Nov 21 2008 3:45pm

Pushing Daisies: Now You See It, Now You Don’t

Late yesterday it was confirmed by E!Online that ABC has cancelled Pushing Daisies. This doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, given the dismal ratings the series has been receiving this season, especially compared to its pre-writers’ strike numbers. Entertainment sites and blogs have speculated for weeks that the show was as good as dead, but ABC refused to make a decision until a week after the thirteenth and final episode was in the can. They seem to have been waiting for this week’s numbers, but unfortunately after a two-week break, the latest episode “Oh Oh Oh, It’s Magic” earned its lowest ratings yet—a mere 4.6 million viewers.

Frankly, I didn’t think the show would last even this long, because of its quirkiness, my assumptions about the tastes of television-watching Americans, and my fear that the premise couldn’t be stretched out for too long. The creator, Bryan Fuller, told Kristin Dos Santos of E! Online “I’m really not feeling very boo hoo about it. I am so proud of the show.” But I wonder if there’s some measure of relief there, because it was becoming difficult to write the show and keep it fresh while staying faithful to those special early episodes when we had never seen anything like the show before. In the last couple of episodes, some of the seams were beginning to show, even as the plot went in interesting new directions. Perhaps the series would have been better as a planned miniseries, rather than assuming the “brilliant but cancelled” status of Fuller’s previous efforts Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me.

Still, if any show can be brought back from the dead, it’s Pushing Daisies. Dead Like Me has recently been resurrected as a direct-to-video movie, Life After Death, which would be more exciting if Fuller hadn’t left the series during its first season. Fuller has promised that a comic book may be in the works with DC to wrap up the cliffhanger ending of Pushing Daisies, and has even mentioned the possibility of a theatrical film.Whedon showed it could be done with a Firefly movie and comics continuing Buffy and Angel beyond their final seasons, so anything is possible. How many times has Babylon 5 returned to the well, not to mention Star Trek?

Some fans are even clamoring for the show to move to another network, but I say, let it rest in peace. I wonder sometimes if it’s better to have a limited number of fantastic episodes of a show, while it’s still in its prime and full of potential, rather than have several seasons where the shark jumps through hoops over and over again until the show no longer resembles the one you loved. It seems that Bryan Fuller may just return to something safe and resume writing Heroes, a show that should have been canceled by now. They certainly need help from someone who knows how to write characters and plot.

As for “Oh Oh Oh, It’s Magic”, it seems that like the over 8 million viewers who abandoned Pushing Daisies, Ned doesn’t believe in magic. When even Fred Willard, playing the Great Herrmann, can’t save a show, there’s just nothing to be done. To cut to the chase, Ned grows to accept his two half-brothers, and Chuck’s secret is jeopardized when Dwight Dixon tries to rob her grave but finds her body missing. The moral of the episode, and a bittersweet epitaph for the series, is that “magic isn’t just what disappears, but what reappears when you least expect it.” Hat’s off to you, Mr. Fuller, and better luck next time.

How many of you are interested in seeing Pushing Daisies continue in another form? I think the charm of the show will be even harder to translate to a comic book (no Lee Pace!), but I’d be interested in seeing how the plot lines resolve. What do you think?

And remember, though the show has been cancelled, its lame duck season still has seven episodes left, which ABC has promised to air. Unless the schedule changes, the show returns next Wednesday at 8pm EST with “Robbing Hood.” Watch it! Or don’t. It doesn’t matter anymore.

Mark McKibben
1. Manzabar
I'll miss the show, but I have to say this second season hasn't been as good as the first.

As for "a limited number of fantastic episodes of a show" I completely agree. Too many shows stick around simply because the network can make another buck rather than because it's any good.
Pablo Defendini
2. pablodefendini
@ Manzabar #1
I'd say *most* shows do that. I like the BBC's approach, which is precisely what Eugene proposes: one or two short seasons of a show, and then move on to something else. Think The Office, Life on Mars, and Extras.

Oh, but this would then require Hollywood and/or the American networks to be consistently creative instead of relying on the few fluke shows that they haven't focus-grouped into stupidity or otherwise dumbed-down... never mind.
Nicole Cardiff
3. NicoleCardiff
Any universe in which Pushing Daisies doesn't get enough ratings to be worth renewing but Knight Rider does is a sad one.

