November 26th, 2008
I was one of the few who, really, wasn’t jumping up and down over last week’s episode of Pushing Daisies. While the episode was, no question, a strong investigation into Ned’s character and the show’s central questions, it all felt a bit heavy to me. And while I’m not saying that the show shouldn’t be allowed to enter into that territory, when I’m up to my neck in deadlines part of me would rather an episode of Pushing Daisies that feels more indulgent than self-indulgent, if that makes any sense.
This week, by comparison, falls on the other side of the spectrum; some, and quite justifiably, are likely to find that the story of a Robin Hood-dunnit seems inconsequential compared to last week’s episode, and that it felt especially marginalized when there was quite a large amount of development in relation to the arrival of Dwight Dixon (especially in terms of fallout from his discovery of Chuck’s empty grave in last week’s episode).
For me, however, I thought that it was what Pushing Daisies is: a crime procedural glossed up with charm out the wazoo and a sureness of character which allows them to balance recurring storylines with a deft hand that most standard procedures aren’t capable of. So, while this episode certainly felt more forced than last week’s, that it still charmed the pants off me is perhaps the greater accomplishment. And I won’t tell a lie: when I’m scrambling to write my 20-page research paper on Performance in the transition from Aestheticism to Decadence in 19th Century Literature, I much preferred this lighter concoction than I did last week’s overload.
The arrival of Dwight Dixon could have, with poor execution, felt like everyone’s worst nightmare: Tritter. I refer, of course, to the character who, in House’s third season, arrived in a contrived fashion as a threat to the peaceful existence that the show normally upheld. These shows can often become complacent, but one of their worst habits is to arbritrarily insert a period of drama in order to heighten the stakes. You know, on a show like House, that whatever change there is is temporary: Tritter’s departure did not leave any lasting ramifications on the show, just a reall awful series of episodes that stretched my patience.
So when I call Pushing Daisies a different kind of procedural, the success of Dwight Dixon is a direct effect of this. Its central conceit already a complex series of interpersonal relationships and charmingly surreal traits, the show has never ceased being the type of show that pushes these kinds of issues. The second season, though, has seen a heightened sense of this: when Lily announced she was Chuck’s mother at the end of last season, we were presented with an entirely new layer to this dynamic. And, accordingly, we spent the first few episodes of the season dealing with the fallout (Olive in the monastery, the Aunts being distant, Chuck finding out and processing the truth, etc.).
Any other procedural, though, might have gone back to “normal,” but Pushing Daisies both
- a) doesn’t know the meaning of the world normal, and
- b) has never stopped presenting itself with such complexity.
So, with the arrival of Dwight Dixon, it felt like a logical continuation, a continued integration of the “big mystery” that drives these characters forward. Admittedly, I often fall on two sides with this question: I’m a fan of these overarching storylines because it really gives meaning to these characters (which we saw a lot of in this episode, from pretty much everyone), but sometimes I really want to be able to see the comic side of this ensemble let loose in the wacky mysteries that they’re called on to solve. Some of my favourite episodes (Season 1’s “Bitches” or even “Dim Sum Lose Some” from earlier this season) are those where the drama is almost entirely absent: it’s just Ned, Chuck, Emerson and Olive solving mysteries.
This episode, for me, walked that fine line in a way that procedurals normally can’t. The MotW (Mystery of the Week) was nothing deep, but did present itself in both a fun and (ideally) convenient fashion. While there was nothing quite as fun as Fred Willard’s guest appearance, I actually felt that certain elements of the MotW were just more light-hearted, and it played better. Ned’s highly emotional turn last week was fine, but I like Ned better as someone kind of getting dragged along for the ride: my favourite line in the episode is “Stakeouts are only fun when everyone has binoculars,” primarily because it speaks to the crime-solving dynamic. The story actually gave plenty of great examples of this: Ned wakes them up, Chuck talks people through situations (both Gustav and, eventually, the Bellman if errantly), Emerson does the legwork and gun pointing (“for a change”) and Olive gets dressed in a hilariously ridiculous costume, walks her pig into the Bellman HQ.
