Netflix has been home to some pretty wild specials, but the streaming service's newest special is truly something new. The Push, from psychological illusionist Derren Brown, tests the limits of social pressure and group think, by seeing if an ordinary man can be pushed (get it?) into committing murder. The concept is pretty out there, and what transpired is even more crazy than one can imagine, but is The Push on Netflix real? Or is it just an elaborate prank on the audience?
At this point in the new millennium, there is very little we have not yet seen on reality television. But fans of shows like The Bachelor and Survivor always thought that if there was a line reality television wouldn't cross, it would be taking a life. Alas, it's 2018, and anything is possible, so why not attempted murder? Now, before people begin accuse Netflix of endorsing random killings, rest assured that the murder isn't real, just the perpetrator. The Push actually employs a large team of actors, make up artists and stunt professionals, to make a fake murder possible. What is real is the psychological manipulation used on the sole non-actor to get him to kill another human being.
In The Push, Brown creates an elaborate scenario, perfectly engineered to drive an ordinary person unaware of the scheme — in this case a man named Chris — to murder a stranger. Brown recruited 70 actors to bring a fake charity gala to life and follow a carefully crafted script that would eventually end up with a group of "authority" figures (board members) pressuring Chris into murdering a millionaire. The script involves a convoluted story of the old millionaire seeming to drop dead, Chris being pressured into hiding the body and covering it up, and then a reveal that the millionaire is not dead after all, just in a sleep state, and he's heard everything and will sue everyone involved, including Chris. The entire thing ends with the millionaire smoking a cigarette on a ledge, just begging to be pushed to his death.
The production is a close look at subliminal messaging — the fake charity is named Push, and the tagline "Whatever it takes, push!" is repeated throughout the night — and the willingness we all have as humans to follow authority, even if it means a grave criminal act. "What the show asks is whether the mechanics of social compliance can be manipulated to push someone off a building to their death. Could it be taken that far?" Brown explained in an interview with UK's Independent. In the interview, Brown likens manipulating an real man into committing a fake murder to a person responding to a placebo given by a doctor, but critics might not agree that the two scenarios are equally benign.
Already, The Push has caused concern around the world. In New Zealand, for example, the Office of Film and Literature Classification has raised some concerns ahead of the special's Netflix premiere. A spokesperson for the group, which essentially determines ratings, did not say that they would take any action to re-rate the show, but noted that they reserve that right "when particular concerns have been raised with us by health professionals, parents or even young people themselves," via Stuff.co.nz. Early reactions in the United States have been equally hesitant.
The Push is more of a spectacle than a real life event, but that doesn't make the psychological effects any less traumatic. The fact that The Push is real raises questions about Brown's treatment of his own contestants, subjects, or victims. How does one recover from the psychological trauma of being manipulated into pushing a man off a building? Even if the subject manages to resist the peer pressure, surely the psychological toll is still great. Brown, however, insisted that he saw no such problems in his subjects. "Within five minutes of the end happening, they were fine," He told Independent. "But it's amazing how malleable people become. We think we've got these values and morals that we could never transgress, but all that goes out the window."
The Push is real, but it's important to remember that what is on the screen is Brown's version of reality. Hopefully, each contestant put through the ringer has their own reality as well.