Pushing Daisies S2E3, “Bad Habits”

Dir. Adam Kane. Starring Lee Pace, Anna Friel, Chi McBride

Late in the first season of Pushing Daisies, Chuck (Friel) discovers the Big Secret that Ned (Pace) has been keeping from her since they were little kids: Ned killed Chuck’s dad. Ned didn’t mean to – didn’t know until it happened, in fact, that he was at all responsible – but it’s on him.

Ned, even at age 9, has a terrible power; with a touch, he can make dead things come back to life. When his mother dies suddenly, Ned touches her, and she awakes. But what Ned doesn’t know at the time is that should that dead thing stay alive for more than a minute, some other life must be taken. (When he brought his dog, Digby, back to life, he did not see the animal who died so Digby might live.) Chuck’s father was unlucky enough to be in proximity to Ned at the time he brought his own mother back, and it left Chuck an orphan. And it didn’t do Ned much good, in the end, to bring his mother back to life. When she kissed him good night just hours after her first death, it triggered the cruelest aspect of Ned’s power; should he touch something he has already made alive again, then that thing will remain dead forever.

Pushing Daisies, with its ability to bring people back from the dead, can take death a little more lightly than the rest of us do. The show is effervescent with color, from the cartoonishly bright surroundings to the half-flattering, half-clownish outfits they kept sticking Friel and McBride into. The pitter-patter of little dialogue floods the show; Pace is not Cary Grant, but he keeps up as well as he can, and the effect is that Pushing Daisies has talk which is about as fast and just as pleasurable as Sorkin’s. And the dead themselves return in all states, but largely for humor. In “Circus, Circus,” a car driven off the road has about a dozen clowns stuffed inside. In “Robbing Hood,” the body of an octogenarian is suspended within a chandelier. Pushing Daisies’ makeup team had fun with their corpses: horseshoe patterns smushed into faces, great big boils for beestings, a woman burnt to a crisp. And the dead, when spoken to, are funny and are just as they were in life – maybe a little more honest.

“Bad Habits” indulges itself, sure, but it’s played up far less. It’s the third episode of the second season, and the end of a trilogy of sorts including “Bzzzzzzzz!” and “Circus, Circus.” In all three episodes, Olive (Kristin Chenoweth) has been secreted by Lily (Swoosie Kurtz) to a convent, run by the Sisters of the Divine Magnatum. Lily has revealed, thanks to an overdose of Raul Esparza’s Homeopathic Antidepressants, that Chuck is not her niece but her daughter. Fearing that her sister Vivian (Ellen Greene) will discover the secret thanks to Olive’s blabbermouth, Olive is hidden in the place where Lily went to be pregnant with Chuck. In “Bzzzzzzzz!” and “Circus, Circus,” Olive lives in a different world than the Piemaker, the Private Investigator, and the Dead Girl, and the show can’t help but riff off it. Kristin Chenoweth, yes, twirls around on a hilltop and sings. No, it’s not the only Sound of Music reference. Yes, Olive is about as good at Christianity as Maeby Funke was. Chenoweth was amusing in the first season, but she shines as a postulant whose greatest accomplishment is naming a sow after the golden retriever she used to hang around with (“Pigby”). But all of this was very, very B-plot. Ned and Emerson and Chuck have been busy solving crimes. “Bzzzzzzzz!” is an episode where Chuck’s weird collection of knowledge about bees comes in handy, for example, and “Circus, Circus,” calls on the influence of Emerson’s missing daughter more than any previous episode. And Ned and Chuck have been changing their relationship. Ned has been possessive of Chuck ever since bringing her back to life; if it were up to him, she would never leave their apartment. But Chuck, who has lived with her shut-in aunts for years and who views her second life as a chance to try again, is much too lively and freewheeling to accept that sentence. Olive’s disappearance feels like a chance to strike out for herself a little, and across “Bzzzzzzzz!” and “Circus, Circus,” Chuck’s independence becomes the latest obstacle to a smooth relationship for the Piemaker and the Dead Girl.

In “Bad Habits,” death visits Olive, and the whole team is brought back together again. Sister Larue (Mo Collins), Olive’s cheerful mentor of sorts and the mind behind the Sisters’ truffle operation, falls just like Vertigo and lands in a heap in front of Olive. Olive calls in Emerson, who of course calls in Ned, who of course calls in Chuck. The unlikely trio of investigators – disguised badly as Vatican Police called “Father Dowling,” “Father Mulcahy,” and, best of all, “Sister Christian” – tries to get to the bottom of things.

