Reviewing Through the Time Machine: Pushing Daisies

Ned and Chuck - Pushing DaisiesTitle: Pushing Daisies
Original Run: 2007-2009
Starring: Lee Pace, Anna Friel, Chi McBride and Kristin Chenoweth
Created By: Bryan Fuller
Genre: Comedy-drama, Fantasy, Mystery, Quirky/Odd-ball
Awards: Nominated for 57 awards, including 17 Emmy Awards; Won 18 Awards, including 7 Emmy Awards
Price: Season 1: £5.99; Season 2: £9.99 (Amazon prices at time of posting)

The most beautiful, funny, poignant, stylish, and original television show ever to get axed.

Premise: Ned has an unusual gift: he can touch dead things and bring them back to life… but only for a minute. If he touches them again, they go back to being dead, but if he leaves them alive for more than a minute then something else has to die in their place. Ned discovered his power as a child when his dog Digby was run-over, and learned the limitations on his power when his mother died, suddenly. He restored her to life, but at the cost of his childhood sweetheart’s father, who died in her place. He grows up to become a pie-maker who avoids close personal attachments, for fear of what he might do if someone he loved were to die. A private detective named Emerson Cod discovered his power, and now Ned works with Emerson to solve mysteries by waking the dead (but only for a minute!) and asking them who killed them.

But when Chuck (aka Charlotte Charles), dies in mysterious circumstances, Ned cannot stop himself from bringing her back, for good. As Chuck helps Ned and Emerson investigate her own murder, she and Ned renew their affections for one another; the only trouble is… they can never touch. Or Chuck will die again, this time, forever.

Why you should love it

Pushing Daisies achieves an unlikely, but perfect balance. Its bright colours, cartoonishly surreal style, and impossibly sweet hopeless romance could very easily be sickeningly saccharine, and yet it is not. Similarly, the morbid subject matter could just as easily be too grim and depressing for a light-hearted comedy. However, together, each provides a perfect counter-balance to the other, producing something so quirky and wonderful and dark and heart-warming that it is like no other show I have ever seen.

Every element is in harmony. The casting could not be more spot on. Lee Pace is an inspired choice for the sweet, physically awkward Ned. Anna Friel positively glows off the screen as Chuck, effusing exactly the renewed zest for life needed for a woman who spent most of her life cooped up looking after her shut-in aunts before being killed on the cruise that was her first independent venture into the world. Kristin Chenoweth deserves every bit of her two Emmy Awards for her portrayal of Olive, the diminutive waitress who has long pined for Ned, and the foot and a half difference in height between them provides the perfect opportunity for some sweet and well-played physical comedy. Chi McBride’s sarcastic but good-hearted Emerson Cod grounds the show with a dash of practicality.

Much credit should be given to the costume and visual design, which perfectly complements the vibrant surreality of the show. This is probably the most stylish television programme I have ever seen (although Mad Men offers some stiff competition from a different genre). Accents of 1950s and 60s fashion are mixed with something thoroughly modern in joyfully bright colours that speak of the fairytale undertones whilst lightening the darker elements of the show.

Most of all, the fast-paced and snappy script is both witty and poignant as it brings the characters to life, exploring their unusual issues and unveiling the weekly mystery they must solve.

This show was always going to hit a sweet spot for me. The Ned/Chuck romance with its associated angst is just exactly the sort of thing I like to curl up with, and you guys know how I adore someone with superpowers who is forced to hide his ability. But Pushing Daisies is never weighed down by its angsty elements; it soars with them to new heights, and somehow always leaves you at the end of the episode somehow feeling better about the world. Because even if their world is not our world, wonderful men and women alive in our world dreamt it up.

Moreover, it’s a wonderful programme for race and gender, for the most part because it doesn’t make a fuss of them. Although the two leads are white, it is otherwise unusually racially diverse for an American TV show, Emerson Cod being just one of several black men and women, and although he’s the only non-white show regular, many of the guest stars are Asian or latino. There are also more female regulars than men, which is very unusual, and although there are romantic plotlines, Pushing Daisies passes the Bechdel Test so well it’s not even an issue. Yet this is not a show with any overt feminist themes, it’s just a show that thinks about people in terms of their characters first, not their genders.

