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Pushing Daisies’ quirk was Bryan Fuller grappling with the AIDS crisis

It all begins with a touch. While Pushing Daisies’ first episode, “Pie-lette,” establishes the tricky rules of its Pie Maker’s (Lee Pace) powers…

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It all begins with a touch. While Pushing Daisies’ first episode, “Pie-lette,” establishes the tricky rules of its Pie Maker’s (Lee Pace) powers of reanimating the dead (his dog, then his mother), creator Bryan Fuller also arranges its narrative, aesthetic, tonal, thematic, and emotional ingredients, at once precise — like baking! — and yet open to spontaneity of creative ingenuity. Fuller’s beloved, but short-lived, stylistically multi-hyphenated show has received much praise for its affective acrobatics. But less is said about how the show intentionally drew a close proximity between life and death, a technique rooted as much in a sense of episodic tension as it is in its relationship to pastiche and parody, and pastiche’s relationship to modes of queer art making.

And with the show’s recent availability on HBO Max during the COVID-19 pandemic, the show is able to bridge the specters of its subtext and the contemporary space it can be watched in. Which is to say everything’s touching each other, from its procedural framework to its screwball sensibilities to its absurd quaintness, and in delicate ways, as if their life and death depended on it.

Critics clocked Pushing Daisies for conjuring a “Tim Burton-esque world” and its debt to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie; but little connection was made during the show’s 2007-2009 run between Fuller’s inclination to draw from these and other sources as something directly connected to a queer sensiblity. Pushing Daisies is a show that is nestled comfortably in a kind of fantastical artifice: adult characters and situations drawn in children’s book colors, inhabitants bursting out into song, cartoonishly made up corpses, arch jokes and on-screen gags, and a gentle, but propulsive (and goofy) melodrama that frames its procedural structure.

At its center was a complicated love story between two people (Pace’s Ned and Anna Friel’s Chuck) who can’t touch. Was that the breaking point for critics who sniffed at its whimsy? It was called “quirky” and “twee,” a scoffing shorthand for a deliberate preciousness, and an aestheticization of the show’s procosity. In many ways, it is too much — so much adornment, so many weird settings, so much artificiality applied with a snigger — and yet perfectly assembled. Its generic elements are deftly juggled with a smile on its face, but perhaps that smile was more of a smirk, indicating something darker.

Image: Warner Media

Bryan Fuller, 38 when the show premiered, lived through one epidemic, and infused his work (Dead Like Me, Hannibal, that Munsters reboot that never took off) with the remnant fears and anxieties from his experiences. The show’s queer metaphors and its scars from the height of the AIDS crisis exist beyond the immediate questions of touch between Ned and Chuck, or Ned and anyone else. And they extend beyond the sprinkling of queer characters in the show. Rather, Pushing Daisies situates itself in another world while using the (sub)cultural touchpoints — ones often connected, not always explicitly, to queer culture — of our own, both outside of time and yet unmistakably ravaged by it.

That Pushing Daisies was effectively postmodern parody and pastiche aching from the psychic wounds of the AIDS crisis was not something that would be commented upon, or maybe revealed, until the show’s 10th anniversary; in an interview with Vanity Fair, he spoke about how “unprotected sex meant death for so long.”

“There was danger associated with intimate touch,” he said. “I think a lot of those things were probably at the back of my mind as I was creating a universe where something so simple, something that is common in heterosexual relationships, was something that would kill you.”

Fuller elaborates on this idea by building the show’s central tension around physical touch, and considering the implications of intimacy. Pushing Daisies goes out of its way to replicate and recontextualize moments from film and pop culture in its own language and place, stacking them and making each duplication aligned to be in contact with the next element — touching, but just in the right way. Kristen Chenoweth’s beguiling performance of “Hopelessly Devoted to You” is straddled on the line of musical fantasy, both within the world of the show and the memory of the high school set musical from which it’s borrowed. Molly Shannon’s seagull attack is both intertext and arch flashback, the two conjoined temporally as if The Birds is lodged into the memory of the show. The two, disparate in their referents and emotional tenors, are immaculately presented, nearly baroque in their exhibition. One’s swoony, at times filmed from above, the other’s terrifying, spliced up like its forebearer, both threaded together by uncanny, but not mean spirited, humor. And both, in their ways, brush up against being alive or dying.

