The host of Netflix's latest reality show The Push wants someone to commit murder. Derren Brown oversees a cast of over 70 people as they maneuver, manipulate, and pressure one unsuspecting participant towards pushing a rich old man to what they assume is his death. The controversial show has critics questioning just what kind of person would want to put someone in this situation, so who is Derren Brown of Netflix'sThe Push, and why exactly is he doing this?
A self-proclaimed illusionist and mentalist, Brown has a long history of shocking stunts designed to pry into the workings of the human mind, and controversy following him. In 2003 he starred in Russian Roulette, a live TV special where a volunteer loaded a supposedly live round into a gun. Brown then clicked away with the gun to his head, trusting his expertise to correctly guess which chamber contained the bullet. British police later said Brown used blanks and decried the entire show as a stunt, despite Brown standing by his use of live bullets, and his correct claim that numerous people (including, most famously, Brandon Lee) have died from close-range use of blanks anyway if that was the case.
Brown rose to public prominence with his TV series Mind Control, where he used a mix of psychology, suggestion, and good old fashioned razzle-dazzle to convince people of insane scenarios. One infamous episode set up a zombie arcade game that lulled one-third of its players into a catatonic trance. Brown and a team would then place them in a real-life version of the game and snap them out of the trance to see their reaction.
Brown's fascination with magic and mental manipulation began early, and stemmed from a deep lack of self-confidence he still struggles with to this day. In an interview with The Guardian Brown explained, "You get into [magic] because you don't feel impressive. It's the quickest, most fraudulent route to impressing people… Finding magicians who are sexually well-adjusted and have great social skills is not always the easiest thing."
Brown studied magic closely, writing two books on the subject. Absolute Magic and Pure Effect are now out-of-print, and characteristic of the host's element of surprise and self-effacement, he's the one who had them pulled from the shelf. Brown explained in an interview with fellow magician Guy Hollingworth that those books were intended for practicing magicians, and when ordinary fans began bringing them to signings, he felt guilty they'd spent so much money on a book that wouldn't answer their questions about his work.
So Brown began writing books for the average reader, explaining his explicitly non-magical methods. Tricks Of The Mind explained how hypnosis, cold reading, subliminal suggestion, and a few traditional conjuring techniques merge together to form Brown's unique ability to mislead and convince the average bystander. Well, not quite average; part of Brown's success is his insistence there's a type of person more easily swayed by these techniques.
In another Guardian interview, Brown initially refused to try anything on his interviewer. "Hypnosis is just suggestibility; you see it in certain people," he noted, adding, "As a journalist, you'd be a classically bad subject for it." And yet Brown was able to successfully trick the trickster, applying his knowledge of psychological manipulation to himself after breaking up with his boyfriend of eight years.
He insists this also isn't a trick, but a larger philosophy, and wrote Happy: Why More Or Less Everything Is Absolutely Fine to explain it. In an interview with The Telegraph, Brown pointed out, “The problem with the modern conception of happiness is that it is seen as some kind of commodity...The ancients had a much better view of it. They offered an approach of not trying to control things you can’t control, and of lessening your desires and your expectations so you achieve a harmony between what you desire and what you have.”
This philosophy doesn't really pop up in Push, where the hapless mark is squeezed mentally and socially in a high-pressure, apparently life-or-death situation. Whether or not they'll follow through remains to be seen when Push hits Netflix on Feb. 27.