I'll miss you, Pushing Daisies.
Tara Chang
4. tlchang
I will miss it as well. I have thoroughly enjoyed it bright and colorful (and musical) quirkiness.

I agree with @pablodefendini about the British mini or limited series approach. If the Powers-That-Be can get out the mentality that the only 'good' shows (or books, or movies) are those that are blockbusterly successful right out of the gate, to be strung out until every possible last monetary drop is wrung out of them... well, then maybe... (don't see that happening anytime soon. In any direction).
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5. heresiarch
I think US TV is moving in fits and starts in the right direction, but they don't seem to have any idea where they're going. The idea there's something to do with a TV show other than beat every last drop of money out of it doesn't seem to register. I wonder if TV producers will figure it out before they're replaced entirely by internet video, which is far better suited to the "few but excellent" model.
Pablo Defendini
6. pablodefendini
@ heresiarch #5
There's something to what you're saying, but the problem is even deeper that that, I think: networks have absolutely no clue as to what's popular or not, because their tools for metrics, aside from having always been inherently flawed, are now completely irrelevant.

I mean, how many families do you know have a Nielsen box? One, two? I'm sure they're out there, but I don't know any, and have never, ever known anyone with a Nielsen box. In that Nielsen family, who does the Nielsen box track? Is it the mom and dad with the TV in their room, is it the family set that gets used by everyone in the family? Is there a box on every set?

How many people no longer even watch TV shows when they air, and instead TiVo them? Do DVR makers track usage patterns, and report back to the networks? Do they track who records but never watches, who watches halfway, who skips commercials, the average lag between airdate and actual watching?

Hell, how many people just watch shows downloaded illegally from the internet (especially among genre fans, who tend to be a bit more tech-savvy than the average Joe, and favor quirky, niche shows like Pushing Daisies)? For example, I download our friend Ned every week via torrents—I can assure you that my viewership is not part of their metric (whether it should be, given my unapproved method of acquisition, is a question for another forum. In case anyone wants to start up with me, be warned: this is not the place).

My point? It's simple: I don't think that networks have been able to wrap their heads around the fact that their venerable metrics no longer even fake accuracy, let alone offer useful info. Failing that, they make uninformed decisions based on faulty info, the ignorant opinions of the non-creative executives, mostly guided by sheer greed for profit in the short term, instead of building quality content that they can then leverage (note that I didn't say 'exploit') over a longer tail of sustained, if more moderate, success.
Irene Gallo
7. Irene
I had a roommate that had a Neilsen rating box. It was a red eye that starts blinking every 20 minutes. When it goes off your supposed to click the number of people in the room - each number has your demographics plugged into it. I wouldn't have thought it would be too much of a pain but it turned out to be so intrusive that I never watched TV....

....or maybe it was the roommate that was the pain...hmmm..It _was_ a long while ago.
Arachne Jericho
8. arachnejericho
And this is why Amazon, Netflix, Apple, and anybody else with the bandwidth, the infrastructure, and the insight is trying to bring along some kind of video downloading and streaming that the studios will swallow. Online is where everything is going to go, whether the studios want to or not.

Unfortunately, some minds you can only change with a hammer. And even Steve Jobs has to use a mighty big hammer for Apple TV.

The most important thing to leverage about the internet is that it makes success more likely, not less. In older times, it was like casting lots when trying to track down and weasel out an audience; even worse, as a network, you usually had only one channel for everybody. Finding the largest common denominator was necessary for survival.

Nowadays the internet has made the world a smaller place---in other words, it's made finding an audience easier. Much, much easier. What was once a niche audience is now something with roots that spread across international boundaries. What were once considered the most popular shows are now really only popular if you look at an older audience that's less likely to be hooked up to the net, or hooked up as extensively.

Making TV is insane enough to deal with as it is. Making life even harder by not taking a good, long look at what the internet can do... just doesn't make any kind of long-term business sense.

One more thought about the internet: it might seem that, as a mercurial, quick-moving medium, short-term approaches work best. This is completely wrong. Anything that survives the internet for more than five years has only done so through long-term vision. And once that long-term vision is lost, the rest of the internet company soon follows.