Getting to the bottom of things with a reanimated corpse hasn’t been an issue for Ned since he reanimated Chuck. Since then, of course, Chuck has tagged along and made a point to ask the deceased if they have final requests or wishes. (Both of these have perturbed Emerson.) But Ned and Emerson aren’t with Chuck when they are about to bring Sister Larue back to life. Ned notes, uneasily, that they are with Mary and Jesus. Something about bringing someone back from the dead in church, interrupting the afterlife, if there is one, troubles Ned to the core. He still brings Larue back and, between her profane outbursts, learns what he can in a minute (which ends with Larue trying to run off). Not long after, Chuck ponders a similar question; has her continued existence, her surprising life after death, come in place of a better Life after death which she was supposed to experience?

“Bad Habits” contains much of the delicious verbal slapstick and bad puns (see the title of the episode) that defined Pushing Daisies. Watching Emerson try to pass off his Vatican act (“We are…Italian” is one of my favorite Chi McBride line readings), or watching Olive bounce up and down with frustration because Ned is too thick to realize Lily is Chuck’s mother are vintage Pushing Daisies moments. And this episode is every bit as allusive as other episodes; the Vertigo thing is played up pretty heavily towards the end of the hour, although with my Powell and Pressburger heart I can’t help but read a little Black Narcissus sexual tension into it as well.

Something about “Bad Habits” doesn’t feel much like the other Pushing Daisies episodes in the first half of its season. (The second half of that season, which brings Chuck’s father back to life and Ned’s dad back into the picture, fails to even be fun, so we won’t talk about how disappointing those episodes were.) Though virtually every Pushing Daisies brings its killer out-of-but-not-really-out-of-left-field, none of them are quite as weird as the killer in “Bad Habits.” The killer is not really a killer at all; as we’ve seen Pigby do before, her instinct is to nudge the truffle smell, and Sister Larue had the bad fortune to be stories up when she was holding her truffles and Pigby pushed. For another thing, Sister Larue is everywhere in this episode. She’s a rarity in that we see her earlier in the episode before she’s killed, and a rarity in that we see her several times in individual flashbacks; we discover that she’s been having an affair with a masterful Swiss chef, which we might call “torrid” if not for the fact that she’s using him as a means to smuggle contraband into the convent and nothing more.

Maybe what’s most unusual about this episode is that Pushing Daisies had, after the initial weirdness of “Ned can resurrect the dead” jawn, started to take his power for granted. (Then, as alluded to before, the show went on an expedition deep within its own duodenum once Chuck’s father returned to the picture.) For a long stretch in the first season, it’s normal that Ned and Emerson’s P.I. business is predicated on waking the dead and asking them “Who killed you?” In fact, the “It’s not like you can wake up the dead and ask them ‘Who killed you?'” running gag was as much a part of each episode as the waking itself. We start to wonder less at Ned’s power in the same way that we just kind of got used to the way Superman leaped buildings in single bound. In “Circus, Circus” it’s hard not to think of what Ned can do as the ultimate circus act, the kind of trick which any performer would love to be able to pull; in fact, “Oh, Oh, Oh…It’s Magic” calls out the connection between magic tricks and Ned’s Lazarus routine. “Bad Habits” is deeply uninterested in Christianity and religion in general; the convent is a location, and appealing as a dim sum or a candy shop or a lighthouse or any of the other unusual places murder mysteries take the Pie Hole crew. But by choosing a location which can’t help but situate meaning – regardless of what one thinks about religion – Pushing Daisies lends this episode just a tiny smidgen of gravitas. You don’t have to think what Ned is doing is unholy to recognize that the characters you’re rooting for are, for the first time in forever, having second thoughts about poking corpses.

The show isn’t very good at gravitas. There’s a reason that the lessons Ned and Chuck learn about dating are spoken very quickly in the last two minutes of each episode. Yet the show could hardly go on forever mindlessly bouncing from murder to murder for the team to solve; otherwise it would lose every bit of its novelty and become CSI with Pie. “Bad Habits” finds a way to perpetuate the deep-seeded weirdness of Pushing Daisies without gutting its equally deep-seeded lightheartedness and charm, adding just enough bitterness to offset what might otherwise be a stomach-turning helping of twee.

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