Series 7: The Contenders
Feeding entertainment to the masses is like feeding an addiction—the demand is constant and bottomless. When a diversion such as reality-based TV becomes the narcotic du jour, it’s only a matter of time before the broadcast bloodsport must escalate—and be replaced by something with an equivalent or stiffer kick. It’s either that or go the way of the half-hour Western.
The graphic feature debut satire Series 7: The Contenders stops to smell the decaying humanity of All Things Tabloid and then gooses shows such as Cops and Survivor to new heights of shameless exploitation. People seem capable of saying and doing anything on the air—and for all the wrong reasons. We gobble it up like barnyard scratch. So why merely stop at voting a player off a show, Series 7 asks, when one can blow them off with bullets and keep the restless natives happy?
Like trying to satirize the World Wrestling Federation League even before Jesse Ventura atomic-dropped into politics, it’s hard to skewer a genre in which actual people (not actors!) willingly spill their guts and wave their soiled underwear to the world. Writer-director Daniel Minahan tries to add new kinks to this perversely knotted parade of confessions and confrontations. He plumbs the depths of the human condition for outrage and wants to be brutally and outrageously funny, but his attempt soon wears thin.
The gimmick of homicide as a game show feels over-stretched. The film does not make it clear whether these Contenders are volunteers or state-mandated winners in its lottery-like drawing. There’s too much manufactured melodrama and not much revelation. Shows like Jerry Springer, Real World and Temptation Island have rummaged the mundane and seamier crevices of mankind with much more wallop and vibrancy. And a last-gasp from a Series 7 Contender that the show is a hoax feels like an afterthought link to Springer’s choreographed brawls.
The film’s title refers to the seventh season of a TV series in which six participants per show are given a handgun and required to kill each other until there is only one survivor. The combatants are allowed to enhance their firepower with other weapons and use flak vests. They are wired for sound and followed around by a video cameraman 24 hours a day.
The longest reigning champion is thirty-something Dawn (Brooke Smith, the pit captive in The Silence of the Lambs), who is eight months pregnant. As the film begins, she walks into a suburban mom-and-pop store, shoots a male Contender to death at the counter and asks the clerk: “Hey, do you have any bean dip?” Are you shocked or laughing yet?
Her next episode returns her to the blue-collar Connecticut hometown she has not visited in 15 years. Her new Contenders are: a devout Catholic nurse (Marylouise Burke); a crotchety retiree (Richard Venture, who runs from Series 7 special operatives like a bad state-worker joke when they announce “We’re here to help you”); an unemployed laborer (Michael Kaycheck); a pretty teen virgin (Merritt Wever) and an artist (Glenn Fitzgerald) suffering from testicular cancer.
The characters are all rather uninteresting and Minahan uses brief profiles, Hallmark Card montages and re-enactments à la America’s Most Wanted to fill the dramatic and emotional vacuum. The rest of the void is filled with bloody shootings and beatings and a live birth that has the detail of a midwife training film.
The film efficiently replicates its source—it was shot on digital video and the actors give a non-actor flavor to their performances. A narrator supplies teasers between episodes (“These cats don’t have nine lives!”) and more
personal Contender information than I really cared to receive.
I do not watch reality-based shows and videos like Faces of Death, but I am not an elitist. One of my favorite guilty pleasures was Bowling for Dollars. But Series 7 would work better as Minahan first pitched it: a TV show. That way, the people who fell for the pseudo-reality of Blair Witch could feast while the rest of us reach for the remote.