Pushing Daisies – “Circus Circus”

“Circus Circus”

October 8th, 2008

In the prologue to the second episode of Pushing Daisies’ second season, Ned learns a lesson that may be all too self-prophetic for Bryan Fuller’s charming show: that “new beginnings only lead to painful ends.” Considering last week’s alarmingly low ratings numbers, joining Chuck and Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles on the lists of shows bouncing back creatively if not in terms of viewership after the writers’ strike cut their seasons short, Pushing Daisies might well be headed for an end that will certainly be painful considering how much I love this show.

But as the episode progresses, what is demonstrates is that new beginnings aren’t nearly as hard as Ned’s initial lesson made it out to be: that striking out on your own, or suddenly being on your own, or hoping for a new period in your life to begin, can be both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time without having to fall into either category. While it may seem like a show shouldn’t be able to create a common thread for a pie maker who can bring back the dead, an alive again childhood sweetheart, a picture-book making detective, two eccentric Aunts, and an employee who’s at a nunnery, all while also managing to construct an entertaining circus-based murder mystery, Pushing Daisies has proven its mettle.

The world of the circus is, let’s face it, the perfect setting for Pushing Daisies: while last week’s premiere was solid, considering that the bees were a personal connection for Chuck, this week was something that fit much better within the overall universe that Bryan Fuller (and this week, writer Peter Ocko and director Lawrence Trilling) has created. Whether it was waking a mime from the dead only to have them refuse to speak, or the rather hilarious (if morbid) image of 14 bodies coming out of the sunken clown car (and Emerson and Ned’s hilarious non-reaction), there is just a lot of fun to have with The Circus of Fun, and this is the show to do it.

The mystery was also generally more interesting, with twists and turns that were predictable enough based on genre standards but were still kind of fun to watch. In reality, the mysteries on Pushing Daisies rarely go beyond the level of Scooby-Doo: the reveal at the end that it was the character introduced in the very beginning but unseen through the rest of the episode who did the crime is exactly the type of plotting that show used, and what twists and turns took place were more or less choreographed to the point of being surprising only in their content, and not in their existence. But, as long as the end solution feels worthwhile, it doesn’t matter: in this instance, young runaway gets caught up in snitching for the Ringmaster on the union-forming clowns, who are murdered by the acrobat who fears for his career in the wake of the circus having to close, is more than fun enough to hold water.

And that’s all the mystery has to do considering that what we’re really watching for is the characters themselves. Like Chuck, the show seems to have a real grasp on how their characters should work in this setting, something that the extended break seems to have helped with. If it was even possible, Chi McBride (as Emerson Cod) is doing even more amazing work here than he did last season, nailing almost every one-liner all while centralizing his desire to be reunited with his long-lost daughter (Who we learned this week was taken away by his wife seven years previous). But the show is smart in knowing not to go too far to change Emerson: even when demanding that Nikki’s mother (Rachael Harris) love her daughter despite the change in her personality, it is in a stern, authoritative and hilarious tone (“Love whats there. Love it. Love it.”)

On the other side of the comic coin, Kristin Chenoweth continues to flourish in her new environment at the nunnery (even if, considering Ned/Emerson/Chuck’s trip to the nunnery next week, it’s probably coming to an end soon enough). There is just something about Olive as a character that works in this environment, and of the existential crises that we see ongoing in the series hers is the most important. What never really worked was Olive in relation to Ned, in terms of their love relationship: not that it was impossible, but that creating a love triangle was too much mess for a relationship (Ned and Chuck) with more than enough tension and emotional baggage on its own. But Chenoweth is so good that the character has flourished regardless, and if her upcoming epiphany can give her a new trajectory (as did her trips to visit the Aunts last season) the show is in extremely good shape.

The episode’s most important crises, though, is that between Ned and Chuck, particularly that both characters are having to enter an important new period in their lives. Living apart has made Ned realize that he isn’t able to live his entire life about Chuck, that perhaps he should attempt to rebrand himself as something outside of that, while Chuck is realizing that she traded in one cage (her isolated life pre-death) with another one (living with Ned in this blanket of security still not out experiencing the world beyond The Pie Hole that often). It’s not that either of them were upset with their previous arrangement, but rather it was not what they had anticipated, it was a new holding pattern. While the end of the episode obviously implies that part of their new personas is an act (playing the opposite of house, if you will), I do think that even that little game has some real potential for them to move outside of their boundaries.

That, of course, is the episode’s message: rather than fundamentally changing who you are or what you do, it’s about accepting that and moving on with the knowledge that you can change things. When Lily and Vivian walk into the Pie Hole, they haven’t changed their core beliefs (which the show humorously identified as eating pie and keeping secrets) but they have embraced the outside world in a way that haven’t before. The hope is that, with time, the other characters can find the same place: by setting out almost all characters on almost the same journey through an organic and whimsical series of circumstances, Pushing Daisies continues to elevate its procedural setting with a comfortable collection of individuals who welcome us into this world.

Cultural Observations

  • Always glad to call a Chekhov’s Gun correct: a giant cannon is never wheeled through the screen if it is not going to be used later in the episode.
  • I don’t know which I enjoy more: the Mime’s actual Van Sticker (“Mimes do it with Imagination”) or Emerson’s suggested van sticker upon finding him dead (“If this van’s a rockin’, I’m being murdered!”)
  • Good use of both a firebreather and a commercial cut in order to bleep out expletives (or in the latter example, the more vulgar part of the clown’s bodily limerick) – the show airs early in the night, and for the most part has more fun with death than fun with violence or vulgarities, but little hints like that fit the show’s setting well.

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