It is a true loss to the world that this show was cut short. Its ample awards demonstrate that the brevity of its run is not a reflection of its quality or critical reception. It was just a victim of the writer’s strike. Its first season was cut in half, and it wasn’t able to build on its early success to develop the following that would ensure viewing figures to satisfy the networks in its second season. This is nothing but an act of short-sightedness on the part of executives who dismissed the shows clear potential for future growth on the basis of present figures at a very difficult time. Not that I’m bitter, or anything.

Anyway. If there’s one new TV show you want to try this year, make it this one. Just get it. £6 will get you the whole first season. You could spend more at the cinema getting a headache from a poorly made 3D film. And if you’re worried about the inevitable lack of resolution for a show cut short: Bryan Fuller has been working on a comic to tie up the story.

Besides, Lee Pace is very pretty.

Green Lantern

Green LanternI really, really like superhero films. I like space. I like people with powers. I like skin-tight jumpsuits. I like secret identity angst. Although I do not think all superhero movies are good, they rarely bore me. X-men 3 was bad, but it didn’t bore me. There are three exceptions to this, two of which I saw in the last week. The first of these was The Death of the Incredible Hulk, which I’d been saving up as a special treat. If you know me well enough to know how much I love The Incredible Hulk, you’ll know what it means when I say that this movie was so bad I can’t even bring myself to review it. The second is Green Lantern, which was probably only enjoyable because I saw it with the wonderful Lee Harris, and the bottle of wine we smuggled in. (The other film is Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Nuff said.)

I’d heard that this film wasn’t 100% made of win, but that had been in the context of speculation about superhero fatigue created by the recent glut. As I’m pretty much never going to get tired of superhero films, I didn’t pay this too much mind. However, although I think the assessment is wrong, the message that this is a dull film that’s just going through the motions is worth heeding. The danger lies in blaming a genre for the faults of a film. The last three films I saw in the cinema were all superhero films. Thor was massive fun, despite my prejudice against Kenneth Branagh as a director. X-men: First Class was one of my favourite superhero films of all time. This film isn’t dull because there are too many superhero films, and superhero films aren’t dull because there are too many of them. This film is just dull.

Green Lantern has all the elements of a superhero film. It has space (not necessary, but often a joy). It has superpowers. It has secret identity angst. It has skin-tight costumes. But it’s just thrown them all together with no sense of style, pacing, or originality. I’ve seen worse scripts. The Spiderman films had god-awful scripts and actors that did little to bend their terrible lines into something less painful. But the script in Green Lantern, if not as actively painful as Spiderman, was boring and obvious.

I wondered if it was just that the Green Lantern story was not for me. I’m not a fan of the comics, and what little I’ve gleaned about them didn’t inspire me. However, Lee is a fan, and if anything I think he was even more disappointed than I was.

The one credit to this movie is that the actors are really working hard with what they’ve been given. Ryan Reynolds (Hal Jordan/Green Lantern) and Blake Lively (Carol Ferris) are to be commended for forcing believability and interest out of an unconvincing romance. Tim Robins is wasted as Senator Hammond. Not in that he was inappropriate for a role – I loved seeing him be a little bit bad, it’s just that he was given absolutely nothing to play with.

The 3D was wasted on this film, also. If you have a choice, do not spend the extra couple of quid, all you will get is a movie that’s blurrier than it needs to be in the action scenes. There are a couple of nice moments, but not enough to warrant the whole film. It doesn’t have to be this way. Thor worked its 3D seamlessly in a way that only enriched its beautiful CGI landscape. I never once had to remove my 3D glasses due to eyestrain when watching Thor, but with Green Lantern they were almost more off than on.

Admittedly, Carol Ferris puts the representation of other female love-interests to shame. She kicks legitimate butt with both her brains and with missiles without crossing any lines of believability. Moreover, this film does pretty well for race (for a Hollywood movie). Not only do we have a black woman as the chief scientist in what is clearly a high-level secret scientific institution, but I have never seen so racially diverse a crowd scene in a Hollywood movie. It is a sad thing for other Hollywood movies that I noticed this. On the other hand, in the green lantern crowd scenes, I only spotted one female green lantern. For some reason, she was the only one whose costume left a large portion of her chest uncovered by green suit, revealing most of her ample alien bosoms. Similarly, Dr Amanda Waller (Angela Bassett) may be intellectually at the top of the game, but for some bizarre reason she tends to wander round the lab in four-inch heels and a tiny lab-coat dress. Nothing wrong with sexy female scientists, I actually know several, but they manage to look much sexier than this without dressing so impractically at work.

