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Fall '02: Push Over

Many years ago, when I was a young, fresh-faced undergraduate still not entirely sure how I would make a living in this crazy world, I took a visual arts class on video-making, which, if the course description is to be believed, gave me "a technical foundation and theoretical context for all subsequent production-oriented film and video studies." What this meant is that we spent a lot of time watching videos by performance artists that featured people excreting on camera and naked fat men masturbating while denouncing the Reagan administration.

I know I have a history of resorting to hyperbole to describe particularly unpleasant experiences. Let me assure you, I'm not doing that here. Because if we learned one thing in that class, it was that truly great art challenges its audience, shocking them out of their dull complacency by presenting discomforting images and themes. And if you want discomforting shock, well, watching the bowel movements of total strangers more or less fits the bill. And if we learned another thing from that class, it's that perhaps we were being hasty when we said all those mean things about Jesse Helms.

As awful as it may have been to watch those videos, it felt like a holiday afternoon compared to our final project for that class -- making a video of our own. Since misery loves company (and since public universities have limited video production equipment), we had to team up with another student to produce our video. And since I have a hard time making friends -- hard to figure, I know, with my winning personality and charm -- my partner was selected for me. He was an unpleasant, unkempt young man who spent half of his time stoned, a quarter of it preparing to get stoned, and the rest of it recounting all his adventures whilst stoned.

Needless to say, we had conflicting visions about our project. And, since whatever interest I had in the class had curled up and died about the same time the fat man had taken off his pants as he outlined the shortcomings of Ronald Reagan's economic policies, my little stoner buddy ended up getting his way.

His idea of the perfect conceit for our video project was to cherry-pick things he had seen in movies, music videos, and particularly pretentious paintings and cobble them together into an original work of our own. Who cares if it made any damn sense? It would look real cool. And so he wanted a scene where one of the characters appeared on camera wearing devil makeup and he wanted "Carmine Burana" playing in the background because he heard it in a movie once, and, by God, we just had to have someone eating a hard-boiled egg in the video.

"Robert DeNiro eats a hard-boiled egg in 'Angel Heart,'" he told me.

"I wish I was watching 'Angel Heart' right now," I would respond, all the while begging God to take me in my sleep.

The point isn't that the entire classroom experience was so unpleasant it steered me away from my destiny of directing low-budget, straight-to-Cinemax schlock or that I managed to eke out an A-minus, thanks to my mastery of late '80s video-editing equipment and my inspired choice of ambient light to darken and obscure all the nonsense my nutball partner insisted on capturing to video. Rather, I bring this up because if this would-be Fellini had put down his bong long enough to land a job in Hollywood, I suspect he'd have found gainful employment behind the scenes of Push, Nevada.

Like countless student films before it, Push, Nevada takes a bunch of images and ideas that someone else thought up first and thought up better and strings them together into a confusing mess. Alternately pretentious and condescending, the series from producer Ben Affleck and his gang of yes-men favors quirk over coherence, gimmickry over storytelling. It resorts to elaborate camera tricks when an understated approach will do just fine. And most important, it seems to forget that most people are tuning in to ABC on Thursday nights to be entertained, not to be constantly reminded how clever the show's producers and writers think they are. One can only hope someone at ABC is as embarrassed broadcasting this nonsense as I was explaining to a dubious T.A. the deep symbolism of a guy in devil makeup eating handful after handful of hard boiled eggs.

The show follows the travails of Jim Prufrock -- As in J. Alfred Prufrock. As in the T.S. Eliot poem. Get it? Get it? You do? Oh. -- an IRS agent who gets a fax hinting at some sort of fiduciary hanky-panky going on at a casino in Push, Nevada. The nut of the problem is, there's a million dollars missing, and it's up to our man Prufrock to dare disturb the universe and find himself the money. So what's stopping him? Well, it turns out that Push, Nevada is a town with a secret, where nothing is what it seems, where danger lurks behind ever corner and every stranger seems to be hiding something. It's a town without pity, and as we all should know by now, it isn't very pretty what a town without pity can do.

