BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Easily the most distinctive pilot episode for a TV series this fall, ABC's "Pushing Daisies" (8 p.m. Wednesday) captivates with an emotionally resonant story and dazzles with its bright visual imagery. Fans of delightfully daft fairy tales, this one's for you.
Starring: Lee Pace.
Written by Bryan Fuller ("Wonderfalls," "Dead Like Me") and directed by Barry Sonnenfeld ("Men in Black," "The Addams Family"), "Pushing Daisies" has a look reminiscent of Tim Burton's "Big Fish" or "Edward Scissorhands" and a magical tone all its own.
This drama with comedic flourishes is narrated by actor Jim Dale, perhaps best known for reading the "Harry Potter" books on CD, who introduces viewers to Ned (Lee Pace, "Wonderfalls"), a pie-maker with an unusual gift. He discovered as a child that he can bring the dead back to life with a touch, but their are strings attached:
1) If Ned touches the person again within a minute, the risen dies again.
2) If the person lives beyond a minute, someone else, at random, will die in the revived person's place.
As a child, Ned and a neighbor girl, Chuck, endure some tragedies that keep them apart. They go their separate ways, and Ned eventually begins to work with private eye Emerson Cod (Chi McBride, "Boston Public"), who learns Ned's secret ability and puts it to use.
Ned wakes the dead, learns who killed the deceased within a minute, then touches the person again. Emerson solves the murder and he and Ned split the reward money, which Ned needs to keep his pie shop afloat and smitten employee Olive (Kristin Chenoweth, "The West Wing") on the payroll.
Then Ned re-encounters Chuck (Anna Friel), puts his talents to use and brings her into his secret, just not too close. Once Ned brings Chuck back from the dead, he can never touch her again, making theirs an unrequited love that even prevents them from hugging in this week 's premiere, much to Chuck's dismay.
"It's like an emotional Heimlich," she says of the hug. "Someone puts their arms around you and they give you a squeeze and all of your fear and anxiety comes shooting out of your mouth in a big, wet wad and you can breathe again."
"Pushing Daisies" certainly puts forth an unusual romance, and despite the high quality of the pilot (the only episode available for review at press time), there are legitimate concerns about how the series will hold up in future episodes -- announced plans for Ned and Chuck to dance in beekeeper suits and plastic wrap notwithstanding.
Fuller said the series was inspired tonally by the whimsical French film "Amelie," and he came up with the concept initially as a spin-off from Showtime's "Dead Like Me."
"I don't think you can look at death without looking at life," Fuller said at a July press conference. "It's kind of the punctuation to it. It really informs everything that's come before it even though it hasn't come yet. … I love the sense of awe and spirituality of there's something greater out there that we don't know and we're not qualified to know and we won't know on this plane of existence, so let's hypothesize about what it could be."
If nothing else, "Pushing Daisies" should come as a relief to anyone who complains about too much sex on TV, because it seems unlikely Ned and Chuck will be having any.
"It's not so much about celibacy as much as it is about intimacy," Fuller said of the show's premise. "Sometimes physicality gets in the way of true intimacy. So if that's removed from a relationship, what's going to happen?"
Despite their inability to have skin-on-skin contact, Fuller doesn't plan to dim the romance.
"We're going to go a long way in doing everything we can to get them to touch each other that's not flesh-to-flesh," he said. "And I think if the show will end -- hopefully it will never end -- it will probably end with a kiss."
TV REVIEW [REview is CQ]