Series 7 Movie Review

The title Series 7 stands for the seventh season of the highest-rated reality based show on television, The Contenders. Set a few years from now, the program rules are laid out with unsparing precision: Six average, everyday citizens are chosen via random lottery to mercilessly kill one another. This will continue until one survivor remains. Sound familiar? When historians chart the downfall of human empathy, they will see that we were only one step away from moral paralysis in our increasing apathy to Survivor, Temptation Island, and The Real World. Here we are, now entertain us.

This satire couldn't be more cutting edge. Former tabloid TV producer Daniel Minahan (and co-screenwriter of I Shot Andy Warhol) takes dead aim on glib, pre-packaged network formulas for success. A terse narrator (Will Arnett) offers mock-sympathetic encouragement for the contestants as well as in-depth play-by-play ring coverage. Opponents are given screen time for weepy confessions to their assigned guerrilla cameramen, dispassionately filming their fight or flight confrontations on hand-held digital video.

Our odds-on favorite is the lethal, eight-months-pregnant Dawn (Brooke Smith), a returning champion with 10 confirmed kills under her belt. If she makes it through one final season, she'll be granted her well-earned freedom. Marching through the eroded suburbia of her hometown (Newbury, Connecticut), there's no confusing her for a helpless female. This pistol-packing mama will do anything to save her unborn child, eyes glazed over with steel acceptance.

In the grim opening footage lifted from a previous season, the camera follows Dawn as she barges into a 7-Eleven to pop a few caps into an unsuspecting victim. The expressive, open-faced Smith has always been one of cinema's best-kept secrets, most memorable as the senator's daughter at the bottom of Buffalo Bill's well in The Silence of the Lambs. Here, she displays a vigilance that kicks Series 7 into overdrive.

The programmers throw a sensational tabloid curveball by placing Dawn's perpetually glum high school sweetheart among her opponents. But almost all of the dramatic contrivances (this one being the most obvious) can be written off as part of the television structure-induced malaise. It's doubtful they'll be apparent in the visual onslaught of information.

Revealing a taste for showmanship, the now-married Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald) has unorthodox plans for their televised reunion. Rotting away from testicular cancer, Jeff literally doesn't have the balls for this contest. Minahan shows admirable restraint in not exploiting this obvious gag. Jeff asks that Dawn painlessly remove him from the game with an overdose of sleeping pills. Easier said than done, especially when it's the only man she ever loved -- and what if he suddenly rediscovers his lust for life? This morbid coupling is even granted an appropriate theme song, Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart (Again)."

Though Dawn and Jeff are given the center spotlight, there's no telling when their number is gonna be up. The same can be said for their colorful opponents, a perfectly cast ensemble of "Joe Average" deviants: Franklin (Richard Venture), a half-crazed conspiracy theorist; Tony (Michael Kaycheck), a hulking brute who practices intimidating shadowboxing techniques; Connie (Marylouise Burke), a brittle emergency room nurse; and Lindsay (Merritt Weaver), a bright eyed, attractive 17-year old virgin.

Place your bets, but be forewarned: They may not die in the order you'd expect. Whether prowling through dimly lit houses or playing hide-and-seek in an airy shopping mall, mundane locations become bloody battlegrounds at the drop of a hat. There's a queasy adrenaline rush in this hastily staged domestic combat, with tension increased by the digital photographers covering the scene. What happens when they step into the line of fire?

Minahan doesn't play this potentially lurid material as camp, opting instead for the howlingly funny pseudo-documentary approach of Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap. By playing it straight, he's able to take blistering potshots at media carnage (including an obligatory freeway chase with echoes of O.J. Simpson) without losing his edge. When a contender is taken out, it's not done for giggles like Oliver Stone's naove Natural Born Killers, but viewed with the ironic detachment of video surveillance. There are no formalities -- once the kill is confirmed, it's on to the next kill with maddening proclivity.

Series 7 is too self-conscious to be defined as naturalism, but there's something freakishly accurate in the mannered affectations of these media-savvy contestants. Even Dawn's gaze keeps flickering to the lens of the camera, seeking artificial validation. Constantly reciting dialogue lifted from a bad episode of Geraldo Rivera, their emotional codes of conduct have been gleaned from daytime talk shows. To even say, "I love you," during a tearful embrace feels like art imitating life imitating 90210. Daniel Minahan welcomes us to the bleak dead-end of our cultural void -- if it's seen through the camera, it's no longer real life.

Coming soon to a TV near you.


Comments

Series 7 Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: R, 2001

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