Standing head and shoulders above this fall’s other seedlings, “Pushing Daisies” is whimsical, romantic, funny and visually distinctive — such a delicate mix of ingredients, frankly, you fear for its longevity in the cold, cruel world of primetime. The producers are seeking to offset that fragility by incorporating a procedural element into this tale of love and death, but that only invites skepticism the souffle will collapse by episode four or five. Such commercial considerations, however, shouldn’t detract from this beguiling pilot, and credit ABC with taking the season’s boldest leap in hoping that love conquers all.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld has already winced at comparisons to Tim Burton, but given the exploding color scheme and fairy-tale trappings (including narration by Jim Dale, reader of the “Harry Potter” books on tape), they’re all but unavoidable, and in a good way.
Series creator Bryan Fuller previously explored the great beyond in “Dead Like Me,” but this is a far more impressive construct, built around Ned (Lee Pace), who discovers at an early age that he possesses the power to bring the dead back to life with a single touch.
The tradeoff: If he touches that person again, they die forever — and leaving the resurrected alive causes someone else in the vicinity to drop dead, achieving a weird kind of cosmic balance.
Ned has found a way to eke out a living from this talent on two fronts: His dazzling pies, where his touch invests the fruit with tremendous flavor; and moonlighting with a detective (Chi McBride) who inadvertently witnessed his gift first-hand, reviving murder victims long enough to find out who killed them and split the reward. Still, it’s a detached, emotionally frigid existence, as his coworker Olive (the ever-adorable Kristin Chenoweth) points out.
Enter Chuck (Anna Friel), the girl Ned loved as a child before she moved away. When Chuck turns up murdered, Ned brings her back for the sizable payout but can’t bring himself to kill her, creating this conundrum: Although strongly drawn to each other, they can never, ever touch.
Fuller fills the pilot with loads of clever touches, from Ned using an elaborate device to pet his Golden Retriever (yep, brought him back too) to the matter-of-fact responses from the animated corpses, making the hereafter, sweet or otherwise, seem not so bad.
It helps immeasurably that Pace (who was terrific, as a transgender club performer in the Showtime movie “Soldier’s Girl”) is an immensely likable lead, full of childlike vulnerability and almost palpable longing for Friel’s Chuck. Seldom, however, has a series predicated on keeping two characters romantically apart established such an elaborate barrier to insure they stay that way.
“Pushing Daisies” sprouts on Wednesday nights, in a somewhat less competitive hour before the fireworks of “Bionic Woman,” “Private Practice,” “Criminal Minds” and eventually The Reality Show That Cannot Be Named on Fox at 9 p.m.
While it’s hard to imagine “Pushing Daisies” becoming a major hit, the best hope is that a cultish audience will become enormously attached to it (which is almost inevitable) and the series finds a way to sustain its initial charms. Those are both tall orders, but as the premiere makes clear, hope really does spring eternal; this is one pilot that truly deserves to postpone death’s embrace.