Internet changes some rules, but not all of them.
Pablo Defendini
9. pablodefendini
@ arachnejericho
Precisely. Incredibly spot-on. That's why you have shows like The Guild, or Dr. Horrible, or video podcasts in general: 'TV' shows that have a small, yet rabidly dedicated audience that enable small, but sustainable productions.

Another huge problem is that since large corporations think in terms of short-term, fiscal-quarter profit gains, their 'bottom line' doesn't track with any endeavor that requires long-term vision.
Eugene Myers
10. ecmyers
As others have said, I think part of the problem is that networks don't quite have a handle on how to gauge viewership, especially in a time when people are content to download or stream videos, or simply wait for them to be released on DVD. I know one of the reasons The Sarah Connor Chronicles was renewed for a second season was because it had a high number of iTunes downloads, but otherwise low broadcast ratings. I have taken to watching Fringe via Hulu, which is an excellent service and a strong alternative to watching or recording a program when it airs.

And the other big problem is the tendency to milk a good show until it is no longer good, or until it stops making money. The British system perhaps allows for more variety and innovation, since it's a reasonably low investment to commit to six episodes of a risky premise. And I have to say that quitting while you're ahead and leaving people wanting more seems more effective than running a series into the ground, constantly trying to recapture lost viewers or reinventing the show to keep it fresh. We're moving in the direction where networks are allowing their creators to decide, more or less, when their series ends. The prime examples of this are Lost and Battlestar Galactica. I have it on good authority that when ABC interfered with Lost to drag the show out, ratings tanked until they gave the creators carte blanche to do what they wanted. They're still stretching it out but with shorter seasons, which allows the writers to end the story where it has to, in a hopefully satisfying way.
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11. heresiarch
pablodefendini @ 6: It's true that their audience metrics are totally borked by internet video, but that's only half the problem, I think. More below.

arachnejericho @ 8: "Finding the largest common denominator was necessary for survival."

I think this is one half of why TV producers and record companies are failing so badly at the internet. Once upon a time, saying "This show is immensely popular with 30% of the target demographic" was a deathknell, because the only criteria was audience size. Costs were fixed--broadcast bandwidth and production costs were the same whether twenty people watched it or twenty million. Viewers were the only variable. Thus, maximizing viewers became the be-all-end-all of TV.

But now, a) the internet provides unlimited bandwidth, meaning there's no opportunity cost for creating shows that target a smaller audience than "everyone with a TV," and b) enthusiasm is more important than eyeballs. In the heyday of the Nielson era, a disinterested audience watching because they have nothing better to do was worth exactly the same as a passionately committed audience, as long as the numbers came out the same. In the internet era, enthusiasm is a multiplier: people who will buy the DVDs, buy the merchandise, show their friends the DVDs, go to the feature-length film, buy more swag, ans so forth are exponentially more valuable than the "it was better than watching paint dry" audience. This is what US producers need to learn: creating shows that inspire the few can be just as valuable as churning out shows that mildly entertain the many.

I think that they're responding to this new reality without really understanding it. "Hmm, this Whedon fellow seems to produce shows with freakishly loyal audiences--let's give him some money," without understanding the factors like good writing, compelling characters, witty dialogue, and evolving storylines that get him that loyal audience. They're fumbling in the dark.
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12. heresiarch
Or rather, they're like the drunk looking under the streetlight when the key is out in the dark someplace, but how are they supposed to find the key without light?
fred campbell
13. fred00
Cool. Different. Fun.

So it was only a matter of time.
Jane Noel
14. noelx99
We've been watching Pushing Daisies since the beginning. We've said all along that it's just too good for a network show. It's as good as most HBO series.

We caught Wonderfalls on Netflix. I don't care what network or what medium. If I hear of another Fuller show, I'll be watching.
15. Ned-lover
I'd fallen in love with Pushing Daisies from the beginning...and now I'm very sad it's over. Somehow, though, I knew it was too different for most of America, and realized it would be canceled. However, I never thought it would be this soon!

I at least hope that they'll officially finish the series with a movie, because a comic book would not appeal to most people.

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