Push Gives A Shove

ABC's answer to Melrose Place has John Morgan working up a sweat.


T he print ads for the new ABC hour-long drama, Push, a series about Olympic hopefuls competing together at a college in Southern California, proclaim that their show is "Melrose Place with 40 percent less fat." Apparently the producers of Push, which airs on Mondays at 8:00 p.m., feel that the problem with Melrose Place is that its actors aren't attractive enough. Frighteningly, they might be right, since Push manages to surpass its crappy writing with sheer trashy entertainment power.

A couple of months ago I made fun of Dawson's Creek when it premiered, but since then my friends and I have taken to watching the show and celebrating the incredible pretention of its teenage characters; in addition, the series' disturbing attempt to seriously approach teenage views of sex, ludicrously played out in a teacher-student relationship and wrong-headed mixes of frank discussions of sex with one liners about love, has fallen away into a more traditional, although pleasingly well-written take on teenage romance.

Push's opening moments pretty much obliterate this possibility -- any well-written episodes to appear within a year of the pilot would be horribly jarring. There's hardly any writing at all in the pilot's teaser, wherein we see, in MTV-style splendor, gymnast Victor Yates' disastrous fall off the pommel horse at the Olympics. Jump ahead to the present, when he arrives on campus as the new gymnastics coach and literally bumps into gymnastics student and freshman Cara Bradford. She flirts with him until she realizes he's her new boss, at which point she laughs and roller-blades away. He eyes her butt, and then the credits begin.

Cara is played by Laura Fortier, who, like almost everyone else in the nine person cast, is disturbingly buff and attractive. Now, good-looking television actors come and go, but Push really deserves the gold for assembling the most fit and beautiful young people working today.

Amazingly enough, many of these people can even act. The exception is Adam Trese as Victor Yates, who seems to be doing everything he can -- i.e., absolutely nothing -- to undermine his credibility as an independent film actor; he starred in acclaimed director Nick Gomez's debut film, Laws of Gravity, and his latest from last year, Illtown. You wouldn't know it from Trese's performance in Push, however, wherein he is so wooden he practically thuds against the screen.

Beyond Trese, there is the afore-mentioned Laura Fortier, creating the most sympathetic and appealing character as the good girl who flirts with being naughty. Her foil is Erin (Maureen Flanigan), a swimmer who loses her twin brother when he dies of a heart attack, pushing himself to succeed in the eyes of their demanding, interfering father. She's the good girl who isn't really aware of what naughtiness is.

On the male side, there's Erin's scam, Scott (Eddie Mills), a swimmer who won a bronze at the last Olympics, and is the good guy who flirts with being naughty. He rooms with gymnast Tyler (Scott Gurney), who currently plans to follow his parent's dream that he join the priesthood after he gets too old for the flips and rings -- solidly locking him in as the good guy who isn't really aware of what naughtiness is.

In addition to the supporting players of Jacobi Wyanne as a determined runner and Audrey Wasilewski as a drug dealer with an astonishing likeness to a chubby Lisa Loeb -- if such aberrations are possible -- there's the wigged out, drug-dependent Dempsey, played as if his eyes will bug out of his head at any moment by Jason Behr. And rounding out the cast is the doll-faced conniving nympho bitch character of Nikki, played by former model Jaime Pressly. She fits the part so well, she's even blonde.

The writing for Push's intitial offering offers up some juicy plot developments -- one character might have HIV, another smokes pot, another sleeps with her coach, and yet another may be responsible for his roommate's death after giving him performance-enhancing drugs. But the dialogue is routinely laughable.

It enters the realm of meta-humor when the English teacher ends class 45 minutes early, telling his students, "If you want to write, go out and get yourself drunk. Go and have sex until you can't bloody walk anymore and write about that. Give yourself something real to put on the page." I can only assume that an English teacher said this to the producers at some point in real life, since putting partying and sex on the page is exactly what they've done in writing Push.

Fortunately, the show's emphasis is almost entirely on its visuals. Shot like an hour-long Nike commercial without the logo, Push further blurs the line between television show and music video. The camera is always moving, no cut is longer than fifteen seconds, and montage, slowmo, and pulsing rock track are all used excessively -- but to good effect, since the shallow, cheaply appealing writing is thus perfectly married to images that are almost as attractive in their filming and editing as the actors in them.

Example: A two minute sequence wherein Cara and her faceless but well-matched stunt double perform a gymnastics routine to dreamy rock music in masterfully filmed, in and out of focus shots, while coach Yates, biceps bulging, watches appreciatively. He's clearly admiring her, uh, talents, but it's the camera-man and editor who really deserve the applause, since they're doing the majority of flips, turnarounds, and reversals.

And there's the pilot's climax, where the students of CSU all simultaneously engage in tense sports competitions, intercut as deftly as the trauma scenes on ER. Swimmer Scott collapses at the finish line while Erin whoops in closeup, and then suddenly we're watching sweat drip from a gymnast's upper lip before he collapses and paramedics run up to him, the image warping and rotating to indicate that Something Really Bad is happening. Cinema verite at its finest.

Push's premise has a lot going for it, once you get passed the inherent absurdity. Why are all these Olympic-level athletes forgoing training on their own to hang out at California Southern University? (A truly ridiculous name -- I can only assume there's a counterpart California Northern University that will show up and be competed against in some future episode.) But this ludicrous conceit provides for countless athletic competition storylines and episodes of more mainstream college trauma, while also mining the frequently ignored sexual dimension of the Olympics. One character describes a love affair during the Atlanta games:

"We were both in amazing shape. All that muscle and sweat, and the sex... well, you know -- gymnasts and sex."

"Sure," her friend responds knowingly.

Unfortunately, Push is going to have to struggle to find an audience quickly, since May sweeps are fast approaching. People had better pick up on its charming mix of beautiful visuals and hilarious scripting soon, since it doesn't have the benefit of being on startup network WB, where its premiere episode's rating of 4.5 would have elevated its cast, like that of Dawson's Creek, to the level of J. Crew demigods. Dawson's Creek managed to hold on by toning down its more outrageous aspects and settling into a comfortable level of addictive, well-written dismissability. Push, in contrast, is going to have to keep up its hysterical absurdities if it's going to succeed, but it looks like it might have what it takes -- on Dawson's Creek, it took three episodes for an English teacher and a student to have sex. In Push, it happens half an hour into the pilot.

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