Tuesday, October 11, 2005

CULT TV Blogging - Push, Nevada, episode #1: "Amount"

I've been blogging many new shows during the 2005 season (Supernatural, Night Stalker, Surface, Threshold, Lost, Invasion...) but I want this blog to have some real depth beyond the new, fresh and hip, so I'm starting a new series where I'll also be blogging short-lived cult TV programs.

Recently, a dear friend of mine named Fred, a reader on this blog, kindly introduced me to a TV show that I missed completely on its short run in 2002. The series is called Push, Nevada and well, it sorta defies conventional description. It ran on ABC for a mere seven episodes, and was created by Ben Affleck and Sean Bailey (and produced by Matt Damon and Chris Moore). To call it Twin Peaks meets The X-Files meets Northern Exposure does the series a great (and grave) disservice, but that's easy (if not wholly accurate...) shorthand for the nature of the program. The series is sort of like desert noir in look and feel, and it is almost hyper-stylized at points, not unlike Pulp Fiction.

The story of Push, Nevada begins bizarrely, with a close-up shot of a fat bald man reclining in a bath-tub filled to the rim with ice. "You're ready, let's go," an offscreen voice tells him, and - naked - he then hightails it into the Versailles Casino vault to steal a fortune. He is not detected because the security camera detects infra-red only, and he has sufficiently lowered his body temperature to avoid being filmed. Weird.

This strange crime would have gone unnoticed except for James A. Prufrock (played by Derek Cecil), a divorced, 29-year old investigator for the IRS. One day, a fax containing a "consequential accounting error" is erroneously sent to his office, and he learns that it was sent by the casino. When he can learn nothing over the phone from the hostile fax senders, he tells his secretary Grace (Melora Walters of Boogie Nights and Magnolia...) that he's headed to investigate.

What Agent Prufrock finds in the town of Push, Nevada, is very, very strange indeed: a mystery wrapped in an enigma. He stays in a bizarre boarding house, visits a "slow dance" bar called Sloman's and quickly falls in love with one of the dancer's there, a femme fatale named Mary. James even narrowly escapes being killed by a gangster (Jon Polito) on his first day in the town. When he researches the history of Push, Nevada, Prufrock learns of the town's death and mysterious re-birth in the mid-1980s thanks to a mysterious LLC called "Watermark." But all information on Watermark is sealed by the Attorney General, meaning that the conspiracy involving Push is much bigger than even James suspected initially. Who stole the money from the casino? Why? What's going on? What's the Justice Department's involvement?

Those questions form the heart of Push, Nevada's mystery. "Like all the best secrets," Mary warns James (and the viewer...), "...it's not quickly told." In other words, this series planned to take its time developing the plot. Unfortunately, it never had that time.

Push, Nevada is a product of its time in a very interesting way. You'll recall that the 2002 fall TV season came at the height of reality TV's ascent. Scripted dramas were being taken off the schedule regularly, and there had to be a "reality" hook to many shows to keep viewers interested. In the case of Push, Nevada, there was a contest underneath the scripted drama. Specifically, clues to the location and amount of the stolen fortune were interspersed throughout the drama. Anyone who could correctly guess all the clues then had a shot at winning a real fortune.

Now, I agree that this sounds like the worst kind of gimmicky TV, but in fact, it hardly deters enjoyment of Push, Nevada. On the contrary, the contest aspect focuses all of your attention on the show in a way that only the best dramas do, like the current hit, Lost. Because you're looking for answers, you're also hanging on every word. In the opener, "Amount," several clues seem to pop up. The number on the boarding house door, for instance, changes from scene-to-scene. The street sign outside of Push, Nevada (population 10,623, elev. 1023) also seems to important. And twice James looks in on TV viewers in nearby homes and sees ABC programming, specifically Alias and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. You sense this isn't product placement or promotion, but some kind of important clue!

But really, you can ignore the whole contest aspect of Push, Nevada if you choose and just enjoy the program on its own terms and merits. Thus far, I'm enjoying how the series uses fast-motion and quick cuts for comedic effect. There's a wonderfully cinematic moment early on when Prufrock is challenged, and the camera backs away from him at warp speed, righout out of his office, to show the signage for the IRS. Then it zooms right back in a second later, and that's how we're introduced to his profession as an agent. I also like the use of split-screens and other movie touches to make the show seem as though it's more than your crime-drama of the week. In fact, it really does seem to owe a lot to the noir genre of the 1940s and 1950s, and anytime TV gets near to capturing that mood, it's a time to rejoice.

Finally, one of the best moments in "Amount" arrives when James Prufrock challenges Jon Polito's character, Bodnick, who tells him to "go ruin an honest man's life. That's all you [IRS] people are good for!" Prufrock is calm in the face of the criticism, and then delivers what I can only describe as his manifesto. "You know how this country works," he says "...you know why taxes are a burden to honest people...fraud...wealthy, greedy cheats." That's a brief paraphrase of his long speech, but it is exquisitely written and delivered and it states something I've never heard a program on TV state before; something I've never even heard a pundit on TV news acknowledge: that we - the taxpayers - suffer from high taxes because greedy businesses and corporations find ways not to pay. It's called corporate welfare and it damages this country a million times more than any personal welfare system. So many people in power (particularly those in the pockets of business, and we know which party I'm talking about right?) want you to believe the myth of the "welfare queens" destroying the system, but the so-called "welfare queens" can't account for even a miniscule percentage of the cheating going on behind the doors of big business. Push, Nevada's "Amount" is awesome for acknowledging that fact, and for making one realize that the IRS isn't really the bad guy here. It's the cheaters in the board rooms we should blame.

"Amount" was written by Ben Affleck and Sean Bailey, and directed by John McNaughton, the fellow who brought the world the riveting (and highly disturbing...) Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer. Armand Assante and Tom Towles are among the guest-stars in this first installment. Just from the first episode, I can safely say that this is a really unique program, and one that I wished had lived longer. I'm looking forward to episodes two through seven, and I hope that my posts will adequately describe for you a series that I think many of us missed three years back.

I'll be blogging the remaining six episodes over the next week or thereabouts, so please stay tuned.

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