I must admit that I have no love for 'reality TV' game shows such as "Big Brother", "The Mole", and of course, the granddaddy of them all, "Survivor", which is probably why I enjoyed "Series 7: The Contenders" so much. In what will probably end up being the second coolest film you will see this year (right behind "Memento"), this darling of Sundance 2001 takes you into an alternate universe where 'reality TV' shows have upped the ante to life-and-death stakes. Told with the elevated hype and overly-done emotional narration of "The World's Scariest Police Chases", this is a disturbing yet hilarious satire of televised entertainment that hits its mark.
This snappily-paced ninety minute ditty unfolds as the 'season finale' of the popular show "The Contenders", which is essentially 'Survivor with guns', where everyday people get their fifteen minutes of fame before being gunned down by other contestants. The product of some bizarre alternate reality where murder in the name of entertainment is sanctioned by the US government, "The Contenders" picks its five contestants from the same town via a lottery, who are then joined in the fray by the current reigning champion. They are then provided with one semi-automatic handgun and let loose to hunt each other down within the city limits of their hometown, cameramen in tow-- shotguns, rifles, knives, and bulletproof vests are also allowed, but not supplied. According to the rules, if you are chosen, you have to play, and whoever remains standing at the end is declared the winner.
In the case of "Series 7: The Contenders", the reigning champion out to defend her title (not to mention stay alive) is Dawn (Brooke Smith, seen recently in "Random Hearts"), a thirty-year old woman who is also eight months pregnant. For this latest game, she returns to her hometown of Newbury, CT to go up against local residents Tony (Michael Kaycheck, who sounds suspiciously like Tony Soprano), an unemployed father of two; Connie (Marylouise Burke of "Bringing Out the Dead"), a right-wing and god-fearin' Christian nurse; Franklin (Richard Venture of "Red Corner"), a belligerent old man; Lindsay (Merritt Wever of "All I Wanna Do"), an eighteen-year old 'girl next door' with overprotective parents; and finally, Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald, seen in "Finding Forrester"), a suicidal man dying from cancer who has a secret past with Dawn. What then follows are a series of confrontations, close calls, double-crosses, and ultimately, dead bodies, as the 'contenders' eliminate each other. Minahan gradually ratchets up the tension until only two players remain, who are then faced with some equally unpalatable choices in order to win the game. To further complicate matters, it also appears that the show's producers will do absolutely anything to keep the show going, even if the players refuse to play anymore.
To add more 'emotional texture' to the program, the 'frag fests' are interspersed with video profiles and on-camera interviews of the contestants. While some of these 'character moments' are executed tongue-in-cheek (particularly a segment that investigates the relationship between Dawn and Jeff in high school, using a cheesy 'student art film' as a backdrop), they also shrewdly detail the motivations of the characters, reading between the lines of their on-camera posturing.
Through this technique, the most interesting characters end up being Dawn and Connie. Though Dawn 'talks tough' in public and has numerous kills to her name, it is evident that she is trapped by the game, and she reluctantly hunts down the other players to protect herself, as well as the life of her unborn child. Even when she plays the game, it is obvious that she empathizes for the other players and still has her 'moral compass' intact. On the other hand, Connie is an opinionated opportunist, whose innate hypocrisy drips with every word she utters to the camera-- one memorable moment captures her weekly confession to a priest, which conspicuously omits the murders she committed as part of the game.
Writer/director Daniel Minahan worked at Fox News prior to launching his film career, and it certainly shows with the keen understanding of 'reality TV' he displays in the polished production values of "Series 7: The Contenders". All the little details you would expect from a network television show have been included, such as the broadcast-quality digital video cinematography, the slickly-designed computer graphics, the sensationalist synthesizer music, the 'teaser' bookends that appear before and after every commercial break ("Coming up next... who sent the mysterious envelopes? And will Connie, the angel of death, kill again??!!"), 'dramatic reenactments' for events that were missed by the ubiquitous cameras (or perhaps covered up by the show's producers), as well as the gravelly-voiced narrator who milks the on-screen action for every last drop of melodrama. Now if only Minahan had thrown in some faux commercials (à la "Robocop") into the mix, "Series 7: The Contenders" would have been just about perfect.
Interestingly enough, "Series 7: The Contenders" wrapped up filming before the first "Survivor" series ever aired. Despite this fact, this film is rather prophetic in terms of what passes for entertainment these days, and it is interesting to see how what happens on this twisted game show is not too far removed from the sort of antics you would expect to see on Fox (the wonderful people that brought you "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?" and "Temptation Island"). For example, the cameramen on "The Contenders" diligently keep their cameras rolling, despite the very real danger to both themselves and innocent bystanders, which is not too far-fetched, considering the recent 'fire' incident on "Survivor II". If you recall, contestant Michael Skupin nodded off and ended up falling face-first into a fire, which was eagerly recorded by the cameras. According to the show's producer, Mark Burnett, had any of the cameramen gone to Skupin's aid, yanking him away from danger when they noticed him about to fall, they would have been immediately fired. Alas, no price is too high for audience titillation.
True to form, the end of "Series 7: The Contenders" teases the audience with "Series 8: The Contenders", the next round of this popular game show with an all-new locale and more victims. If it is anywhere near as dead-on, entertaining, and hilarious as this parody of network television's latest fad, I can't wait.