Once upon a time in a town called Coeur d' Coeurs, amid endless fields of daisies, there lived a boy named Ned and a girl named Chuck. He could bring people back from the dead, and she died way too young. You might say they were made for each other - as long as they never touched.
That's the premise of the new ABC sitcom Pushing Daisies. If it sounds more like a fairy tale than a TV comedy, that's because it is. Alternately sweet and tart, wise and goofy, the series from Bryan Fuller (Wonderfalls) and Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black) is the class act of the new fall network season.
In fact, at its best - during several moments of exquisite longing between the adult Ned and Chuck - Pushing Daisies feels so right that it almost redeems all the wrongs of such wretched new series as Cavemen or Carpoolers.
Lest anyone miss the creators' fairy-tale intention, the story of Ned and Chuck is told in voiceover narration; the voice belongs to Jim Dale, who also reads the Harry Potter series of audio books. It's a clever narrative device that sets an engaging tone - and allows the producers to whiz through 19 years of Chuck's life in less than three minutes at the start of the pilot.
Part of the deftly told setup also involves laying out the complications that come with Ned's special gift. The most troubling condition: While he can bring someone back from the dead with one touch, that person will be forever dead if touched a second time. The gods don't dispense such gifts without guaranteeing some wicked amusement in return.
The sitcom proper begins with 19-year-old Ned, now known as the Pie Man, running a restaurant called the Pie Hole. He mainly uses his gift to bring rotten fruit back to succulent life for baking.
Ned seems content enough at the Pie Hole, working with a waitress (Broadway's Kristin Chenoweth) who seems to adore him and a golden retriever that he brought back from the dead and keeps at arm's length.
But then, one day, shady private investigator Emerson Cod (Chi McBride) learns of the Pie Man's secret gift and persuades him to become his partner in solving crimes.
The savvy Cod figures it would be easier to catch murderers if investigators could ask victims who did them in. Enter Ned - who brings the deceased back to life, asks them who their killers were, then puts them back to sleep forever.
It's a nice little business arrangement with hefty fees paid by insurance companies, families and law-enforcement agencies - until the partners come across the victim Chuck, whom the Pie Man had not seen since they both were 9 and he was sent off to boarding school.
At the sight of Chuck, the Pie Man follows his heart and plays the Prince to her Sleeping Beauty. But that's the last touch they can share.
Pushing Daisies is far from perfect. While the producers cleverly try to balance the sweetness of the Pie Man's natural inclinations with the cynicism of his business partner, Cod, they have not yet mastered the rhythm of a repartee that seems organic.
And for all the original touches in the series, it must be noted that the imagery of endless fields of daisies that defines the show's opening is borrowed straight from the quirky independent film Everything Is Illuminated.
Still, set against a TV landscape dominated by gross sexual situations and innuendo, there is something genuinely beautiful - almost spiritual - about the first night Ned and Chuck spend together after her joyous rebirth.
"Together" means sleeping in separate rooms with a common wall between them, but Lee Pace, as Ned, and Anna Friel, as Chuck, communicate a desire that seems hot enough to melt the wall. And, yet, they stay apart.
Television is not very good at exploring love. In fact, the usual prime-time message goes something like this: Love is sex, and only fools would miss out on the latter - no matter who gets hurt in the bargain. Oh, and speaking of bargains, stay tuned for this commercial message for a product that can make you more sexually desirable.
Along with morals of right and wrong, fairy tales and myths traditionally have articulated the culture's hopes and aspirations. Pushing Daisies does some of that in a light and bright comic way.
Here's wishing a long and happy run for Chuck and the Pie Man.