Um... it seems that I've confused the premise of Push, Nevada with Gene Pitney's 1961 chart-buster. Not that a show based on a Gene Pitney song wouldn't be much more entertaining than Push, Nevada.

Since even Ben Affleck's star power shouldn't be enough to secure a prime-time slot for this gibberish, Push, Nevada offers this twist -- it's not just an disjointed mystery program, it's also a muddled game show. Home viewers are encouraged to play along with Prufrock, collecting the clues scattered throughout each episode and solving the mystery their own damn selves. First person to figure out where the missing money is gets the million dollars. Say what you will about this terrible show, NBC isn't offering you a dime to watch In-Laws.

But not even money -- or at least, the vague promise of money -- was enough to make me endure more than two episodes of Push, Nevada and its unending parade of quirky characters. You've got the Bible-quoting white trash trucker and his sexy wife! The transparently corrupt sheriff and the obligatory good girl with a heart of gold! The trio of nameless men in suits and sunglasses acting as the evil puppetmasters pulling the strings! Armand Assante! Truly, no cliché has been left unturned.

You can almost imagine Affleck in a pitch session with his lackeys. All the characters will have biblical names, see? he says excitedly. "And we'll have a martini-swilling coroner who talks to the dead bodies like they're actual people. It'll totally blow people's minds." And the lackeys -- no strangers to enabling behavior -- probably sat there nodding and saying, "Sure, Ben. Anything you say, Ben. Sounds great Ben," all the while perusing Push, Nevada's contest rules to see if they're still eligible to win the million dollars.

It's apparently a violation of some obscure law to talk about Push, Nevada without making some reference to Twin Peaks, that other quirky mystery show that aired on ABC a decade ago. And, if you're talking about the second season of Twin Peaks, when it dawned on David Lynch that he had better think up a solution to his murder mystery and the show descended into incoherent madness, then the comparison is pretty apt.

But those first six episodes of Twin Peaks -- that was great television. From the opening moments of the pilot episode, you couldn't help but get hooked. As quirky and strange as the characters were, they were also elaborately constructed and developed -- you wanted to know more about these people. That's lacking in Push, Nevada and its absence is more noticeable than the missing million dollars. The town may be full of secrets, but that doesn't necessarily mean any of the secrets are interesting.

And, ultimately, that's what will do Push, Nevada in. You can decry the pretension, eviscerate the flawed storytelling, roll your eyes every time you're introduced to another character with a name straight out of the Old Testament. But the long and short of it is, Push, Nevada's producers are offering a shot at a million dollars just to pay attention to their little show. And about 15 minutes into the pilot episode, I was making to-do lists, balancing my checkbook, sifting through the newspaper and clipping coupons to save 30 cents on my next purchase of cat food. Anything, but devote any more than the barest amount of brain space possible to Push, Nevada.

That's really not a good sign. Sorry, Prufrock -- I have heard the mermaids singing each to each. And they're sure not singing for you, pal.

However, Push, Nevada's prize-patrol conceit may wind up saving it from a premature though thoroughly deserved death. The producers have sworn up and down on a stack of that book that gave them all their character names that they're giving away the million dollars even if Push, Nevada goes off the air. Still, that's decidedly hard to do if you've only shown four episode's worth of clues. With the Push, Nevada audience rapidly dwindling, ABC is looking for a place to stash this turkey while avoiding the slew of lawsuits that are sure to follow should a litigious viewership be denied its crack at a cool million by the whims of network programmers. There's talk of "repurposing" the show, which is a polite way of saying "Stash Push, Nevada on some other channel, where its low ratings will cause only minimal damage." That could mean another Disney-owned outlet, but, really, where else can they air it? The Disney Channel? ABC Family? ESPN2?

My suggestion would be for ABC to just split the prize money among the remaining viewers who've seen every Push, Nevada episode. In about a week, that should be enough to buy everyone a burger and fries. In two weeks, they could even super-size it.


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