The surprising thing about the Sundance Channel's new docuseries Push Girls is that no one has made it before. The closest thing to a realistic and nuanced portrayal of life with paralysis might have been that of Jason Street in NBC's scripted show Friday Night Lights, but after a delicate beginning his story turned soap-operatic before being shuffled on out of the opening credits. Beyond that, life for those in wheelchairs has rarely taken center stage.
Executive producer Gay Rosenthal (Little People, Big World) has brought together four dynamic Los Angeles women who have different levels of independence, and none of whom were born with their paralysis. (Three became wheelchair-bound from car wrecks, while one, Mia, had a spinal stroke at the age of 15 as a result of a rare condition called arteriovenous malformation.)
The thoughtful Mia has steady work as a graphic designer, while the other women struggle to keep jobs or dreams they had from before their accidents. Outspoken, punky Auti is a dancer who now incorporates her chair into her routines, while the elegant Angela, who is cared for by an aunt, attempts a return to modeling. Angela's roommate, the charming and romantically impulsive Tiphany, speaks to high schools and universities about spinal cord injuries, though she has aspirations to act and model.
The women are a mix of types, and while they all say they swore after their accidents that they would not hang out with other wheelchair-bound people, they seem to find strength in the network they've created. Still, all currently have or recently have had able-bodied romantic partners, and as Tiphany says very clearly at the start, "Yes, we can have sex."
The show follows the familiar format that Real Housewives uses -- with cameras observing the women at work, out at clubs and at home -- but with less punch than we're used to. While many reality shows depend on friction among a new group, these women already have known each other a long time. In real life they'd speak in friendly shorthand, but Push Girls' conversations can feel stilted and obviously prompted -- such as when Angela emotionlessly asks her roommate Tiphany if she is really over her ex-boyfriend, a discussion the two have undoubtedly had countless times. "I'm certainly not one to give relationship advice," Tiphany says later at brunch with her friends, trumpeting her statement in the way a sitcom character might announce her defining traits.
A more subtle aspect of the show is seeing how others react to the Push Girls: from rudeness to confusion, there are many levels of discomfort on display among the able-bodied people featured. How the women deal with the awkwardness varies within the group, but it's one of the more moving subtexts. There's a mixture of duty and fatigue when Angela talks a photographer through the reality of her leg spasms as he puts on an awkward grin, unsure of how to handle the fact that she could, at any moment, "stroke out."
The series starts off with the women beginning their very L.A.-flavored journeys toward starting (or restarting) their careers, and there's something captivating in that struggle even beyond the affecting nature of seeing these women work to transcend their disabilities. Despite the leisurely pace of the filming, which lacks a certain amount of dramatic tension, there's a fiery spirit to Push Girls that cannot be ignored.
Sly humor helps too. "I've learned to go down a flight of stairs alone in case of an emergency," Mia says, then adds, "It's also a great party trick."
The Push Girls appear to, against the odds, have a great deal of agency in their own lives; after all, they're brave enough to drive hand-controlled automobiles on the 405. It's these little moments that make the series feel sincere, and more than just a chance to play Peeping Tom.
Airdate: 10 p.m. Monday, June 4 (Sundance Channel)