Welcome to Petition Worthy, a biweekly column that revisits canceled TV shows that we wish had a longer lifespan. In some cases, we’ll also make a plea for them to be given another chance.
To paraphrase the ’80s rock band Cinderella, we don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone. While their iconic power ballad used those words while yearning for a former lover, the phrase rings true to all walks of life. For those of us who like to consume pop culture, we’ve expressed the sentiment when discussing magical television shows that weren’t appreciated during their original runs. Such is life, but the pain and longing never really goes away.
Of course, when it comes shows that were canceled before their time, Bryan Fuller’s work is synonymous with the unfortunate trend. From Wonderfalls to Hannibal, the showrunner has shown time and time again that he’s a talented person with a unique imagination who’s often struggled to catch a break. Expect to see his work appear in this column more than once. But for the first entry, it’s only fitting that I focus on a fun show he made about death, resurrection, and longing: Pushing Daisies.
The quirky fantasy dramedy series, which aired on ABC between 2007 and 2009, followed a pie-maker named Ned (Lee Pace) who had the ability to bring people back from the dead just by touching them. Unfortunately for Ned, though, he couldn’t touch the deceased a second time or else they’d stay dead forever. And if they stayed alive again for more than a minute, the universe claimed someone else’s life. Ned also used his gift to help the private investigator Emerson Cod (Chi McBride) track down the dead’s killers, solve the case, and split the reward money. That’s the basic premise, but Pushing Daisies was so much more than a weird mystery series.
The show is also a love story. You see, Ned resurrected his childhood sweetheart, Chuck (Anna Friel), and kept her around after learning of her passing. As it turned out, the spark between the pair never went away. The only downside was Ned’s “gift” meant they could never touch each other, but they found ways to make it work because love overcomes all obstacles, including death.
Part of the show’s charm was watching Ned, Emerson, and Chuck solve bizarre cases. Yet despite the inherent darkness associated with murder and death, Pushing Daisies juxtaposed its weightier ideas with lush color palettes and fairytale sensibilities. The desire to recapture childhood was one of the show’s most prominent themes, and the visual style helped project a sense of innocence while exploring the moral murkiness of adulthood in a quirky manner.
Ned and Chuck were compelling and complicated protagonists, but their flaws made them human. Ned, for example, struggled to juggle his moral responsibilities with his own self-interests. He kept dark secrets and was quite selfish at times, but it was hard not to sympathize with his situation. Because of his gift, he spent years in self-imposed exile, baking pies, and dwelling in guilt over a death he inadvertently caused by bringing a loved one back from the dead as a child and letting them stick around.
Chuck, on the other hand, spent her life behind closed doors and longing for independence. The moment in which she decided to do something for herself, however, she ended up getting killed. She died having never truly lived, and returning from the dead also meant her second chance was complicated as she had to keep secrets and couldn’t touch her man. She also spiked her aunts with antidepressants, which isn’t exactly acceptable behavior.
Ned and Chuck’s inability to touch each other isn’t just a quirky idea for a funny TV show. It can be interpreted as a metaphor for intimacy issues. For Fuller, though, that element of the show was inspired by his own experience growing up as a gay man during the AIDs epidemic, when having unprotected sex was equated to death. He craved love and intimacy with another human being, but it felt too forbidden and dangerous back then.
Ned and Chuck’s relationship was a story of two outcasts finding human connection and becoming more complete people as a result. That’s why they were so easy to root for, and no matter how strange and out there the story could be at times, those flawed characters kept things just the right amount of grounded. Still, the magic of Pushing Daisies was its ability to be profoundly human and emotionally honest, but package these nuances in a way that was fun, imaginative, and easier to digest than a warm apple pie.
Maybe Pushing Daisies was too weird and ambitious for its era, but shows like Lost had shown that odd fare could be prestigious and successful. Fuller’s series couldn’t find similar momentum due to a writer’s strike that happened during its first season, and by the time the second installment rolled around, the viewership didn’t turn out. To make matters worse, the final few episodes weren’t even shown during the show’s original run. When they were made available, fans couldn’t find closure due to a cliffhanger ending.
If Pushing Daisies debuted nowadays, it might be more successful. Television has changed so much since 2009, and shows like The Good Place have found success exploring similar existential ideas in the form of a lighthearted, entertaining comedy. Maybe Pushing Daisies will rise from the dead for one more short outing — much like the deceased people that it revolves around — if the call is loud enough.
Throughout the years, Fuller hasn’t given up on resurrecting Pushing Daisies, either. Even though he has explored similar ideas about love and death with the Laura character in American Gods, this crazy comedy is his baby. Pushing Daisies was his artistic expression in its purest form, and he wants to end the journey on his own terms. And that’s what makes this show Petition Worthy.