Bryan Fuller, the creator of Pushing Daisies, said somewhere that he was greatly influenced by the French film Amélie in developing his series, which was an unexpected hit in the US in the autumn. He doesn't seem to realise that for quite a few people, "infected" might be more to the point than "influenced", that particular brand of fairy-tale archness not being to everyone's taste. As it happens, I don't count myself as an out and out Amélie-hater (the presence of Audrey Tautou going a long way to suppress the moments of nausea), but even if you absolutely adored Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film, you may not be in the clear with Fuller's extended whimsy about a man who can bring the dead back to life. Pushing Daisies makes Amélie look like Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage.
Ned discovered his special gift when he was just nine years old, after his dog, Digby, got sideswiped by a truck and Ned was able to bring him back to life with a single touch. When Ned's mom keeled over with an aneurysm, just as she was popping a cherry pie into the oven, he revived her immediately, only to discover that there were two catches to his talent. If the revived person lived for more than a minute, someone else nearby had to die, and if Ned touched them again, the magic was permanently reversed, something Ned found out when his mom leaned over to kiss him good night, instantly turned blue and repeated her fatal pratfall.
If you're worried about the thought of a nine-year-old coping with his mother's sudden death, then don't be. Death here is treated, even by the recently dead, as more of diverting curiosity than a tragedy, and not something to be attended by anything even remotely resembling sorrow. The characters who die do so with a cartoon suddenness, and, by and large, are treated as disposable. The closest you're going to come to the unappeasable yearning of grief is Ned's amorous passion for Chuck (played by Anna Friel), the childhood sweetheart he restored to life and must ever after leave untouched.
Pushing Daisies badly needs a heart, but it has art direction instead: a welter of Fisher-Price colours and whimsical inventions, such as Ned's pie shop, with its crimped-crust roof, or Chuck's guardian aunts, Vivian and Lily, a retired synchronised-swimming duo who share "matching personality disorders and a love of fine cheese". That combination of symmetry and arbitrary quirkiness is also true of the direction, which frames scene after scene as a camp tableau in which pattern-making matters far more than content. This is a drama in which even the murderer uses pink plastic bags with smiley faces on them to asphyxiate his victims, so that the corpses end up beaming perkily at their own demise. It is also a drama (and you might want to have a waterproof bag at hand before you read this) in which a hug is described as "a Heimlich manoeuvre to help you cough up a wad of fear and anxiety". You can get some idea of the thing's almost pathological candy-coated escapism from an exchange between Ned and his sidekick, Cod, a private detective who uses Ned's gift to solve murder cases. "Been watching the news lately?" Cod asked (at a time, as it happens, when Iraq was going from bad to worse and the credit crunch was just beginning to bite)."Yeah, but there doesn't seem like much going on in the world besides a dead girl on a boat," replied Ned.
Channel controllers have precisely Ned's ability: they can kill or resuscitate with a single touch. Those mourning the imminent demise of Foyle's War, inexplicably axed by ITV's last director of television, Simon Shaps, will be glad to know that Peter Fincham, the new incumbent, is reported to be wiggling his finger at the series in a Ned-like fashion.
In one sense, Foyle's War doesn't do much to buck the conventions of a popular Sunday-evening detective drama. If you like the kind of whodunit in which people utter noisy public death threats just before the victim is found face down, this is definitely for you. There were actually two such instances in last night's episode, which may be stretching a much-loved trope too far. On the other hand, the question "Been watching the news lately?" got a grown-up answer. Anthony Horowitz salted the plot with the trivia of wartime life (a wife substituted beetroot juice for lipstick), but didn't forget the larger context of such details.
Part of the story last night turned on a Polish refugee hearing a BBC news report about the liberation of Majdanek – the camp to which his own wife and children had been sent – and realising that his hopes for their survival had been futile. There is real pain here and more genuine emotion in one episode than I suspect Pushing Daisies will squeeze out of a whole season. Go on, Peter... touch it.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies