Derren Brown – dark suit, shaved head, low light – stands in a large white box, eyeballing the camera. "The question is simple: can we be manipulated by the familiar forces of social pressure," he says, pausing with a half smile playing on his face, "to commit murder."
Thus begins Derren Brown: The Push. And, probably, ends television. Because where else is there to go from here? Black Mirror has actually happened. Nathan for You is a kid's show. The shock of 'really getting hitched' on Married at First Sight is null and void.
What else is there after murder?
Brown is an English mentalist with a reputation for controversy-baiting stunts, particularly those playing with psychological control. He's a mainstream star in the UK, but has until now not been particularly well-known elsewhere. I'm certain that will change now, what with him having made what is surely a contender for the most nightmarish and provocative piece of pop culture in human history. (I am, for the purposes of this review, assuming everything is as presented, and not an even more elaborate charade. Nothing written about it since suggests that it is).
Seventy-minute-long Netflix special The Push is a kind of intensely staged documentary, which aims to see whether seemingly ordinary people can be provoked, over the course of a stressful evening, into killing someone.
It opens with a short set piece in which Brown teaches an actor how to make a café worker kidnap a baby in the space of about five minutes and two phone calls. It's a lesson about people's fealty to authority, and credulity – one which recalls the impossibly tense 2012 thriller Compliance, in which a prank caller convinces a restaurant manager to conduct an increasingly awful strip search of an employee.
The film was based on a true story. The Push's astounding conceit is to effectively create a true story out of a very elaborate hoax. Through a well-concealed recruitment process, and some no doubt impenetrable legal forms, a group of pliable recruits was assembled. Months after being told they had been unsuccessful, their presence is engineered at a seemingly innocuous event.
The narrative follows a man named Chris, who owns an IT business which has been brought in as a potential app-builder for a fake charity. He's attending the launch event and co-opted into a lending a hand with the setup. The whole thing is being bankrolled by a rich, reclusive backer who is blundering around the event's preamble, causing trouble.
What follows are a series of choreographed mishaps, all created by a team of 70 or so actors surrounding poor Chris, who is goaded into increasingly extreme acts. Each slightly more serious than the last; each perversely logical under the circumstances.
It's all filmed on a network of hidden cameras, which give The Push the feeling of voyeuristic witness to an innocent person's mental disintegration. The show runs in something like real time, and is shot through with this incredible, agonising tension. You watch Chris sweating bullets, clawing at his face, wondering how he has possibly gotten so entangled. And yet entirely unable to escape.
As it draws towards a sickening climax the moment for a potential to murder is revealed. The concluding five minutes are as riveting and shocking as any television I've ever seen. Can ever even contemplate.
It seems deeply strange that The Push has not attracted anywhere near as much notice as it deserves. Netflix appear to have hardly promoted it, perhaps because to do so would almost invariably amplify its manifest exploitativeness.
The queasiness of the whole project feels like it must be in violation of some law or other. At least it should be. Whether that's Derren Brown, the participants, Netflix or us as an audience I cannot say with any confidence. But something is badly wrong with it. And with me, implicitly. Because after it finished, all I wanted to do was watch it all over again.