The real thing that drags this film down, though, is the pacing. We spend far, far too long on the back story of the Green Lanterns, and then on Hal’s training. The basic story is actually OK, and Hal’s initially repulsive character really turns around by the end of the film. But we take far too long to get there. I imagine I’m meant to be rooting for Hal as he stabs his friend in the back and selfishly ruins his company’s chances by showing off. But I’m not. He deserves to be fired. You can pull off the reckless rogue, but you have to really work it, and Hal Jordan is no Han Solo – not in this film, anyway. Once the character actually starts to arc, he does grow on you, but by that point you’ve already spent 40 minutes thinking he’s a dick. If there were something else in the film to provide a hook, it would be OK, but it’s formulaic is as formulaic does.

I don’t especially like writing negative reviews. It isn’t so much that I loathed this film with a fiery passion. I have seen worse films. I do not hate this movie. I was simply bored by it. I rarely feel like I wish I could have the time back I spent watching a movie, and in this case I had a fun night out with a mate, so I don’t regret that. I’m just saying that if you want to have a fun night out with a mate, there are better films on at the moment you could go and see.

X-Men: First Class

X-men: First Class posterExcept for the exceptions, this movie is exceptional. If there’s one superhero movie you should make the time to see this year, it’s this one. I haven’t decided yet whether to regard it as my favourite superhero movie of all time (there’s some stiff competition, and I do have some reservations), but it’s pretty damn good. I know in some parts of the internet it’s considered sacrilege to say this, but it’s better than Iron Man.

So, that’s some heavy praise. What was so good? Well, for starters, it is expertly cast. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are spot on for the younger versions of Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erik Lensherr (Magneto). Jennifer Lawrence as the young Raven (Mystique) was also charmingly appropriate, both as an actor, and as a match for a younger version of Rebecca Romijn. Not to mention that January Jones was a true pleasure as Emma Frost – nice to see her in a more forceful role, as a contrast to her interesting, yet fragile beauty in Mad Men. But the real show stealer for impeccable casting was Kevin Bacon, as the ageless Sebastian Shaw. Given the old ‘six degrees of Kevin Bacon’ game inspired by his ubiquitous presence in films of the 90s, Bacon has been oddly absent from our screens in recent years. This was a wonderful role for him as a come back, especially as he still looks like he might have walked in right off the set of Tremors.

In addition to the casting, the script was simply excellent. Funny, understatedly sad with foreshadowing, and thrummingly charged in all the right places. Truly, the trailers do not do this film justice (and I thought the trailers were 100% squee-worthy). In particular, the quiet, not-meant-to-be relationship between Raven and Hank McCoy (Beast) was beautifully played.

This film was swinging with all the style and opulence of a 60s spy film, but also managed to capture the youthful exuberance and folly of a group of young people thrust together and discovering community in their difference.

So, what are the exceptions? [Spoiler alert] Most striking is the scene where Shaw’s Evil Mutants have invaded the compound where Our Heroes are getting to know each other, slaying dozens of men in front of the shocked eyes of the young mutants, and then asking the teenagers to join them. Who goes over to the dark side? The latino female sex worker. Which of the mutants dies senselessly in a completely unnecessary manner? The black one. In an otherwise brilliant piece of cinema, there’s really no excuse for such an outdated message that black men are expendable and women who have sex are evil. Overall, there’s an unusually high balance of men to women in this film, but as Aliette de Bodard pointed out on her Twitter feed (with one notable exception) they’re all evil. And even the otherwise commendable character of Moira McTaggart (played by Rose Byrne) gratuitously gets her kit off. Not to mention the ridiculous moment when Emma Frost’s otherwise impermeable diamond skin is apparently vulnerable to brass when she’s being tied up against a bed. These are not awesome messages, yo.

Of course, all of this is par for the course for a Hollywood movie, it’s just a shame when a fun, but otherwise lesser, movie like Thor recently did so much better so easily for female representation and discussion of race issues (even if the plot mostly centred about the woes of gods who presented as white males for most of the movie).

But I don’t want to dwell on that. Despite these objections, I still think this movie is 95% awesome, and one of the top superhero films ever made. Never have powers been used so well or effects been so good. Rarely have scripts been so finely crafted.

See this film. You will enjoy it.

P.S. There’s nothing after the credits – just FYI.