The subtitle for the movie Star Trek VI was The Undiscovered Country. It refers to Shakespeare’s use of the phrase in Hamlet (Act III, Scene I) and the famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. The undiscovered country is, of course, “not to be”, as it is a reference to death and the fears of what lies beyond our existence.
Strangely enough, Star Trek and Shakespeare’s concept of death also combine in the life of one of the most creative and best writers in modern television, who gave us one of the quirkiest and most engaging shows in recent history. The man is Bryan Fuller, and the show is Pushing Daisies.
“I’m fascinated by life and the fact that we’re conscious, and that we have thoughts that string together to form words to have conversation. And life holds a lot of mystery. And I think my obsession with death is really an obsession with life.”
The facts are these….
An amazing and colorful vision appeared on ABC television screens in the Fall of 2007. Pushing Daisies told the story of Ned (Lee Pace), proprietor of The Pie-Hole bakery and possessor of a very unique ability — he could bring the dead back to life with a simple touch.
Of course, the ability had a couple of drawbacks: if he didn’t touch the (previously) deceased again within a minute, someone else nearby would die instead, and if he touched the person he’d saved again, they’d immediately die with no more second chances. First touch, life… second touch, eternal death… if he EVER touched them again!!!! Young Ned discovered these facts as a child when he tried to revive his own mother (seemingly causing the death of his childhood sweetheart’s father across the street), then accidentally causing his own mother to die once again (permanently) from a simple kiss goodnight.
Ned literally had life and death in his hands… a terrific power that became a terrible burden for him around those he loved. (He had even brought his faithful dog back to life, but now has to pet it with a mechanical hand/back scratcher, because his own touch would mean losing his beloved companion forever!) After the (final) death of his mother, young Ned was sent away to school and became a loner, keeping others at an emotional arm’s length throughout his life, and never told anyone about his secret.
Unfortunately, his ability to resurrect the dead is accidentally discovered by private eye Emerson Cod (Chi McBride), who figures Ned would come in real handy tracking down unsolved murders. All Ned would have to do is “revive” the victim, allow them a minute to tell Emerson who their killer was, then let them expire in peace with another touch. This would allow Emerson to find justice for the deceased (not to mention collect any reward money) with little of the work. They first become partners (grudgingly) through Emerson’s blackmail threat to expose Ned, then later as friends when Ned discovers he can actually put his ability to some good use this way. It might work… but a particular dead body changes everything….
Ned finds out his childhood sweetheart has been killed under mysterious circumstances, and convinces an unsuspecting Emerson they should take the case… but it’s really a ruse for Ned to visit the funeral home and revive his long-lost (and temporarily deceased) love, Charlotte Charles (Anna Friel). Since the debacle with his mother, Ned’s never been tempted to keep another dead body alive, but he can’t let his true love die… so he lets the minute elapse… and the crooked funeral director dies instead. “Chuck” (as she prefers) is amazed to be alive again, and even more amazed to discover her benefactor is Ned, the boy she loved as a child growing up across the street. (They were long-lost sweethearts, each other’s first and only real love… no wonder he couldn’t let her die!) Chuck is the catalyst for Ned to use his power for helping others by fulfilling their dying wishes (even if they’re already technically dead). This puts her at odds with Emerson, as there’s only so much information that can be expressed in 60 seconds, and at odds with Ned, who has recovered the woman he loves, yet can’t touch her again without killing her. No holding hands, no comforting touch, no kiss… Ned and Chuck are a couple in deep emotion only, for even holding hands would be the end of it all.
Ned: “You’re supposed to be dead. You’re pushing your luck.”
Chuck: “Yeah, well luck pushed me first.”
Chuck and Emerson are introduced as Ned’s “friends” to Olive (Kristin Chenoweth), the waitress at The Pie-Hole. She’s been pining for Ned’s attentions (to the point of moving in next-door to him) and wants to be involved in solving the mysteries as well. Although Olive is unaware of Ned’s ability, she discovers that Chuck’s family thinks Chuck is still dead, and she believes that Chuck is merely hiding from them for some reason. Olive befriends Chuck, and later also befriends Chuck’s aunts Lily and Vivian (Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene), although she doesn’t give away to them the knowledge of Chuck’s revival. Oh, and Chuck doesn’t know about the whole “I think I killed your father” thing with Ned either….
Secrets abound, death abounds, life abounds. See, it’s Hamlet all over.
“Everything we do is a choice. Oatmeal or cereal? Highway or side-streets? Kiss her or keep her? We make choices and we live with the consequences. If someone gets hurt along the way, we ask for forgiveness. It’s the best anyone can do.”
