Series 7: The Contenders (2001) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence and language
Running Time: 86 min.
Cast: Brooke Smith, Glenn Fitzgerald, Michael Kaycheck, Merritt Wever, Marylouise Burke, Richard Venture, Angelina Phillips
Director: Daniel Minihan
Screenplay: Daniel Minihan
A jet-black satire on the popularity of sensationalistic "reality shows" which have all but completely dominated network and cable television programming in the first few years of the 21st century, Series 7: The Contenders seems like only a few laws repealed away from being a reality itself. Although there aren't actual sanctioned murders taking place for today's entertainment, I'm sure the networks would do this kind of television if they could, making this take-off a funny extreme, yet very disturbing at the same time. The TV Guide is chock-full of exactly these kinds of shows, which take ordinary citizens and put them in controversial situations, exposing and exploiting them to the utmost degree for almighty ratings, while the voyeuristic viewing public can't seem to turn away.
The title is called Series 7 because we are supposed to be watching the seventh in a series of highly popular contests in a show called The Contenders. The premise is simple: six people in a town are chosen by lottery to kill each other until only one remains. They are given weapons and a list of the other contenders, and are set loose in a world of "kill or be killed". In this seventh series, the reigning champion is a pregnant woman named Dawn (Brooke Smith, The Silence of the Lambs), who utilizes her guile into becoming a cold-blooded killer. Her new competition includes an 18-year-old girl, a devoutly religious nurse, a scrappy old man, a tough guy father, and a terminally-ill cancer patient who shares a secret past with her.
The premise is nothing new in the world of satire, especially for people who've seen The Running Man or Slashers or Battle Royale, but what makes Series 7 feel fresh and new is the presentation. With professional voice-overs, filmed on video, with slick television graphics, this captures to a tee the look and feel of today's reality television programs. The only sign that this isn't a real show happens to be the nature of the game, as people murdering one another has yet to be a step taken by the producers of such programming. One could also cite the somewhat amateurish acting, particularly by the children, but those who have seen "reality" programming will know that many of these shows features similar scenes which purport to be real, yet are obvious contrivance for the sake of sensationalism and ratings.
Series 7 is an expertly made fabrication, and delivers a number of funny moments, and even some very compelling scenes of drama, within the confines of its knowingly fictitious premise. It is a violent movie, as you'd expect to see from a reality show featuring televised murders, so be warned. The only downsides to the film are the length (this probably could have been better at about an hour) and some of the less-than-realistic occasions that break the illusion of the satire. The profanity should also have been bleeped out to give a more realistic television feel.
As someone who deplores reality television, I found Series 7 a welcome commentary on some of the worst entertainment to clutter up the national airwaves, and I feel, some of the most dangerous to the psyche of the public. The dividing lines between reality and exploitation have become blurred, while desperate networks trying to maintain dominance stick their cameras into the homes of anyone willing to make fools of themselves for fifteen minutes of fame. Series 7: The Contenders holds up a skewed mirror to our chosen form of prurient entertainment, but as time goes by, and these shows grow more exploitative, it's becoming even harder to discern the difference between reality and a complete satire like this one. Funny yet tragic, on multiple levels.
©2004 Vince Leo