Image: Warner Media

They are only two out of a melange of examples of Pushing Daisies’ play with pastiche, a technique the show held closely to its paradoxically joyful and jaundiced heart. As Richard Dyer writes in his book Pastiche, the term is used to describe “a kind of imitation you are meant to know is imitation.” In the book, he analyzes several examples to explore what pastiche is, pulling examples like Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, Hamlet, or Follies. Such works of pastiche “interrogate the truth value of the medium [they’re] working in,” and “[acknowledge] the emotional truth” of “past forms” as well as their “reprehensible lies.” Additionally, he writes that Todd Haynes’ Sirkian melodrama Far From Heaven “sets in play our relationship with the past” and “suggests the way feeling is shaped by culture.” Dyer’s unpacking of pastiche, particularly in relation to modes of queer art making, suggests that replication of form but a subversion of tone or context puts it in conversation with those original works while asserting its own aesthetic voice. Pastiche is often critiquing the more-normative source texts that are reflective of restrictive social and political norms. Throughout the book, Dyer stresses the occasional difficulty in identifying pastiche and delineating it from sister terms like parody and plagiarism. But its closeness is the point; to be the thing and yet apart from it, to infiltrate, is a cornerstone of queerness.

In Pushing Daisies, closeness is always thrilling and dangerous, on the tip of liberating. The closeness that Ned and Chuck have is at once electric in its romance and on the edge of death itself — but it, too, comes to resemble adroit slapstick pratfalling on the knife’s edge. The closeness between Ned and Pie Hole employee/unrequited piner Olive (Chenoweth) is threatening to both of them, their relationship as friends, employer/employee, and not quite lovers dislodging them from the security of their lives. And the intimacy that Olive cultivates with Chuck, and her agoraphobic aunts (Greene and Swoosie Kurtz), is unstable, and occasionally a weapon. There’s a soap operatic valence to these relationships, a question of the forms and uses of intimacy not only as a way to cultivate personal security, but possibly to undermine it. These multifaceted relationships both reflect and are in dialogue with the array of generic costumes the show assumes. Pushing Daisies is always working out the proximity its characters have to one another physically, emotionally, but also within its stylistic vernacular.

Throughout the series, Fuller substitutes physical contact for a kind of aesthetic touch to penetrate deeper into an emotional, even historical intimacy. As it borrows and uses images from Vertigo and The Sound of Music, perhaps one of its most compelling generic tools is screwball comedy, a mode of filmmaking and writing that coalesced during a period where Hollywood censors peeled their eyes for transgression. The genre (which arguably began with either Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night or Howards Hawks’ Twentieth Century, both 1934), essentially was a product of both the Depression and the Hays Production Code, which put forth particular content rules in the wake of an industry sex scandal. Using zippy rhythmic dialogue, class-based comedy, and subverted gender dynamics, speech was sex. In films like Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, and The Lady Eve, it became the ultimate instrument for seduction.

The couple in It Happened One Night at bedtime separated by a curtain

Image: Sony

Ned and Chuck reach to turn off their bedside lamps

Image: Warner Media

Ned and Chuck kiss through saran wrap in a still from Pushing Daisies

Image: Warner Media

The couple in His Girl Friday fighting

Ned and Chuck’s relationship relies on a lot of screwball sensibilities, a throwback to films like It Happened One Night (top row) and His Girl Friday (bottom row).
Image: Sony

So while Ned and Chuck’s physical boundaries are fairly strict (the show teases us a couple of times with things like saran wrap), their romance — and negotiation of it — is cemented in how they, and the show, use language. Their sparks flare in no small part due to the balletic complexity of their dialogue.