Actually, it isn’t Hamlet. Instead, it’s an incredibly stylistic display of color, mystery, laughter, whimsy, romance unrequited and romance unfulfilled, and a very light way to treat death. Pushing Daisies was a mystery show, a comedy, a romance, and even on occasion a musical (because it would be a crime to put either Kristin Chenoweth or Ellen Greene in a show and not have them sing once in a while).
It also brought the “quirky” in full force. Aunts Lily and Vivian were known as the Darling Mermaid Darlings, famous for their synchronized swimming act (that is, until Lily ended up with an eyepatch and Vivian became agoraphobic and wouldn’t leave their house anymore). Emerson had a long-lost daughter and a collection of pop-up books, and used the books to try to find her (don’t ask). Chuck’s hobby was urban beekeeping (and that suit came in handy to prevent any accidental touching by Ned). Olive became a nun at one point (I told you, don’t ask). And Ned was a simple pieman with a long-held secret that might destroy his chance at love beyond death (twice).
Ordinary, Pushing Daisies certainly wasn’t…. For that, we thank the extraordinary Bryan Fuller.
“I got into writing to become a Star Trek writer. I was a rabid fan. I had shelves and shelves and shelves of action figures in my bedroom that scared away more dates than I care to admit to. So it was really… if back then, you told me ‘you’re gonna write for Star Trek for twenty years,’ I couldn’t have imagined a happier career.”
Fuller got his start by being an obsessed Star Trek fan, like so many others. But his imagination allowed him to become part of the strangeness that is television. Watching Deep Space Nine, he was struck by how the episodes and stories were put together, and submitted a spec script (meaning unsolicited) to the producers through Trek‘s “open script search” program (unique in the industry, and never really repeated thereafter). His initial idea was strong enough that the producers bought it for the show, and invited him to “pitch” other stories for potential scripts. Another idea was sold to DS9, and he ultimately ended up on sister series Star Trek: Voyager as a staff writer for four years, contributing over 20 scripts and learning from writers that went on to produce CSI, the Battlestar: Galactica revival, Castle, and many other successful series.
He created both the Showtime series Dead Like Me and the Fox series Wonderfalls, each featuring off-kilter storylines and unusual protagonists dealing with large issues in smaller ways. Dead Like Me obviously uses death as a central theme, but in a very different way from Pushing Daisies.
“And I, you know, I think with death, you can’t minimize it. It’s so big. It’s something that holds a lot of magic and mystery for me.”
Magic and mystery, two very important elements of Pushing Daisies. The mystery element is there in the form of the “procedural”, solving murders and getting clues from dead people in the morgue. The magic… well, that was everywhere on this show.
There were flashbacks to Ned and Chuck as children and their innocent young love (where Young Ned receives his first and only kiss). These were narrated by British actor Jim Dale, famous for turns as the audiobook reader for the Harry Potter series, and performances as the silver-tongued P.T. Barnum on Broadway and the tongue-twisted villain in Disney’s Pete’s Dragon. The verbal skills served Dale well, as much of the dialogue featured in the narration (and the series as a whole) used alliteration and rhyming schemes occasionally reminiscent of Dr. Seuss. (Dale’s flashback narration usually began with the phrase “The facts are these” used here near the beginning of this article.)
Then there’s the color palette. With the possible exception of the original Star Trek, it’s doubtful any show on television was this colorful, this bright, this saturated with hues. Here was a show about death, yet presented in a way that was more beautiful and vivid than real life. Add in unusual murder victims (a man claims his wife killed him, but the group then finds out he was a polygamist), weird locations (an entire village of windmills), and outrageous characters (a traveling homeopathic drug salesman, a guy with an incredibly sensitive nose who lives in a sewer, and a woman who trains dogs and uses the same methods on people), and you end up with an intoxicating concoction and a whimsical examination of love and death. No wonder it didn’t last.
“We lost our momentum, we were off the air for almost a year, ten or eleven months we were off the air. As much as the billboards in Los Angeles and New York are great for the people who live in Los Angeles and New York, all the cities in between weren’t really aware we were coming back. Ten months is a long time to say, “Yeah, I remember that.” And people generally don’t.”
The series was a huge hit for its first season. Pushing Daisies garnered both critical acclaim and significant audiences. Then the Writer’s Strike of 2007 stopped everything, cutting short the season (to nine episodes) and removing the show from the public eye. Although it returned almost a year later for 13 more episodes, the previous attention the show had received was lost and the audience never returned. Despite 17 Emmy nominations and 7 Emmy wins over its two shortened seasons, even Ned’s ability couldn’t bring Pushing Daisies back from “the undiscovered country”.
