BURBANK, Calif. — Ned the piemaker can bring the dead back to life with a touch of his finger, but for ABC's "Pushing Daisies," the resurrection is more complicated.
The drama, a unique mix of romance, comedy, fantasy and crime-solving, produced just nine episodes last fall, not always smoothly. Then it abruptly shut down last November — along with much of Hollywood — for the three-month writers' strike.
When that cloud was lifted, ABC decided to shelve the series until this fall. It returns Oct. 1, nearly 10 months after it left off.
Four other first-year shows face a similar holding pattern: ABC's other Wednesday dramas, "Private Practice" and "Dirty Sexy Money", and NBC's "Life" and "Chuck." (Only "Life" has the misfortune of also switching time slots, to the network Siberia of Friday.)
Aside from giving second chances to the five series, most of which faced ratings, creative or production problems, the strike's effect on the new fall season is deep in other ways. There are just 14 new scripted series on the five networks, less than half the usual count. And delays in pilot production will mean a bigger crop of newcomers in midseason.
The freshman five face a dual challenge: Can they hold on to last year's fans, whose loyalty has been mostly untested? And will they lure more viewers who didn't give them a chance the last time around, thanks to network marketing campaigns that treat them as new series?
"Daisies" co-star Chi McBride says he's "concerned" about the potential disruptive effect of a still-gestating series being off the air for so long. He points to the effect of the long break on some top shows.
"The audience does not like to be fooled around with," McBride says in an interview on the set of "Daisies'" fanciful Pie Hole restaurant. "You look at 'Grey's Anatomy's' numbers when they came back — there was a huge drop-off. Eventually I think we can get them back, but these hiccups have got to stop."
But hiccups were just what "Daisies" faced last fall. Ambitiously written, elaborately staged early episodes, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, added days to production schedules. Budgets ballooned as the editing process was rushed so episodes could air as scheduled.
"We were hemorrhaging costs trying to accelerate post-production," says creator Bryan Fuller ("Wonderfalls," "Dead Like Me").
"Last year, our scripts were big, and we had a lot of scenes. And we just figured we couldn't keep up with production under that model," Fuller says. "It was not necessarily a tug of war for the soul of the show, but it was, 'How do we get this done in a responsible way?' "
But there was some soul-searching as well, as ABC executives tried to rein in the more "fantastical" elements of the show to woo a broader audience.
The series focuses on Ned (Lee Pace), a bemused but lonely piemaker with that unique bring-back-the-dead skill. In the series pilot, he revives his childhood sweetheart, Chuck (Anna Friel), a murder victim. Problem is, a second touch brings death, so their love must remain unconsummated despite increasingly creative forms of non-contact contact.
Retaining the 'DNA'
Together with money-grubbing detective Emerson Cod (McBride), they win reward money for solving crimes by similarly (if temporarily) reviving other victims to learn how they met their sorry fates.
Along the way, Chuck bakes antidepressants into pies for her eccentric aunts, who believe she's dead; a woman is killed by a scratch-and-sniff book; and a rival candy-store owner, desperately afraid of birds, is out to sabotage the pieman.
The show's unabashed quirkiness was, to worried ABC officials, off-putting. When "Daisies" went back into production in June, some recalibration was in order. "The first part of (this) season was really tough," Fuller says. "They were like, 'Let's ground the show a little more; it can't be a cartoon. We can't have the show be weird and not get an audience.' And we were like, 'We can't have the show be boring and not get the people back we had last year.' The challenge to me was to make sure the fundamental DNA of the show didn't change."
An earlier filming start, and shorter scripts with fewer scenes, have smoothed some production wrinkles.
"To a certain extent, some of the pace has been simplified a bit," co-star Friel says. "We couldn't have gone on at that pace. It's more manageable." Pace says the pace is "a lot easier this year," with many fewer 16-hour days.
And happily, an early peek at the new season reveals "Daisies" has not been neutered. The season premiere, titled "Bzzzzzzz," has Chuck going undercover at Betty's Bees, a maker of honey-infused beauty products (think Burt's), where a star "bee girl" company spokeswoman has been stung to death. Morbidly funny special effects are still part of the picture. Future episodes revolve around a circus and taxidermy.
"Daisies," like its counterparts, opens its second season by reintroducing its premise and characters, including quick scenes from last fall's pilot. But there are plenty of issues that linger. When Ned admits in last season's finale that he had accidentally killed Chuck's father to save his own mother (don't ask), the central romance between Ned and Chuck takes a turn.
"They start to question … 'How the hell are we going to move on?' " Friel says. "She feels very alienated and alone in the world."
Olive (Kristin Chenoweth), who learned as last season ended that Chuck's "aunt" Lily (Swoosie Kurtz) is really her mother, is sent to a nunnery, where she adopts a pet pig, to protect the secret. And Chuck tries to protect her own secret from her eccentric relatives: that she's still alive.
"Daisies" won its low-wattage time slot last fall, though ratings tapered late in its abbreviated run. How well viewers respond will, as usual, determine its longevity. Like the four other second-chance series, it has just 13 episodes to prove itself anew, down from the 22 afforded most second-year shows.
"It's not for everyone," Pace says. "It's fairy tale-like, it's very romantic, it's very quirky. There's a very specific mark to hit with a squirrelly arrow. But luckily Bryan's got great taste."
And the show's unexpected appeal to kids and teens (it ranks in the top 20 of all network shows among both groups) has helped. When the first episode aired last fall, "we all gathered the cast and writers and watched on a TV with a rabbit-ears antenna," Fuller remembers. "The first act ended and the first commercial was for Chutes and Ladders, and it was like, 'Oh, we're a kids show!' "
But he's OK with that, and he compares the show to a top-selling horror anthology book series. "Pushing Daisies," he says, is "kind of like 'Goosebumps' in a way, where it's these really fun murder-mystery stories that are slightly ghoulish but have a tremendous amount of heart and are just ideally infectiously fun."