But Pushing Daisies’ neo-screwball reflexes are also compelling given the genre’s history of queer coding, from masculine envy in The Philadelphia Story to the sultry ménage à trois of Design for Living. This postmodern impulse rears its head beyond the heavy dialogue and through visual gags, notably through the wall in the pilot (a nod to the ’50s Doris Day/Rock Hudson sex comedies like Pillow Talk), and in a sequence where Chuck has adorned herself with slippers with bells, prompting she and Ned to announce “coming” and “going” through the apartment. Its double entendre smirks throughout the scene, but their tête-à-tête is literalized. Their near bumping into each other homage and update, wrought with as much dramatic tension (she might die!) as erotic tension (but they want to make out!).

Fuller uses styles and genres with queer and camp histories both to inject the world of the show with a distinct grammar, but also to inflect it with a cultural memory, shrinking the distance between when the show was made and its subtextual and metaphorical functions.

​​The show’s sun-kissed palette and the ironic naivete that leaks through its set and production design deliberately establishes a kind of uncanniness. It’s “quirky,” but aware of it, explicitly fusing the visual cues and tropes of other genres to both develop its own vocabulary and play with the tension of artifice and emotional authenticity. “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” which appears in the second episode, is one of the most useful examples in the show because of its versatility, imbuing in the show a bittersweet self-awareness. While Olive swings around the Pie Hole where she longs for an absent Ned (literally and figuratively), the little pie shop becomes a space which allows for a lushness of feeling. She’s alone, almost. There’s a janitor with her. The camera bobs and sways, gesturing to its source text; Olive is Sandy, but sadder, maybe more delusional? But the feeling is real all the same.

But rather than mock the crystals of sugar adorning each beat of the musical number by making a wall-break a thing of hierarchy (we acknowledge that the performance is fantastical so you don’t have to take it seriously), the presence of outsiders bursting an insular emotional bubble actually refines the tenderness in the scene. She would still be performing, regardless of the external interruptions, she just prefers to be alone.

The origins of “Hopelessly Devoted to You” as a song written for Olivia-Newton John’s star power to fuel Grease intentionally displaces its musical style in comparison to the rest of the film, itself based on a stage musical that doused the rough teenagerdom of the late 1950s in the waters of nostalgia. While other songs in the show are more organic pastiches of emerging rock and roll and early R&B styles, Sandy’s heartbreak song exists slightly outside of it, but contradictorily is its most earnest moment. And in Pushing Daisies, its initial out-of-placeness is also what makes it striking: a song so iconic that a response to it is almost predictable, until it isn’t, all the while the scene revealing that very dialectic between form, time, and viewer. The track draws more from the pop ballads of the 1970s (a bit of the Beatles here, some of Elton John there) than it does the musical genres that Grease is actually supposed to be mimicking.

And yet, the song becomes the film’s emotional center despite its slight generic discordance, aligning us with Sandy’s yearning and confusion, because, despite its difference, its emotional approximation still fits. It would garner an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song, reach number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, and become a signature for Newton-John, making it Newton-John’s first go at being incorporated into a gay cultural lexicon. The song’s melancholic hums, its sorrowful opening whines, its internal dialogue transcend the work from which it originates, broadly universal and detached from both the 1950s music it doesn’t exactly try to recreate and the 1970s techniques it actually uses. It is nostalgia and nostalgic.

Pushing Daisies is not only an amalgamation of styles perfectly rendered both as replica and as contextualized within the show’s broader televisual language, but specifically styles rooted in the past and cemented as parts of the consumption habits of a particular set of gay and queer people, artifacts that shaped an expression of queer culture. These are references to another time, made by people for whom a history of popular culture contoured space and being. In another pandemic, the bridge between past and present shrinks, and escapist fantasy remains haunted by reality. Or perhaps our reality has a bit of light let in.

Watching it now, as the show jumps naturally from one moment of pastiche or parody to the next, Pushing Daisies has the uncanny skill of dancing on the pie pan’s edge between then and now, and love and death. But, under the crust, they might be closer than you think anyways.

The post Pushing Daisies’ quirk was Bryan Fuller grappling with the AIDS crisis appeared first on REPORT DOOR.

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