(An aside about the biographies: this is simply one of the most talented casts I’ve ever seen. I had to leave out more in the biographies than I can usually find to put in for people. They’re all simply incredible!)
LEE PACE (Ned) is primarily a movie actor, but his two TV series (Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls, both created by Bryan Fuller) have landed articles on this website. He was first noticed in the Sundance/Showtime film Soldier’s Girl, a role for which he lost 25 pounds and gained a Golden Globe nomination. He will be seen in both parts of the upcoming Twilight Saga movie series, Breaking Dawn.
ANNA FRIEL (Charlotte “Chuck” Charles) began acting professionally in Britain at the age of 13, appearing in series such as G.B.H., Emmerdale, and Brookside (gaining a National Television Award in the UK for “Most Popular Actress” in the latter role). Also a Golden Globe nominee for Pushing Daisies, she’s spent succeeding years focusing on other projects, appearing onstage in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in London’s West End and playing the villain in the upcoming miniseries Neverland.
CHI McBRIDE has been a regular on many series, playing both comedy and drama with ease. First featured on The John Laroquette Show, he’s appeared on The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, Boston Public, The Nine, and House. His current gig is as a regular on the series Human Target. His nickname “Chi” is actually short for Chicago, his hometown.
KRISTIN CHENOWETH is a star in almost any medium, and an unstoppable force with a huge voice in a tiny body. While her own starring TV series died a quick death (Kristen), she’s been a Broadway stalwart winning a Tony Award for the revival of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and a nomination for Wicked (an award she lost to her co-star, Idina Menzel). On television she’s played Marian the Librarian in The Music Man, and now has a recurring role on Glee. She’s also cited as the inspiration for Aaron Sorkin creating the Harriet Hayes character in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
SWOOSIE KURTZ is another amazingly talented performer, earning Tony and Emmy awards herself. First a regular on the Tony Randall series Love, Sidney, she later starred in the series Sisters and is currently seen on Mike & Molly. Her stage career includes performances in House of Blue Leaves, Fifth of July, and Imaginary Friends. Her unusual first name comes from the type of plane (“half swan, half goose”) her Air Force father flew on many missions during WWII, a plane that hangs in the National Museum of the USAF.
ELLEN GREENE began her performance career as a cabaret singer, moving quickly to the world of New York theatre. She originated the role of Audrey in the Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors, and reprised the role in the cult hit film version with Rick Moranis. She’s recently appeared as Miss Adelade in a star-studded concert version of Guys and Dolls at the Hollywood Bowl, and been seen on episodes of The Young and the Restless.
Pushing Daisies garnered many fans, especially during its inaugural season. Some fans were moved to create great websites dedicated to news and information about the series, like this one. A limited number of episodes are available at The WB website (the show’s production company), and these are rotated out every week so you can see what you’ve missed. Both seasons are available on DVD (with yummy extras). A first-season music CD was released, with the second-season music just announced for April 2011. A special limited edition comic book came out during Comic-Con 2007, and news is that the story of Pushing Daisies will live again in comic form in the Spring of 2011 with new stories by Bryan Fuller AND a soundtrack likely available online with the original cast! (Even when this show does a comic, it’s different!) Finally, the Paley Center in L.A. did a retrospective on the show with the entire cast and some of the production staff, and that event was filmed and is available on DVD and Video on Demand through Amazon.
Everything about Pushing Daisies screams unique, from the storyline to the music to the colors to the acting and writing. Bryan Fuller was just a typical fan of television watching at home, and ended up becoming a TV creator and producer involved in some of the best and most inventive television made in the last two decades. He’s approached J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot Productions with ideas on adapting their rebooted Star Trek for television after the current movie run is done, helping resurrect the venerable TV franchise from the dead once again.
His story, and the story of Pushing Daisies, gives hope to all those whose dreams and efforts may have died that there is still life. There is still a way for dreams to come true. There is still hope for amazing things. The Pieman’s magic touch may be fantasy, but it was wrought out of a combination of reality, hard work, and dreaming impossible things that come true. And that is really the definition of both Star Trek and Pushing Daisies. Life after death. The facts are these….
22 aired episodes — none unaired
First aired episode: October 3, 2007
Final aired episode: June 13, 2009, although the majority of episodes ended the previous December, as ABC simply burned off the final three episodes on Saturday nights long after the show was officially canceled.
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? With the exception of the burnoff episodes, Pushing Daisies aired on Wednesday nights at 8/7 Central.
Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.