If Bryan Fuller’s Pushing Daisies were one of the March sisters from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, it would be Beth: the show was too good and gentle for this world, so it had to die a tragic, scarlet fever related death – or more precisely, it had to be unceremoniously canceled after its second season in 2009. Admirers of the ill-fated series about a pie-maker with the power to bring dead things back to life by touching them were, it seemed, being given another opportunity to have a visually stunning, linguistically nimble, Pushing Daisies-esque experience when NBC announced that Fuller would be developing a reboot of The Munsters. Did we really need this reboot? Probably not. But Fuller has a way with high-concept fantasy and with him at the helm, it actually sounded like a good idea.
Mockingbird Lane, starring Jerry O’Connell, Portia de Rossi, and Eddie Izzard, aired last Friday as a one-off Halloween special. Originally meant to be a pilot for the series, the network has – at least, for now – decided not to take the project any further than this single episode, which reportedly cost a mint to produce (estimates have it at a staggering $10 million). Lately, NBC has been making brain-wrinkling programming decisions (what’s with all the Community premiere date shuffling?), but they played this Mockingbird Lane situation correctly. The pilot had brief flickers of brio (Izzard as Grandpa was bewitching and the costumes were some of the most dazzling created for network TV) but, overall, there was very little spark. By the end of the mostly bland episode, it was hard not to just sit there and pine for the pie maker’s magic touch because if there is one series that should be brought back from the dead, surely, it’s Pushing Daisies.
Debuting in 2007 on ABC, Fuller’s sweetly morbid, pie-centric fantasy was a mash-up of genres. Hard-boiled detective noir, fairy tale, supernatural romance, musical – all of these elements seamlessly melded together to tell the storybook-like tale of Ned (Lee Pace), resurrector of the dead, proprietor of The Pie Hole, and the object of friend-zoned waitress Olive Snook’s (Kristin Chenoweth) affection. With hardnosed gumshoe Emerson Cod (Chi McBride) and childhood sweetheart/sort of zombie, Charlotte “Chuck” Charles (Anna Friel) at his side, the pie maker unraveled the mysterious circumstances of local murders by interrogating reanimated dead folks.
Thematically, Pushing Daisies approached death humorously without trivializing it. As the series’ narrator (Jim Dale) often reminded us, there were conditions to Ned’s gift: “first touch, life. Second touch, death forever.” Fuller captured the stark realities of a big subject – mortality – in the abrupt finality of that second touch and by having characters, often quite literally, drop dead (Ned’s mom hits the ground like felled lumber). The darkness that was sort of looming over all of the technicolor beauty mitigated much of the comedy’s preciousness, preventing this show – which was very, very adorable and really so warm that it was basically the TV equivalent of milk and fresh-baked cookies – from being too saccharine.
In addition to being quirky, the premise was, at first blush, convoluted (and back in 2007, trying to hype the show to someone who hadn’t already tuned in always proved interesting). But the world that Fuller created was so meticulously rendered that Pushing Daisies’ logic and quirks were unquestionable and ultimately transporting. The color palate was vivid and dreamy; the stunning wardrobe was modern but also clearly influenced by the fashions of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s; the witty dialogue was hyper-stylized with characters mixing pulp crime novel slang and contemporary colloquialisms (one murder victim is described as having been “wiggity, wiggity whacked”); the place and character names were incredible achievements in wordplay and cuteness (a travel agency is called “Boutique Travel Travel Boutique” and David Arquette played Randy Mann). There was a bold, cinematic quality in this painstaking detailed universe, which isn’t uncommon now but was definitely out of the ordinary in 2007. The show was streets ahead and in light of Once Upon a Time’s recent success, had Pushing Daisies premiered a year ago, it wouldn’t have seemed doomed from the get-go.
Fuller’s name should be mentioned in the same breath as Joss Whedon’s. Well, maybe not the same breath – as his work hasn’t had the same wide-reaching impact on the culture as Whedon’s – but definitely in a subsequent breath closely following that initial Whedony breath. Aside from exploring fantasy scenarios, both writers perform minor miracles with words and the trajectory of their careers has been similar – Fox canceled Whedon’s sharp space western Firefly after a season and then a year later canceled Fuller’s equally smart surreal comedy Wonderfalls. Pushing Daises was Fuller at his best – Mockingbird Lane was on par with it visually but lacked the wit – and with any luck, he’ll take a page from the Whedon book and bring The Pie Hole scoobies to the big screen. Until then, Fuller fans can cross their fingers for his upcoming NBC thriller Hannibal.