Wednesday, October 12, 2005

CULT TV Blogging: Push, Nevada: Episode # 2: "The Black Box"

After viewing the second episode of ABC-TV's Push, Nevada (which aired Thursday nights for seven weeks in 2002), I am even more convinced than before that this unique series, created by Ben Affleck and Sean Bailey, was actually a daring experiment in film noir-style for television.

What are the elements of noir, and how do they apply to Push, Nevada? Okay, let's go through them one at a time.

First, the series is loaded with what you could easily term hard-boiled dialogue, or more simply stated, bold, colorful declarations. The closest thing we have to this style today is the Quentin Tarantino film aesthetic, but Push, Nevada features its own unique brand of hard-boiled language. "I think there are a lot of bad people doing bad things here," one character states unequivocally in the second episode, "The Black Box." "Sometimes the good times make the hard times all the harder, don't they?" Another character reflects. This is good stuff; different from the way many people talk on television: more theatrical, more colorful, more individual. I'm a tremendous fan of Joss Whedon because I believes that his characters speak in a distinctive fashion, self-reflexive and post-modern. His characters just talk differently from other dramatis personae on the tube. I think you can make the same argument about the off-kilter characters in Push, Nevada. Again, it's a totally inadequate description, but the closet thing to it is really Twin Peaks, a series I adored.

Also, the very names of the Nevada locations in Push, Nevada, evoke the noir ethos, pertaining to places in the desert with diabolical or at least mildly sinister names. "Satan's Ridge," ad "Demon Head Flats" are just two such monikers that call up images of strange, dark corners of - if not a Sin City - than a Sin County.

Another element of noir? The overarching mystery structure. Here, the mystery of the stolen cash morphs into something even more interesting. In "The Black Box," we learn that another important item was stolen from the Versailles Casino vault, an old Bible. What is the value of this book? Well, like the Maltese Falcon, that's the crux of the mystery, I suppose.

Perhaps more significant even than the generalized mystery structure is the inclusion of a variety of film noir characters archetypes. Let's begin with Derek Cecil's agent Jim Prufrock. In old movies, he probably would have been called a G-Man. Here he's an agent for the IRS. But more important than that, he's a lone crusader, someone driven by a secret in his past to solve the contemporary mystery taking place in the county of Push. In "The Black Box," we get only hints of a secret in Prufrock's past, but it becomes a major plot point in the third episode, "The Color Of." What we see more clearly in this episode is Jim's obsession with bringing to justice Mr. Bodnick's assassin, the man with the serpent tattoo emblazoned on his arm. We also see how Jim's marriage to Darlene (an alcoholic) tortured him; yet he still wears his wedding ring. He's an honorable guy on a mission, making up for something he deems a failure from his past.

Other noir character archetypes are also present. There's Mary, the femme fatale that I discussed in my review of episode one, "The Amount." I particularly enjoyed the scene in this episode wherein she provided crucial expositional dialogue while sensuously slow dancing with Prufrock at Sloman's. Then there's Caleb Moore the (admittedly) unusual street thug responsible for the vault robbery, yet not in "the know" about the larger crime. He is sexually debased, I would say, and that Persian flaw proves to be his undoing. That's something that Mary exploits in this episode, to rather memorable effect. There's also a preponderance of corrupt authority figures, particularly a useless Sheriff and the black-suited hands of the conspiracy. The inability to distinguish easily between criminals and authority is a critical facet of noir, and it's here in spades. Film noir films almost always result in the hero discovering, to his dismay, that someone close to him - someone in authority, someone trusted, is actually as corrupt as the street criminals he secretly employs.

Finally, noir as a genre is always visually distinctive. If you think about film noir, it is (in the 1940s, anyway...) shaded in stark tones of black and white. Push, Nevada boasts its own unique look, not black and white, but rather a washed-out, fluttery, hot look, appropriate to life in the desert (and not far in depiction from Oliver Stone's U-Turn, which also concerns a strange desert town where bizarre and murderous plots are afoot...) The afternoon sun in Push, Nevada can kill you in four hours, and the visuals are constantly reinforcing that fact. In TV, form rarely reflects content, but here that's precisely how it works.

Film noir also often includes some intricate manner of subtext beneath the surface, in part because in the 1940s and 1950s, films had to adhere to strict codes of the then-morality, and therefore some things (including a depiction of homosexuality) simply weren't permitted. In Push, Nevada's second episode, "The Black Box," there's also a visceral scene with some dynamic subtext. Near the climax of the episode, Jim goes to a trailer in the desert to speak with an informant, a tattoo artist. There is a quid pro quo; the tattoo artist won't divulge his secrets unless he "gets" something from Jim. At first, Jim refuses this invasion of his personal space and leaves the premises. But then, more desperate, he returns. In particular, the artist wants to make a most intimate connection; he desires to mark Jim with a tattoo, but the subtext is clearly homosexuality. The artist takes off Jim's shirt, and then instructs Jim to get down and bend over a chair (shirtless). This specific and intentional positioning puts the artist in the superior role, if you know what I mean. Then, with Jim propped over the chair, the artist approaches him from behind, and prepares to stick him with the tattooing instrument. The episode closes with a distorted close-up of Jim's screaming, violated face, as the artist (to his rear...) penetrates his skin with the instrument and begins fashioning the tattoo. Reading my description of the scene, one might claim that I'm interpeting too much, or over-analyzing, but the blocking of this sequence makes it abundantly clear what it's really about. An invasion, a penetration, a dark and not totally consensual transfer. And again, this kind of layered, double meaning is often an element of film noir.

In addition to the noir characteristics, "The Black Box" adds other facets to the series' lore. Here, we see the breadth of the conspiracy, as black helicopters and a gaggle of black ops agents search for the missing Bible in the desert, while Jim watches from a mountaintop vantage point. We learn that Mary is much more involved in the criminal happenings in town, and are introduced to Push's incompetent sheriff and deputy. The deputy is Dawn, played by The Tick's Liz Vassey, and she's particularly good in this oddball role.

Things keep getting weirder, darker and more intimate in Push, Nevada, and I'm curious to see where the remaining five episodes of this TV experiment in film noir will lead us...

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