Even if "Pushing Daisies" were awful, it would deserve credit for being so boldly, psychedelically, extravagantly different from the rest of TV. But "Pushing Daisies" is good, as well as distinctive. It's an oddball fairy tale, tinged with the coy, stylized naivete of both "Edward Scissorhands" and Lewis Carroll. And it's narrated by Jim Dale, the bedtime-story voice of the Harry Potter audiobooks. The ABC show, premiering tonight at 8 on Channel 5, is unlike anything else on prime time.
The breakthrough star of "Pushing Daisies," created by Bryan Fuller of "Dead Like Me" and "Wonderfalls," is the design. When John Lennon imagined "tangerine trees and marmalade skies," he might have seen something like "Pushing Daisies" in his inner eye. The colors on screen are densely saturated, with hills of daisies tinted the sweet yellow of a certain brick road and a sky that is surely true blue. Pies figure into the series - our hero, Ned (Lee Pace), is a pie maker at the Pie Hole restaurant, which is shaped like a giant pie - and they're filled with vivid, happy fruit.
It makes perfect sense that Barry Sonnenfeld, director of the visually lavish "Addams Family" and "Men in Black" movies, is a producer on the show, as well as the director of the premiere.
Like most children's storybooks, with their veiled allegories of life and their dark psychological undercurrents, this TV fantasy is bittersweet. Ned doesn't just bake pies; he has a magical ability that, as with the gifted ones on "Heroes," is both a benefit and a curse. He can touch dead things and bring them to life, but a second touch kills them forever. As a child, Ned revived his mother, only to lose her again with a goodnight kiss. Talk about your Freudian showstoppers. Now a sweet young man, he is extremely wary of human attachment. Enter the love of his life, Charlotte "Chuck" Charles (Anna Friel), whom he revives but then can never touch again.
Ned can touch Pie Hole waitress Olive Snook (Kristin Chenoweth) without harming her, and she has a crush on him, which Chenoweth plays with cutesy flirtation bordering on aggression. But Ned isn't interested. She's one of the too-eccentric women on this show, and she makes Chuck's carefree simplicity all the more appealing to Ned. She was raised by a pair of mad aunties who "shared matching personality disorders and a love for fine cheese," as the narrator explains. Played by Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene, they are demented cartoons.
The plot machine of "Pushing Daisies" is fueled, surprisingly, by murder. Behind all the colors and trippy language - the local travel agency is called Boutique Travel Travel Boutique - the show is also a crime-of-the-week detective drama. Ned has channeled his gift into crime-solving, alongside a gruff private investigator played by Chi McBride. Ned revives dead people and asks who killed them, then puts them down all over again. It's a great little system, although there are hitches, of course.
Pace is a big plus, as he mixes a little Charlie Brown into his leading man persona. He was extraordinarily vulnerable in the Showtime movie "Soldier's Girl," as a transgender nightclub singer, and he fit into the sardonic "Wonderfalls" effortlessly. Here he is fragile and sensitive without seeming sappy. Friel, too, is likable, and she makes the unfolding mystery of what killed Chuck inviting.
"Pushing Daisies" works beautifully as an introductory hour. But whether Fuller can open up his exquisite little pilot into week-in and week-out storytelling is anyone's guess - ABC did not send out any other episodes. This is the kind of show that could easily become cloyingly precious without ruthless self-editing. The road that leads from whimsical to forced quirkiness is very short indeed.