The narrator (Jim Dale) guides Young Ned on his journey running away from boarding school, where he happens upon a group of kids and a teacher trying to reach a bird's nest. He climbs up, unseen, to discover the birds are all kaput. But decides to give them a touch back to life.
The teacher shows him their class project, raising red-breasted woodpecker birds. Which are now also toast.
And so Ned returned to boarding school.
A year since Ned (Lee Pace) touched Chuck (Anna Friel). He's melancholy with Chuck sleeping next door.
Emerson (Chi McBride)'s phones light up. Georgette Heaps (Rachael Harris) bursts in. She's looking for her teenage daughter, missing now three weeks. The police think Nikki (Hayley McFarland) is just another runaway. She stone-facedly apologizes for losing control.
She asks him if he's a parent. "I used to be," he says.
Off to Olive (Kristin Chenoweth) in the nunnery, spilling all her Lilly (Swoosie =Kurtz)-is-Chuck's-mom's secrets to a pig.
At the Pie Hole, Emerson misses Olive's good service. Ned turns and looks at the door every time it rings, afraid it's Chuck's aunts.
Emerson gives them the Nikki-missing case. Her best friend isn't talking.
Ned wonders what's happened to Olive.
Chuck's ploys with the best friend pay off - Nikki's run away with a guy named Rocky who lives in a van and who's in "entertainment."
They find Rocky in a mime-themed van. He's also dead.
For the moment. Ned gives him a tap. He arises and won't talk. An undead mime, even more irritating than a live one. Emerson pulls out a gun and the mime talks. He thinks he was poisoned and she ran off with a clown, a real clown. With the circus. He gives Chuck a poem to give to Nikki.
Back at the Pie Hole, Ned tells Chuck she can't go, leading to some serious pouting.
Olive tries to adjust to the nunnery, but finds it very boring. Lilly drops in, bedecked in a habit and tells Chuck to meet her later that night.
At the circus, Chuck and Ned talk to a French acrobat (Theo Alexander) who directs them to the clowns - all while hanging upside down.
They talk to the ring master and his secretary snort-giggles at all his bad jokes, and also when he says he didn't know Nikki. Ned thinks it's a tell. He goes back in. She says nobody liked that girl and she's going to get what she deserves. She left with Jackie Johnny after the show last night.
Back at the Pie Hole, Vivian (Ellen Greene) walks in. Her parasol gets stuck in the door and Chuck stuntman rolls over the counter and out of sight. (it's so impressive they show it as the lead-in and lead-out of the commercial break).
Vivian orders a triple berry pie to hiding Chuck, who answers in mutters. She cries as Vivian talks about missing Olive and then Lilly, who has disappeared on an overnight trip again.
Ned and Chuck drive and Ned talks about missing Chuck. He says they've figured out ways around the not-touching thing. They build contraptions.
They find Jackie Johnny's clown wig floating in a pond, followed shortly thereafter by a dead clown in the driver's seat and another and another and another and another and another.... (we later learn 15 in all).
Emerson briefs Mrs. Heaps, who manages to hold it together. "I don't wear my feelings like a shiny, sparkly brooch, but if I did my sadness and anxiety would be mesmerizing right now," she says.
She jokes that maybe they should bring Jackie Johnny back to life and ask him where Nikki is. And then that's what they do.
Ned brings Chuck to the morgue. He apologizes for making her stay behind and says from now on they'll close the Pie Hole if he needs to go out on a case. But Chuck says some people need the Pie Hole and confesses that Vivian stopped by.
Ned pokes Jackie Johnny awake. He says he sent Nikki back in to calm down a member of the audience who was the butt of a gag. His name was Brian Von Deenis. He remembers because they made up a limerick about it....
A car ran them all off the road. He remembers Von Deenis threatened to kill him.
Lilly has more confessing to do. She never slept with Charles Charles, but convinced him he was Chuck's dad. But Olive asks how Lilly convinced him he was the dad if they never slept together. Lilly's lie is quickly unraveled. But the pressure of keeping it from Vivian at home is driving her nuts. Luckily, she has a flask in her Bible to help her through the hard times.
Emerson lures Von Deenis to the Pie Hole with a coupon for free pies. He says Nikki chased after the clowns.
Emerson visits Ned, who is disappointed the knock at the door isn't Chuck. They ruminate about the case over tea. Emerson doesn't think Nikki did it. He tells Ned about his missing daughter - and his missing wife, who took her seven years ago.
Emerson remembers something her mom said, that Nikki hates to be alone. He thinks she's still at the circus.
The trio hits the big top.
Lilly, still at the nunnery, says her Chuck guilt didn't die with her. Olive confesses her own secret: that she's still in love with Ned.
Chuck and Ned talk about her need for change. She died just when she was starting to live her own life, and now that she's got her second chance, she needs to try again.
Emerson walks up with the news that a truck load of mimes aren't talking. Can, but won't. They came because they knew there'd be jobs. Chuck finds a flier that calls for mimes, clowns and jugglers. Rocky was looking for a job before there was one. They realize that someone must have known they'd need to replace the clowns and mimes before they made the flier.
Back to the ring master, who says it was a union dispute. He says he planned to fire them for organizing. Nikki was his spy on the inside. She was following them the night they got run into the lake. She agreed to spy in exchange for a job.
There's a loud bang and a dwarf comes flying into the trailer. A human cannon ball meant to harm.
They race after whoever fired the "shot."
Emerson says he knows who did it and they're after Nikki. They find her among the stuffed animals, dressed like one. She didn't want them to think she was guilty.
As Emerson explains that the ring master was the only one she told, but not the only one who was listening, Nikki is lifted up and away.
The narrator explains the facts where these: the acrobat was spying on the spying report and when the clowns went into the woods he followed, followed by Nikki. He wanted to quash the union, but saw that Nikki saw.
He hauls her up on a platform and puts a gun to her enormous costumed head. He killed the mime to throw suspicion off and make it look like the clowns did it.
Chuck asks, in French, to have a word with Nikki. She reads the mime's poem: "No matter where you go or what you do, you'll always be my sweet Nikki Heaps."
As the acrobat reads his list of demands, Ned picks up a nearby baseball and beans him in the kisser. He releases Nikki and she falls, safely, onto the net below. The acrobat goes to jail.
Olive tries to adjust at the nunnery.
Vivian and Lilly visit the Pie Hole and Chuck does another impressive counter leap.
Emerson watches the cold reunion of the Heaps and then reminds the previously distraught (on the inside) mother to "love what's there."
He returns to his pop-up 'Lil Gum Shoe book.
At his apartment, Ned embraces his fresh start. So does Chuck. They pretend to meet for the first time, fresh starts both.