In the first scene of the ABC series “Pushing Daisies,” an eight-year-old boy named Ned frolics in an endless field of those yellow flowers. Suddenly, the boy’s dog is run over by a passing truck. Ned rushes to the dog, touches him and magically brings him back to life. But despite his ability to resuscitate the dead, Ned lives a seemingly normal life playing in the fields and silently obsessing over Chuck, his neighbor and the girl of his dreams. And there, in one fell swoop, you have the premise of the show: the adventures of an unassuming man who can revive the dead — with a few caveats, of course.
The first time Ned uses his power on a human, he attempts to bring back from the dead his just-deceased mother. One touch to her cheek and she is instantly reanimated, unaware that she was dead seconds before. Meanwhile, the camera shot switches across the street to Chuck’s house, where her father collapses while mowing the lawn. The first tenet of Ned’s gift is that he can only bring back the dead for a minute or less without consequence; go beyond this and a random person — anyone in the proximity of the resurrection — will die instead. Later that night, Ned discovers the true curse of his craft. As his mother sweetly tucks him into bed, she kisses him on the forehead and instantly crashes to the floor. By touching those he has brought back to life a second time, Ned sends them back to the dead for good.
The story then fast-forwards 19 years, 34 weeks, one day and 59 minutes later, and Ned (now played by Lee Pace) is running his own restaurant called the Pie Hole. Ned has developed several neuroses since his childhood, including a tendency to babble incoherently when confronted with uncomfortable situations and a severe distaste for physical contact. He fears growing close to another person and having them die like his mother, and so avoids touching all people whether dead or alive. Monetary debt has led Ned to team up with shady private investor Emerson Cod (Chi McBride). Ned and Emerson use Ned’s unique ability to bring murder victims back to life for one minute or less to find out who killed them and then claim the reward for solving the murder. Other cast members include Kristin Chenoweth as the buxom Pie Hole waitress Olive Snook who tries to seduce Ned, and Jim Dale (vocal contributor to the Harry Potter audiobooks) as the show’s narrator. Dale’s speech is smooth, British and contains a slight hint of affection for mischief that makes “Daisies” seem like one of those wacky, fantastic bedtime stories your grandpa used to read.
The “Pie-lette,” as the episode is facetiously titled, focuses on Ned and Emerson’s quest to find out who murdered a woman named Charlotte Charles. When Ned realizes the victim is his childhood friend Chuck (Anna Friel), he can’t bear to touch her and kill her after she explains what she remembers of her death — after all, Chuck gave Ned his first kiss and he was responsible for her father’s premature death. Instead, Ned decides to put Chuck in a coffin and rescue her from her impending burial. The remainder of the episode deals with Chuck’s reincorporation of her life into Ned’s, the trouble she encounters living when everyone thinks she’s dead and the pursuit of her murderer. The episode’s climax occurs at Chuck’s house in Ned’s hometown of Coeur d’Coeurs (Heart of Hearts, for all you non-French speakers), where the murder suspect has tracked down Chuck’s belongings because of her suspicious occupation as a monkey mule. A truly delightful surprise awaits when the murderer meets Chuck’s former synchronized-swimming, agoraphobic, one-eyed Aunt Lily (Swoosie Kurtz) and Aunt Vivian (Ellen Greene).
The sexual tension between Ned and Chuck drives “Pushing Daisies.” These two lovebirds seem never to have gotten over their childhood crushes. But the fact that Ned can’t touch Chuck without killing her leads to some adorable — albeit PG-rated — encounters wherein Ned and Chuck try to overcome the impossibility of physical contact. In one such scene, a love-struck Ned lies on the couch of his apartment with his hand on one side of the wall while Chuck lies on Ned’s bed in an adjacent room with her hand in the same place on her side; this is the closest they can come to holding hands with one another. The scene is at once both incredibly sweet and irritating, and the characters’ failure to consummate their attraction will frustrate hopeless romantics everywhere.
The show’s strength lies in its originality. The dialogue is teeming with puns and one-liners that add genuine humor to the story. The jokes are usually obvious enough so that most will pick them up on first viewing, but eclectic enough that the humor doesn’t seem repetitive. “Daisies” is like seeing a book of Roald Dahl’s acted out, with a touch of CSI and a few reflections on what death reveals about life. The acting is good, too. Pace employs that je ne sais quoi in both humbling Ned by making him sincerely appreciate the consequences of his gift, and in making his surreal power seem somewhat believable. Pace’s appearance, subtle humor and apt ability to convey minor neuroses are reminiscent of a young John Cusack. Viewers are already excited to see how his character will develop as Chuck — a sweet but not saccharine girl with life experience and a conscience — gets under his skin.
If the “Pie-lette” is any indication, “Pushing Daisies” might just be the breakout new show of the season. Its beauty lies in the great variety of characters who allow viewers to temporarily forget this world and dive into Ned’s. With its blend of fantasy, forensics and entertainment, “Daisies” will definitely bring life to ABC’s Wednesday night lineup.