"Pushing Daisies" was by far the best new drama of last fall. The ABC series was smartly written, aesthetically thrilling, and well-acted by a charismatic cast. The concept — a piemaker named Ned can bring people back from the dead, however briefly — and delivery came together to form a thoroughly original series, even if parts were somewhat derivative.
But "Pushing Daisies" returned a few weeks ago for its second season, and like the corpses that Ned touches, it was flat and devoid of the life it once demonstrated. While its third episode corrected several missteps, the new season's start may have exposed a fundamental problem.
As executed last season, the series was nearly flawless. While there's very little attempt at realism or plausibility, there's life at the core of this modern fairy tale.
As a series, it's shaped perfectly, with both a weekly mystery and overarching conflict that drives its characters. Every episode, Ned's private investigator friend, Emerson Cod, uses Ned's ability to help him solve cases.
Ned's decision to allow one murder victim — his childhood girlfriend, Chuck — to remain alive complicated everyone's lives. Chuck and Ned are in love but can't have physical contact, Chuck's aunts think she's dead, and Ned's neighbor and pie-making co-worker Olive now finds her love for him even more unrequited.
Chuck and Ned's romance is perhaps one of the most erotic on television simply because they cannot touch; they have more passion for each other than "Grey's Anatomy" characters McDreamy and Meredith ever will. It also manages to be just cute enough to not be nauseating, like last week's "by-proxy high-five," when Chuck and Ned each high-fived Emerson (exasperated, as always) as a way of touching each other.
All of this adds up to a series that is just fun, an immense pleasure to watch. It's light, amusing, and surprising, adjectives that collectively apply to few, if any, other dramas on television today.
Show went flat
But that description didn't really apply to the first two episodes this season, and "Pushing Daisies" suddenly felt two-dimensional instead of its usual 3-D.
The show still had most of the elements of last season: quirky murder cases; the omniscient narrator with his frequent references to exceptionally specific amounts of elapsed time; the witty-slash-cheesy lines; the throwaway but entertaining attention to detail, like the nunnery's cross-shaped table.
What was missing, however, were the key elements that added weight to the show's frivolity. First, Olive Snook was exiled to a nunnery, staying away primarily to keep herself from revealing secrets, and then Chuck moved into Olive's apartment, separating her even more from Ned.
Aunts Lily and Vivian (delightfully played by Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene) were freed of their self-imposed house arrest, but that only highlighted how absurd it is that they still don't know Chuck is alive. Not all the main characters know about Ned's skill, but considering that it's easily accepted by those who do, there seems to be no reason to conceal it from them other than to create artificial tension. This is, after all, a fairy-tale universe.
The real problem was Olive's exile, which pulled the main characters apart. Thankfully, that storyline ended last week, with Olive no longer banished. Chuck also finally learned that one of her aunts is, in fact, her mother, so it seems like the series isn't going to be one that derives its narrative energy from perpetually unsolved mysteries (hello, "Lost").
Ned and Chuck still need to be reunited, and aunts Lily and Vivian need to finally learn that Chuck is alive. If that doesn't happen by the end of the season, that conceit will have completely worn itself out. There are other backstories to explore, such as Chuck's murder, but again, this isn't "Lost"; mysteries aren't the point.
A frail fairy tale
Ultimately, the larger problem is that those first two episodes exposed how frail the show's structure might be.
Physically and emotionally separating the main characters was a risk that seemed designed to break up the structural monotony that the show could easily slip into. While the weekly mystery gives "Pushing Daisies" something to hang on to, it's not the reason for its magic. That comes from the relationships and tension between its main characters, who all interact flawlessly.
Emerson's faux contempt for Chuck; Chuck's friendship with Olive; Olive pining for Ned; Ned's obliviousness to most of this — it's a fun, quirky group of characters with whom to spend an hour.
Without Olive adding to that regular interaction and tension, the series fell apart, or at least fell flat.
But can "Pushing Daisies" work with only those relationships for the next few years? Won't we quickly grow tired of Ned and Chuck's separation, of Olive's desperation? If they change and grow, will the series fall apart again?
Perhaps. But this kind of set-up has worked for other shows, particularly sitcoms, which in their prime, found a way to make characters thoroughly enjoyable despite the fact that they didn't undergo a whole lot of change from week to week.
Even more than single-camera sitcoms like "The Office" and "Arrested Development," which are really dramas with ridiculous and amusing concepts and characters, "Pushing Daisies" has all of the right elements to bring the situation comedy tradition back to life. Hopefully, that'll be for longer than 60 seconds.