The Push is Maybe the Worst Reality Show as Well as the Worst Magic Show

WTF is The Push?

The Push is a Netflix special where a guy named Derren Brown, who’s apparently famous in the UK and styles himself as a “psychological illusionist” or something, tricks an unsuspecting stranger into believing that he’s just watched someone die, pressures him to interfere with the corpse, and then pressures him to commit a murder. This action is intercut with explanations about how Brown was able to rig up such a convincing scenario, to the point of getting celebrities to endorse a fake charity he invented, hiring a whole gala’s worth of actors, conspiring with his victim’s business partner over a series of weeks leading up to the event to make it seem like one of the actors is a potential new client, and hiring an award-winning special effects team to build a life-like corpse over the course of two months.

Honestly, by the time he got to the corpse, I fully expected him to say, “I needed it to look realistic, so I dug up the body of another stupid idiot who once auditioned for my show!”

In addition to validating every paranoid, socially anxious thought I’ve ever had (“What if my life is The Truman Show?!”), it’s really mean, and it has no redeeming value.

The real story, though, is not what the “contestant” is willing to do – it’s what Derren Brown and his actors are willing to do

Complete and total spoilers for the special, but the main victim of this “illusion,” a guy named Chris, is not actually willing to murder somebody, even after he’s been run through a stupidly extravagant maze by Brown and his team for several hours. What happens is that Chris is led to believe he’s meeting a business contact at a charity event, and then watches the charity’s main benefactor die from an apparent heart attack. The actor pretending to be his business contact gets him to help carry the body into another room so people don’t see it and – without offering a credible explanation for why, at least that we see – says they can’t call emergency services until after the gala, so they need to lie to everyone and say the benefactor’s still alive.

The two of them end up hiding the body in a crate – again for no clear reason that we’re told – and launching into what I guess is sort of a joke about Weekend at Bernie’s, because the supposed corpse is named Bernie, and, after a series of misunderstandings that leave Chris looking pale and traumatized, they put Bernie in a wheelchair and pretend he’s still alive. The business contact then wants to pretend that Bernie fell down the stairs and that they discovered his body after the gala, I guess to explain why they haven’t called anyone, and asks Chris to kick the body so it looks like he fell, which Chris doesn’t do.

Then it turns out that Bernie isn’t dead. He just has a mysterious sleeping condition and, when they go back to recover the body, they find he’s disappeared and gone up to the roof. It turns out he knows everything they did – though, in this particular run through, the actor doesn’t seem to have been informed that no one kicked his fake corpse, which is weird. At this point, a whole bunch of people on the fake charity’s board know what’s happened, and they pressure Chris to push the benefactor off the roof so he won’t tell anyone. And Chris says no, he’d rather just go to prison.

At that point, Derren Brown appears and sucks his own teeth while he tries to pretend he’s happy that Chris didn’t want to kill anyone. He then shows us rapid-fire clips of four other trials he supposedly ran in which the participant did push the benefactor off a building, as if to prove that the problem wasn’t his set-up.

Pretending to be happy when Chris doesn’t do what the actors have told him is a running theme in the episode, which cuts back and forth between Chris being told a bunch of horrible lies on the ground and Brown monitoring everything from a control room while he tells the actors, through an earpiece, how to pressure Chris more. You can really feel what a scalding failure the whole thing’s going to be if, after all this time, and planning, and expense, he can’t convince some random guy to kill a total stranger. You get the feeling he’d be willing to do almost anything, no matter how amoral, to get the ending he needs.

Kind of like the premise of the “illusion.”

Let’s all be aware of something, then

Everything Brown does is justified in the final edit by the idea that he’s spreading “awareness” about how easily we can be manipulated and induced to act against our core values. Never mind that this is a situation where he screened for someone easily manipulated, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars setting up the manipulation, and still failed to get the outcome he wanted. The only thing this show should make anyone aware of is the depths some people will plumb to be on television.

I normally think it’s an overreaction when people talk about reality television turning into a new kind of coliseum where we torture people for our own entertainment, but there are a handful of instances like this that make that point of view seem valid. There are some things that it’s not okay to do to people, even if they technically consent and sign a release form to be on TV. And I really disagree with the idea circulating in our culture right now that anyone who dares to expose themselves to attention – by auditioning for a reality show, for example – deserves whatever awful fate their wanting to be noticed eventually brings them.

The Push is ultimately about a normal-seeming person who thought it might be fun to be on television, got terrorized by actors as part of an elaborate stunt one night, and then kind of had to pretend to be a good sport. It’s about how other regular people – performers, in this case – can become so fixated on wondering whether they have the technical skills to fool someone that they forget to ask themselves if the deception they’re planning is kind. Or if it’s adding anything of value to the world except by stroking their own egos.

I would love to watch a documentary about how this show got made. Like, truthfully, how it got made. How regular people with a normal sense of right and wrong were convinced that this was an okay thing to do. What were the levers used to manipulate them in that situation? And who was pulling them? And why?

That would be an interesting special.

Image: The Push; Netflix | March 9, 2018