Push Girls

Push Girls debuts tonight on Sundance at 10 p.m. Eastern.

The summer months might seem like a wasteland for first-run programming. But that’s been less true each year, and 2012 is shaping up to have a DVR-busting amount of small-screen entertainment. Sure, it might be harder to separate the wheat from the chaff at this time of year. But that has more to do with the sheer amount of shows currently offered rather than a lack of solid series to follow when not lounging by the pool, catching rays at the ocean, or whatever it is that people theoretically do in their free time between Memorial Day and Labor Day. But while you might already have a solid sense of what you’ll be watching this summer, Push Girls is a show you should seriously consider adding to your weekly viewing list.

Now, reality shows really aren’t my jam as a general rule. But between last Friday’s première of Motor City Rising and tonight’s Push Girls première on Sundance Channel, I have a lot more faith in the future of a genre I’m usually willing to write off. To simply describe Push Girls makes it sound like so many other female-centric shows on VH1 or Bravo. If I told you this series followed four long-time friends who encounter problems both personally and professionally while leaning on each other for support, you would probably roll your eyes. But what if I told you that all four women in Push Girls do so while in wheelchairs? Trust me: Wheelchairs Wives, this ain’t.

Angela Rockwood, Auti Angel, Mia Schaikewitz, and Tiphany Adams are four friends who are all paralyzed to varying degrees and through various causes. While three of the women are paraplegic (paralyzed from the waist down), Angela is quadriplegic (paralyzed from the neck down, albeit with limited use of her arms and fingers). Three of the four castmembers lost the use of their legs due to a car accident, while Mia suffered an arteriovenous malformation (an aneurysm, in this case inside her spinal column) at the age of 15. If you’re expecting a dour, somber reality show from this setup, think again. These women are fun, fierce, and will generally make you feel humbled by how much they accomplish in a single day.

Push Girls treads the line between education and entertainment, often opting for the latter whenever possible. The show never shies away from the castmembers’ situations, focusing instead on more human stories that gain resonance through the amount of effort these four have to exert in order to accomplish their goals. Angela tries to kickstart her once successful modeling career. Auti not only continues her career as a hip-hop dancer, but at 42 is attempting to have her first child with her husband. Mia and Tiphany both work through relationship issues, some of which deal with them being wheelchair-bound but mostly deal with them having the same hopes, dreams, and anxieties as anyone their age would.

The show never gets truly didactic. Push Girls could feature talking heads of these women dictating their lives; instead, we follow them through mundane activities such as pumping gas, getting to the gym, or going out to a bar to drink and dance. The show doesn’t make a big deal of these activities, since the women never make a big deal out of them. But it’s still incredible to watch Rockwood attempt to strike a pose without access to her abdominal muscles, or Adams straight-up own the dance floor and have every eye (male and female) upon her as she struts her stuff. “Yes, I can have sex,” Adams assures viewers during her first interview. “Lots and lots of sex.”

Is Push Girls a perfect première? Not entirely. While each individual story feels authentic, the single scene in which all four women come together to have lunch feels as staged as any lesser reality show would. Even though Rockwood, Angel, Schaikewitz, and Adams speak of the strength they derive from each other, there’s precious little interaction between them. (Sundance Channel only sent out the first episode for review, though two will air back-to-back tonight.) These women certainly all have plenty going on in their own lives, but it’s clear that there’s a level of understanding between the four of them that would be fascinating to see played out over longer, more varied encounters.

It’s a small complaint, one that will most likely be addressed in future installments. Tonight’s première spends a lot of time establishing the backgrounds of each individual, but the women themselves continually have their eyes on the future. Their refusal to feel sorry for themselves, the intense focus they exhibit in all aspects of their lives, and their ability to laugh even when most would cry is always fascinating to observe, if not downright inspirational. That’s a strong term, and one that might set off nauseous feelings of those who seek to consistently swim in snark. All I can say is that while Push Girls may not be the pinnacle of the reality-television field just yet, it’s certainly the model to which all shows in the genre should aspire. Not only does it shed light on how an often ignored portion of society lives, it also sheds a little light on how we all should live.

Stray observations:

  • I first learned about this show back in January, at the Television Critics Association press tour. I bring this up not to sound like a self-promoting jerk, but because the panel for this show blew away long-time attendees, not just this first-time participant. A room that essentially tweeted snark for two weeks stopped dead during the 20 minutes devoted to Push Girls.
  • In addition to rebooting her career, Rockwood also deals with the recent separation from her husband, 21 Jump Street actor Dustin Nguyen. He doesn’t appear in the première, but will show up at some point in the series.
  • The interactions between Rockwood and the photographer she hires to take some new headshots of her serves as a microcosm for how these women often turn fear and misunderstanding into a learning opportunity for both parties.
  • There are hints, though not many, of how expensive life is for these women due to their medical expenses. But Push Girls doesn’t appear to be designed as a polemic to get better health care coverage for those with paralysis.
  • “I have 26-inch rims on the side of my ass! It’s hard not to get attention.” Well put, Tiphany.