Bryan Fuller’s show about death was memorably full of life.
Ten years ago this week, Bryan Fuller took a look at the television landscape around him–one end populated with the antiheroes of The Shield, Mad Men, and 24, the other with network-defining comedies like The Big Bang Theory and The Office–and decided to go in a different direction. The result was Pushing Daisies, an Emmy-winning series whose narrator touted it in an early trailer as “the most extraordinary show you will ever see on television.” While that may be an overstatement, Pushing Daisies was and remains unlike anything else on TV.
The story is a classic one: two lovers come together, overcome hardship and distance, and live happily ever after. The details, however, are anything but cliched. Ned (Lee Pace) is a piemaker and reluctant mystery-solver with a magic touch. He can bring people back to life, though there are consequences for keeping them that way. Charlotte Charles, or Chuck (Anna Friel), is his resurrected childhood crush and current girlfriend, though due to those aforementioned consequences, the two can never touch. The cast is rounded out by a grumpy private detective (Chi McBride), a spunky, musically inclined waitress (Kristin Chenoweth), and Chuck’s two agoraphobic, deeply eccentric aunts (Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene).
It’s not just the oddball cast of characters that are different; every aspect of Pushing Daisies, from the fast, wordplay-laced dialogue to the swooping cameras to the inexplicably spellbinding narration by Jim Dale is designed to be utterly unique. The show’s most breathtaking elements? The set design and costuming. Ned and Chuck’s adventures took them to visually lush, intricate sets like a honey company whose headquarters are designed like a beehive, complete with yellow hexagonal rooms. Elsewhere, they met models advertising a car that ran on dandelions, each of which was dressed like the tufty flower, complete with petaled eyelashes. The average episode of Pushing Daisies had more attention to detail than some entire shows, and if it deserves a spot in the intangible halls of television history, it’s for the tremendous work of set designer Bill Taliaferro and costume designer Laura Neeff.
Pushing Daisies is also sweet, bright, and earnest in its emotional core (Ned’s and Chuck’s relationships with one another, with life, and with death), making its cult status during the present era of ironic distance even more remarkable. A bold mish-mash of fantasy, musical, fairytale, romance, and crime procedural elements that inevitably came across as cloying or confusing to some, Pushing Daisies was never going to be a ratings monster. The show ended after a creatively inconsistent second season that was cut short by the 2007-2008 WGA writer’s strike. A fan campaign to send flowers and seeds to ABC in a plea to keep it on the air was unsuccessful, and maybe a matter of timing: the next year, fans of NBC’s Chuck (which also premiered in September of 2007) successfully pulled that show from the brink of cancellation with the help of fast-growing social media.
Since its cancellation, Pushing Daisies hasn’t been an obvious influence for showrunners, probably because the show’s delicate blend of genres and tones is tough to replicate. For awhile ABC leaned into the show’s quirkiness angle, airing offbeat shows like Eli Stone and Better off Ted, but none have lasted much longer than Daisies. Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is the closest the show has to an heir apparent–it too features a memorable narrator, richly designed sets, and a potent mix of humor, tenderness, and morbidity–but for all the ways it was exceptional, Pushing Daisies mostly stands apart.
In terms of creative longevity, Bryan Fuller has fared better; with Hannibal and American Gods, he’s shown what he’s capable of when given free reign, and it is awe-inspiring. These shows are both more precise in their vision and more expansive in their exploration of it than Pushing Daisies, which feels like a warm-up exercise when viewed in comparison. Still, in a world where the most mundane investigative procedurals can drag on for eight or more seasons, Pushing Daisies deserved more than it was given. Fuller has discussed some form of continuation many times, teasing everything from a miniseries or movie to a comic book series, and even a Broadway musical.
The series itself seems to have the healthiest outlook on its own early demise. Throughout its 22 episodes, the show repeatedly imagined death not as a loss, but as the beginning of a new adventure; Chuck only truly lives for the first time after she’s died. This serves both as a comfort for fans and the strongest case against reviving the show. In the series finale, as each character is shown starting a new chapter of their lives–reconnecting with family, falling in love, and facing fears–the narrator reassures us that “events occurred that are not, were not, and should never be considered an ending. For endings, as it is known, are where we begin.” If the narrator says it, we’d better believe it.