No, none of it was that surprising or anything more than a slightly surreal version of a normal procedural crime: rich man dies under mysterious circumstances, employees and gold digging wife appear as main suspect, third party introduced as potential causal force, vast conspiracy is unveiled, potential murder weapon rules out other suspects, return to third party as perpetrator, relative (or in this case, lawyer) of victim gets closure. What worked, though, is that I liked the incidentals: I enjoyed Emerson’s giant calculator to decide his own fee, I liked seeing Ned slowly piece together what a key party was (and that his first shocked reaction was in fact actually still far from the truth), and…I guess my reaction to the recent announcement that the show isn’t getting a Back 9 was to cherish these simple pleasures, the ones the show has brought fairly consistently week over week.
As far as the recurring storyline goes, I thought it also did a good job this week of involving everyone. We get Ned’s stress baking (worrying about whether Dwight will connect the dots about Chuck being alive), Olive’s stress binging (she went through six pies after her admittedly tense standoff with Dwight when he came to the Pie Hole after hours), Vivian’s ill-fated love (although, like the Grinch, his heart is growing fond of her innocence and heartfelt emotions), Lily’s shotgun-threatening driven by protecting both her family and her own secret, and then that final scene as Ned and Chuck open her father’s coffin. Will there be nothing inside, as one could kind of expect? I don’t know, but the reason the scene worked as far outside of that moment.
It was their little discussion that reminded me what the show does so well. Here are two characters that have this entirely non-physical relationship, but what could be as touching as the moment where Chuck simply looks at Ned and realizes that he is willing to stress-bake for life and put his own secret at risk in order to spare her having to say a one-minute goodbye to the man she lost at such a young age. That is the power of Pushing Daisies’ recurring storylines, a buildup of character that started with the pilot and has never stopped. I still can’t watch this show without freaking out over how close Ned and Chuck are standing to one another (them digging through unstable soil together in that grave nearly gave me a heart attack), and there’s a certain power in that that is likely blinding me to some of the episode’s flaws.
I’m not going to remember this mystery, or this episode, in the way that we’ll remember “That one with the magic” or “That one with Fred Willard,” but I think I’ll remember it as an episode that I really enjoyed watching. No, it wasn’t game-changing, and its cliffhanger was a bit abrupt, and its MotW was expendable, but it all felt…right. And, in a time when more serious fare like House, Fringe and Dexter sits unwatched in my backlog, this was exactly what I wanted Pushing Daisies to be.
- If the show had gotten a Back 9, I hope we could have met Manuel, the big Cholo janitor who is part of an El Salvadorian gang who murders older white men. He sounds like a hoot!
- “He’s responsible for your tight balls,” followed by Emerson’s immediate glance at his private parts, was a really cheap gag, and the entire reason for the nonsensical automatic yarn spooler that the victim created…but I still laughed, won’t lie.
- Sure, it wasn’t Shakespeare, but I thought the trophy wife with absolutely no sense of grandeur was completely hysterical; yeah, it was crude, but her use of slang terms (and then Emerson’s co-opting of badunkadunk) made up for its lack of imagination with the fun performance from Jennifer Elise Cox and the humour of Ned’s puzzled reaction.
- Speaking of guest stars, both Shelley Berman (who played Gustav) and Ethan Phillips (I yelled “Neelix!” at my screen when he showed up as the lawyer, fit into the show’s world fairly well, and while not as integral or awesome as Fred Willard did help give the episode some weight.
- The preview for the next episode showed that Patrick Fischler is on the show…which means he now will have been on The Middleman, Burn Notice, Mad Men, and Pushing Daisies in the past six months or so. And, as Maureen Ryan details, he’ll even be on Lost during the fifth season. If he’s catering to the ever-elusive Cultural Learnings demographic, he’s quite successful.