We talk a lot about having good rules when it comes to magic in storytelling. Just because there is a magical element in the story it doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be rules for how magic works. Sometimes, however, having a vague mythology can be a good thing depending on the type of story you are trying to tell and the atmosphere you are trying to create. This is demonstrated excellently in one of my favorite shows.
Pushing Daisies is a show I haven’t really talked about on this blog, and really, that is a problem, because the short-lived show is not only excellent but also perfectly describes what I am talking about.
In Pushing Daisies, our main character, Ned, discovers at a young age that he can touch dead things and bring them back to life. However, throughout the course of the series, we never learn how or why Ned has these powers.
This was the moment Young Ned realized he wasn’t like the other children. Nor was he like anyone else for that matter. Young Ned could touch dead things and bring them back to life. This touch was a gift given to him, but not by anyone in particular. There was no box, no instructions, no manufacturer’s warranty. It just was. The terms and use weren’t immediately clear, nor were they of immediate concern.
In a different show this would be a problem, but for Pushing Daisies, it works. Let me explain why.
First, Pushing Daisies may be vague about where Ned’s powers came from, but they are very clear about everything else. The rules of Ned’s powers are explained fairly quickly. We learn that Ned can touch a dead thing and bring it back to life, but can only do so for a minute without consequence. If he brings something or someone back for longer than a minute, something else of equal value has to die. And if Ned touches something he brings back to life again it will die again and he won’t be able to bring it back. These rules are very simple. There is never any confusion with how the magic in the Pushing Daisies universe works; it is spelled out for the viewer. If his powers were more confusing, we would probably want more of an origin to explain them. But this clarity in the storytelling allows the writers to keep the origins of Ned’s magical powers very vague without the show losing anything or feeling incomplete.
Second, the magical powers introduce stakes for the characters, making it so that Ned’s powers are the driving force of conflict in the plot. Now, I know what you are probably thinking. You’re thinking: “Well, isn’t that always the case? The main character’s powers are always the main conflict!” No, that is not necessarily the case. Think about Spider-Man; we never have a whole movie just about how he obtains powers and then has to deal with living his normal life with spider powers — there is always something else going on. There is some other dude turning into a lizard or some guy with octopus arms causing trouble that Spider-Man deals with. Yeah, his powers play into that, but they aren’t the driving source of the conflict in the story. If you really think about it, most characters with magically or scientifically obtained powers aren’t dealing with conflict just from their powers. If anything, their abilities act like keys that lead into a world or society with people and events that cause the conflict.
But in Pushing Daisies the driving force of conflict is Ned’s powers. There may be other conflicts each episode (and the end of Season 2 seemed like there would have been a larger plot if the show hadn’t been canceled) but the overall conflict for both seasons is Ned’s powers and how they affect him and the people around him. Ned, for example, is in love with Chuck, his childhood sweetheart who died. He brought her back to life, but because of those same powers they must try to navigate a relationship without being able to touch each other. Because of this the viewers never really worry about where Ned’s powers came from. They simply enjoy watching him deal with his life while having these crazy powers.
Finally, we have the atmosphere of the Pushing Daisies world, which lends itself to supporting a more vague sort of mythology. The Pushing Daisies world is not one that is inherently magical. Though the set design and storytelling (specifically the use of a third-person narrator) gives the show a very fairy tale-like feel, the only real magical element in the show is Ned’s abilities. If anything, this helps ground things more in the real world. While it would be nice to have some Dumbledore or Yoda-type character to come along and train us and explain where his powers came from, the fact of the matter is if anyone did develop some strange power in real life, chances are that person would be on their own (at least maybe for a while). And while they would certainly use their power, like Ned does, more than likely most people would just try to go about and live their lives. Ned would like to know why he has his powers and sometimes he very actively wishes that he didn’t have them, but Ned has other life issues to deal with so he is not overly concerned with where his abilities came from.
However, if the story was too grounded in the real world, the show would start to enter the realm of magical realism or it would make things difficult for the viewers to suspend disbelief about about Ned’s powers. The characters might deal with mundane conflicts like navigating relationships and baby mama drama (with Chuck’s Aunt Lily). But the world itself is really surreal, with all the brightly colored sets, character archetypes, alliterative names, and of course, having a narrator throughout the show. This makes the show feel like something out of a fairy tale that an adult might be reading their child. Since fairy tales tend to be simply structured and a lot of magical elements go unexplained or taken for granted the mood, the show sets lend themselves to the audience not needing nor really desiring to know the source of Ned’s powers.
So while having clear storytelling is ideal sometimes for storytelling purposes, things need to be more vague to create the appropriate atmosphere and world for the story. However, Pushing Daisies only succeeds in doing this by keeping all the other rules of the universe very clear so that the viewers can follow along and understand what is happening. Furthermore, the writers make sure that Ned’s powers are the main source of the conflict, and ground his powers in reality, while still keep things surreal enough create a mood that lends itself to this type of vague mythology. It’s very clear that the writers of Pushing Daisies knew what they were doing. They know the rules of writing good, clearly-developed fantasy settings and so are able to break some of those rules to create the appropriate conflict and atmosphere for the show. It’s really very masterfully done.