as opposed to un-berry-able...okay, I'll stop). Warner also supplies both Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround tracks that stand a cut above the usual TV-on-home-video fare by adding well-crafted directional excitement.

The special features are limited to something the packaging needlessly and inaccurately refers to as an "interactive featurette." Pie Time--Time for Pie is a menu on Disc Three that allows one to access for each episode at least one slice of pie (and as many as three slices) for each episode. Each piece of pie is a one to six-minute-long serving of behind-the-scenes information. Instead of the cute but unwieldy menu, it would have been nice to have these with a "Play All" option, or spaced out to live with the episodes they enlighten instead of residing on Disc Three. At any rate, they're well-worth watching.

Some take the form of a sit-down between Lee Pace and creator/writer/executive producer Bryan Fuller as they look at and talk about favorite scenes. Others focus on a particular component of the show, a certain actor, or a demand of design or special effects. Among the interviewees are Kristin Chenoweth, director/executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld, producer Bruce Cohen, executive producer Dan Jinks, production designer Michael Wylie (my new hero), visual effects producer Elizabeth Castro & visual effects supervisor William Powloski. I suspect kids might enjoy hearing some of the tidbits here as well, like about how the cheese-ball crab came to be (and that he may make a return appearance this season).

This delightful series deserves some prime wall space--brush up before Season Two begins October 1, 2008.


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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