When it comes to television docuseries and reality shows, it seems like every culture and microculture has had time in the spotlight. Polygamist families? Check. Gypsies about to marry? Check. Little people working to save pit bulls? Check. Beautiful women in wheelchairs? Now you can check that box too. But put an asterisk next to it, because “Push Girls,” the new 14-part series about four paralyzed women, isn’t just a voyeuristic glimpse into life with disability, it’s actually important television.
At its simplest level, the show (which premieres Monday on The Sundance Channel) follows the day-to-day lives of four Los Angeles-based women who use wheelchairs. Of the ladies on the show, Mia Schaikewitz is the only one whose paralysis didn’t occur in a single life-changing moment. Hers happened over the course of about half a day when, at the age of 15, a blood clot ruptured in her spine, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.
Auti Angel was a professional hip-hop dancer touring with LL Cool J when she was in a car accident that snapped her back in half. There’s also Tiphany Adams, who seems every bit the California girl -- tan, blonde and an unabashed flirt. She was a high-school senior when a car she was riding in with two friends was hit head-on in a 130 mph collision. Like Schaikewitz and Angel, Adams is paralyzed from the waist down. She lives in a house with castmate Angela Rockwood, who was working as a model when she was thrown from the back seat of a car in an accident that resulted in a broken neck and severed spinal cord. At the time, Rockwood was given a 3 percent chance of regaining movement and sensations below her neck.
All four women knew each other before filming, so this is no “Real World.” However, viewers get to see the world the women live in and watch them navigate relationships, breakups and the search for everything from jobs to just plain happiness. The wheelchairs are the main difference between “Push Girls” and other like-minded shows, but when you look a little more closely, the show is accomplishing something else: proving that it is possible to set a new standard for reality-type television.
One way “Push Girls” does this is by immediately tackling the tough questions, the ones people are thinking but might not want to ask: Can you still have sex if you’re in a wheelchair? Can you have a baby? How do you go to the bathroom? Bathe? “Push Girls” answers all of these within the span of the first two episodes, and does so honestly and respectfully, never relying on coyness or silliness as a buffer for broaching the difficult stuff. The production might need to be given credit for some of this, but it’s the cast that is the driving force in this accomplishment.
“I don’t beat around the bush. I go in, grab the bush and yank it out,” Rockwood told TODAY.com. “Ever since I’ve been paralyzed, I’ve had this no nonsense, deal with it, throw everything down on the table attitude.”
It’s that attitude that puts “Push Girls” in a category apart from other unscripted programming, something that Rockwood recognizes.
“I found myself watching ‘Real Housewives of New Jersey’ for the first time, and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Are you freaking kidding me? Are you joking? What is this about? All they do is fight?’ Half the stuff out there isn’t educating or inspiring,” Rockwood said. “My mentality is you can go out there and write the book that you want to read. There’s a cure for ignorance: It’s awareness. That's what I’m working toward with this show.”
People will definitely become more aware of the plight of these women after watching "Push Girls," but they’re just as likely to see any of the four women experience something fairly universal, wheelchair or not. Instead of highlighting how we’re so different, “Push Girls” manages to remind us also how much we’re the same.
Rockwood’s marriage fell apart, and she’s stuck with a mortgage to pay. Angel wonders when she might be ready to have a baby. Schaikewitz wonders if she’s settling for a guy who might not be right for her. This is all pretty basic life stuff, just delivered in a slightly surprising way: You can watch and find yourself having something in common with someone whose life could not be more different than yours.
While the wheelchairs are never a character in their own right (another remarkable achievement), they are ever present and amplify whatever story is being told at the moment. As Adams puts it in the premiere episode, “I have 26-inch rims on the side of my a--. It’s hard not to get attention.” However, the attention these women will get will ultimately be for delivering a message that might be greater than any of their substantial disabilities.
“Realize what your potential is in the very moment. Go within yourself and know what you’re truly capable of doing. Mind over matter. If you focus positively on a goal, you can completely execute that. Tomorrow is not promised,” Rockwood said. “That’s the message here for me, what I hope to deliver with this show.”
That’s one big message, and “Push Girls” delivers it, or at least comes admirably close. Better yet, it does so while creating awareness for those who are wheelchair dependent.
Unscripted programming that doesn’t exploit and puts some good out into the universe? That’s a pretty rare thing. “Push Girls” is a show fans of television can be proud to watch.
"Push Girls" premieres on Monday, June 4 at 10 p.m. on Sundance channel.
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