Thursday, October 11, 2007
'Pushing' Dandelions as well as 'Daisies'
In a blog post last week, Ken Levine did a fine job of explaining why second episodes are often more complicated or challenging than pilots and why we need to cut our friendly neighborhood showrunners a little more slack.
This season has provided ample evidence to back him up. For every "Dirty Sexy Money" or "Chuck," which basically stayed on creative par or dipped only slightly in quality, there have been three or four shows like "Bionic Woman," "Journeyman" or "Big Bang Theory," which either squandered initial affections or confirmed initial dread.
I've been nervous about the second episode of "Pushing Daisies" since May. While my initial instinct -- that audiences would run scurrying from the stench of twee like Mormons from a rum-and-coke, leading the near-instant cancellation -- appears not to have come true, I still had qualitative worries.
Short answer: Wednesday's second episode of "Pushing Daisies" didn't make me as happy as the pilot, but it made me far happier than most of what I've been watching on TV these past couple weeks.
Follow after the bump for more thoughts on "Pushing Daisies" and my other Wednesday TV viewing.
Let's look at some of the concerns one-by-one.
Week-to-Week Plot Sustainability -- How would the show handle the need to go to its forensic fairy tale week-to-week structure? So far, so good. Episode two had a mystery, but nobody put much effort into investigating the murder in question. It was more about letting the story of the crime be told. That meant a lot of monologuing, first from the victim, then from the victim's beloved and finally from the killer. The key, I guess, is in presenting that monologuing in an appealing fashion (flashbacks and fantasy sequences and whatnot), rather than in watching Chi McBride's character follow clues. If he were that good a detective, he wouldn't need Ned, would he? A bigger roadblock in the week-to-week sustainability is Chuck-Ned dynamic and their very distracting inability to make direct contact. I know I'm not the only viewer who wondered why they walk in stride together, why they walk through doorways together, why they sit across from each other at tables. I've been known to accidentally bump into people when I'm walking next to them. It rarely causes death, but then again, I lack special powers. It'd be in Ned's best interest to constantly be wearing long-sleeve turtlenecks and gloves and it would behoove Chuck to do the same. Full body spandex suits? The best ways to avoid the death problem probably aren't very actor-friendly (look at poor Wentworth Miller, who has to over-dress for his sweltering Panamanian prison just his character's pesky tattoos probably haven't vanished).
Week-to-Week Stylistic Sustainability -- Week two of "Pushing Daisies" wasn't quite as saturatedly colorful as the pilot. The camera wasn't as free. There were fewer flights of visual fancy. Those of use who do this for a living are all "Oooh, this just goes to reflect the budgetary and creative restrictions ABC is putting on the show and on Barry Sonnefeld." I wonder what people who just watch TV programming when it comes on their TV and don't think about TV for 17 or 18 hours out of every day are able to notice. I'm a big fan of the Orson Welles quote "The enemy of art is the absence of limitation." That's to say that real artists see limitations and look for ways to accomplish the same goals in different ways. If a fish-eye camera lense can convey a similar sense of disorientation as a more expensive and time-consuming crane shot, let's do that. If Kristin Chenoweth breaking into a marvelous rendition of "Hopelessly Devoted" can convey a similar sense of not-of-this-world whimsy as an extended claymation sequence, let's do that. In its second week, "Pushing Daisies" still looked and felt pretty close to unique, even if it wasn't the exact same uniqueness as the first time around.
Week-to-Week Smartness Sustainability -- In his recap over at Zap2it, my colleague Rick groused a bit about Jim Dale's voice-over and the frequency with which we were being told things they should have shown us instead. Do I think there's too much voice-over? Yup. But I'm happy to put up with three or four instances where the voice-over falls flat for the following transition from Digby licking Olive's love-lorn tears: "While Olive considered how much she loved Digby for paying attention to her when the piemaker would not, and Digby considered how much he liked salt..." That's just great writing. The characters continue to talk fast and talk clever ("You love secrets. You want to marry secrets and have little half-secret, half-human babies.") and the universe of the show continues to be mighty savvy. It's a town that features not just The Pie Hole, but also Pies R Us, Pie City and Thousands of Pies in One Place. I love that.
Week-to-Week Tweeness Sustainability -- I've heard episode two described as even more twee than the first episode. That's what happens when your plot revolves around a dandelion-powered car ("The spores car of tomorrow!) and the main guest character is a bulimic woman who dresses as a flower. So far, though, I remain tolerant of a young girl learning to say "The Jarlsberg is on the table" in many languages. I'm content with Chi McBride's character being an art school drop-out who knit himself a sweatervest and handgun cozies. And I'll even put up with a woman in a full-body cast putting on make-up and asking if her bandages make her look fat. So far, I'm right there with "Pushing Daisies."
The transition from pilot fairy tale exposition to weekly proceduralism hurt the show's charm just a bit, but McBride and Lee Pace were every bit as good, Anna Friel was even more adorable and Chenoweth can break into song whenever she wants, as far as I'm concerned. The casting of guest stars will be key going forward, but the second episode's Riki Lindhome (as Janine the flower girl) and Patrick Fabian (as the mastermind of the Dany Lion SX) slid into the show's rhythms perfectly.
I don't know if it's ever going to be possible to sit back, relax and rest assured that "Pushing Daisies" will be able to maintain its quality, but so far so good.
Other Wednesday viewing?
"Back to You" -- OK. I gave this one four weeks to stop being generic and to find some of the intelligence that Christopher Lloyd brought to "Frasier" or even some of the workplace humor Steve Levitan brought to "Just Shoot Me." I think I'm done. It's odd that Ty Burrell is the funniest part of the cast and that when he isn't in an episode (like last night's), the show suffers. That shouldn't happen if you're giving all of that money to Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton.
"Bionic Woman" -- Back on track after an awful second episode. The third episode was credited to David Eick and it shouldn't be surprising that it was the season's first episode to have any sort of consistency at all. It also shouldn't be surprising that part of why the episode worked so well was that it was heavy on Katee Sackhoff. It was also a better showcase episode for Michelle Ryan, though something has to be done to make that character stop bitching about suddenly being bionic. I get that this wasn't what she signed on for, but she needs an attitude readjustment, plus a second bionic arm, stat!
"Gossip Girl" -- Serena and Blair had better not stay friendly for long. In the short term, I enjoyed their reconciliation with its simmering underlying tensions, but the less trashy the show gets, the more it becomes "Sweet Valley High: Upper Manhattan Edition," which is a show I probably wouldn't watch. I'd have been fine with the warmer and fuzzier A-plot if the B-Plot (Chuck's Lost Weekend Party) had been as full of debauchery as the promo teasers suggested it would be. Nate's such a wet fish to begin with and I think we're much too early in the series to already be seeing Chuck's softer side.
OK. This is too long. I stop now.