Is ‘The Push’ Real? Netflix Special Is Latest In Derren Brown’s History of Fake and Manipulated Stunts

New Netflix special Derren Brown: The Push orchestrates events against a supposedly unwitting subject, pushing him into higher and higher pressure situations until he arrives at a clarifying event: will he commit murder by pushing someone off a roof? But, of course, there’s a bigger question looming over all this: is The Push fake, or real?

The subject, Chris, begins as a charity gala guest, but soon finds himself helping to move a dead body. At every step, the request seems just on the edge of reasonable. If he’s already dead (of a heart attack), why interrupt the gala (it’s for a good cause after all)? Chris, like many of us, wants to be liked, wants to be reasonable, and acquiesces to increasingly absurd demands. Social pressure from an army of in-on-it actors pushes him to impersonate the dead person, manipulate the body like Weekend at Bernie’s, and then, in the climactic moment, nudges him towards murder when the dead person turns out not to be so dead after all.

Major spoilers for 'Derren Brown: The Push'  ahead...

Chris doesn’t push the man off the rooftop, even with the people telling him he’ll go to jail if he doesn’t and promising they’ll all say it was an accident. Phew. But hold on! Because after Chris refuses, The Push reveals three other people did.

But was it fake? Or did three people really just “murder” someone because a bunch of actors and contrivances convinced them they had no other choice?

To answer, it helps to understand Derren Brown, the English mentalist who orchestrated The Push. A British television mainstay, his specials depend just as much on manipulating audiences as manipulating the subjects of his elaborate psychological illusions.

In his 2003 special Derren Brown Plays Russian Roulette Live, the trick wasn’t so much surviving Russian Roulette, as it was building an elaborate fiction around the event itself. Jersey police (where the special was shot), later confirmed Brown had applied to bring blanks into the country (to be fair, Brown points out these would be nearly as deadly if fired against his head at point-blank range). So, did Derren Brown successfully “read” which chamber the bullet was in by close observation of the person who loaded it? Or was it all stagecraft and sleight of hand? The exact mechanics of his stunt remain uncertain, but the special depended as much on manipulating the viewers as the situation.

Other specials turned out to be more clearly fake, like Derren Brown: Seance, which purported to be live, but was in fact pre-recorded. Or the special in which he guessed the lottery numbers in advance, using video, split-screen trickery.

Still other Derren Brown stunts involve astounding advance planning, to a degree that can fool viewers into believing the trick, simply because faking it seems too laborious. In Derren Brown: The System, he flips a coin ten times and got ten heads. He also successfully “predicted” six horses in a row. How’d he do it? By recording for hours and hours until he got ten heads in a row. As for the horse races, he recruited thousands of people to place the bets, then winnowed them out as each lost, presenting to the audience the one successful streak. Like winning the lottery by buying every possible number combination, some of Brown’s stunts involve beating overwhelming odds with overwhelming efforts.

What does this mean for The Push?

While the special isn’t “fake” in that Chris or the three other subjects are actors, fully aware of the circumstances, it isn’t real in the sense that Brown would suggest it is: that we’re all susceptible to psychological manipulation even to the point of murder.

Brown hints at how the situation has been manipulated in advance during The Push by showing us the audition process, in which people who responded less to peer pressure (in this case, sitting or standing when a bell rings, just because other people are doing it) were weeded out. Like with The System, a survivorship bias, in which we quickly overlook the selection process, concentrating our attention on those who remain, is at work.

Careful editing, laborious preparation and screening for people more likely to succumb to strong social pressure doesn’t make The Push fake, but it does play on our natural tendencies to invest ourselves in the immediate circumstances of a “character” and ignore the surrounding manipulations. Chris and the murderers-in-the-making of The Push are real, but you are as much a target for the special’s manipulations as them.

At the end of The Push, Brown offers a cautionary message. “The point is we are all profoundly susceptible to this kind of influence,” he says, itself a half-truth, already asking you to forget the careful selection process. “But by understanding this, understanding how we can be manipulated, we can be stronger, we can say no, we can push back.” Hard to argue with that.