Your TV thinks you've been depressed lately. Iraq, Jena 6, Michigan's fiscal disaster, Britney Spears the real world has been generating stress relentlessly, and you look like you could use a healthy dose of escapism.
That could explain why there's virtually no standard cops-and-crooks procedural drama among the avalanche of new network offerings this fall. No CSI: Milwaukee, or Law & Order: Hung Jury. Indeed, one of the L&O holdovers, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, has been shuffled to cable this season on USA. You're bombarded with enough true-life crime and punishment on the nightly news, Cops and Nancy Grace; what you need, bubby, is some fantasy.
So this year Moonlighting becomes Moonlight, where the private detective is also a vampire (9 p.m. Fridays, CBS/Channel 62). The Devil himself is mugging for laughs (on the raucously funny Reaper, 9 p.m. Tuesdays, CW/Channel 50), Bionic Woman has been rescued from the scrap heap (9 p.m. Wednesdays, NBC/Channel 4), a hapless computer geek becomes an international spy (Chuck, 8 p.m. Mondays, NBC) and some dude who looks like your insurance agent is traveling through time and doesn't know why (Journeyman, 10 p.m. Mondays, NBC).
Among the few new whodunits, the detective on Life (10 p.m. Wednesdays, NBC) is an exonerated, millionaire ex-con (now that's a fantasy), and K-Ville (9 p.m. Mondays, Fox/Channel 2) is as much about bringing the horror and hope of post-Katrina New Orleans back to your TV screen as it is about catching crooks. (Women's Murder Club, airing 9 p.m. Fridays on ABC beginning Oct. 12, doesn't count, since most viewers will spend the hour just gaping at former Law & Order goddess Angie Harmon and her three supporting hotties.)
But nowhere on your remote are the bounds of believability being stretched more this season than in the adult neo-fairy tale Pushing Daisies, airing Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC (Channel 7 in Detroit). Pushing Daisies isn't just the name of the program, it also describes the all-out promotional assault the network has mounted to get this hour in front of your eyeballs. The buzz about this show has been deafening, and ABC seems totally committed to flower power. It's fair to suggest there's no other new series it wants to succeed more than this one.
And why not? It's visually magnificent, shepherded by a big-time movie guy (Men in Black's Barry Sonnenfeld, who directed the premiere) and a creative wonderboy (Bryan Fuller of Wonderfalls), and crackles with the kind of smart, rapid-fire dialogue reminiscent of the screwball comedies of the 1940s. It stars the largely unknown Lee Pace, who will not be largely unknown for long; in the role of Ned, created expressly for him, Pace delivers a warm, wide-eyed, genuine character that has "breakout" written all over it.
Ned, a small-town master baker who owns a shop called the Pie Hole, was born with an unusual gift: He can bring the dead back to life with the touch of his finger. Neat trick, but if he touches his subjects a second time they return to their dearly departed state. That means he can never nuzzle his pet dog, who was hit by a truck, and when he investigates the murder of his childhood crush Charlotte "Chuck" Charles (Anna Friel), he falls in love again. Ned's determined to keep her alive, but to do so means this must truly be a long-distance relationship. Any physical affection literally would be the kiss of death.
The supporting cast is superb. Mountainous Chi McBride (Boston Public), originally a stand-up comic, delivers pinpoint punchlines as the unscrupulous private eye who turns Ned's talent into a business enterprize, Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene are hilarious as Chuck's deadpan, reclusive aunts, and Kristin Chenowith adds just the right dash of ditzy as Ned's bakery assistant. You could retire today if you had a dollar every time you heard, "You've never seen anything like this on TV before." But this is one of the times when it's true. Pushing Daisies combines the creative capital of Six Feet Under with the bizarre otherworldliness of Twin Peaks and the everyman humanity of Ed. There's even some elements of Teletubbies, as color-splashed fields of brilliant daises mesermize you.
It's difficult to envision where this series can grow or how it will be accepted by the viewing masses, but it should be a fascinating experiment to watch. If you missed last Wednesday's premiere, fear not; even the TiVo-impaired need never worry about such things again, at least where Warner Bros. productions are concerned. Thanks to a groundbreaking deal between ABC and the Warner Bros. Television Group, first-run episodes of Pushing Daisies and more than a dozen other series will be streaming free online the day after their network airings on ABC.comJim McFarlin is media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org