SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS
Director: Daniel Minahan
Cast: Brooke Smith, Marylouise Burke, Glenn Fitzgerald, Michael Kaycheck, Richard Venture, Merrit Wever
MPAA Rating: (for strong violent content and language)
Running Time: 1:26
Release Date: 3/2/01
Review by Mark Dujsik
"Reality" television is a thorn in the side of mass media, so itís about time someone mocked its existence. Series 7: The Contenders is a satirical mock-reality TV show that is both intriguing and frustrating. It has the right idea and begins and ends right on target, but somewhere in the middle it grows a bit irksome, occasionally falling into the trap of fulfilling the requirements of what itís insulting. Itís a one-joke movie and the joke is a good one, but at just short of an hour and a half, itís surprisingly too long. Trimmed to an hour, it would work. It could even run on TV. Iíll bet that would have been an interesting experience for audiences. In fact, I wonder if film is the proper format for this project. It mocks television, runs like a television program, and was made on a small budget. This is exactly the kind of undertaking that should run on television, and its message would be a lot clearer.
The film runs exactly like a television program, with spots to insert advertising and all (thankfully no fake commercials are used). To clarify: "Series 7" refers to the fact that this is the seventh season of the fake television series "The Contenders." On the show, six people across the country are randomly chosen to hunt down and kill each other. The last person remaining gets to do it over and over again until, hypothetically, that person wins their freedom. How many times they must compete is unclear, as itís possible no one has made it that far. Dawn Lagarto (Brooke Smith) is the reigning champion of the show, and she apparently has one more set of contestants to eliminate before she wins her freedom. The other five consist of Tony Reily (Michael Kaycheck), an unemployed father of three, Franklin James (Richard Venture), a retired man, Lindsay Berns (Merrit Wever), a high school student, Connie Trabucco (Marylouise Burke), a nurse, and Jeffrey Norman (Glenn Fitzgerald), a man dying of cancer who has a history with Dawn.
The movieís premise is opportunity for savage satire, and the exposition and finale manage to pull no punches. The idea behind the movie is that the American public will eventually grow tired of simple competition and crave brutal, random violence for instant gratification. Since the movie plays like a TV show, we are placed in the role of the audience (this should be no difficulty, even if youíve never had any training as an actor). Something, though, is missing with this element. Without showing the mindset of a public so engrossed with carnage, we have no way to understand them and, in turn, lose a part of the satirical goal of the movie. Since the movie leaves this element behind, we are left with looking at the people involved in the show. Forcing the contestants into the situation unfortunately misses a significant component to reality television. The people who sign up for these things are opportunistic fame-seekers, and with its scenario, the movie must skip this aspect of possible ridicule. Other small prospects are overlooked. For example, thereís a scene where Lindsayís parent catch her in bed with her boyfriend. A major problem that exists in the media is a double standard when censoring sex vs. violence. How telling would it be for the parents to scold her desire but encourage her killing?
The movie has another problem, especially during its middle section. As it progresses, the movie spends far too much time developing its charactersóa problematic venture in satire. In this way, the movie stumbles into the realm of actual reality television, where the people spout nothings about success and friendship and trust and so on, and we the audience simply do not care. The performances are tuned to the false-false-reality format nicely. Even though director Daniel Minahan is credited with the script as well, I wouldnít be surprised if the actors did a good amount of improvisation to come up with some of the funnier bits. The style of the movie (shot on digital) copies a reality show accurately. We get interview segments with the contestants, and the handheld cinematography adds the necessary realistic quality. The cameramen sometimes get involved, too, which is a humorous touch.
Fans or anyone sick of reality TV will probably enjoy Series 7: The Contenders. For the most part, I did. Itís not quite the satire it thinks it is, and the trend of such programs will probably be a distant memory in the near future. As a result, the movie will have a short shelf life, and just as reality TV offers instant-gratification entertainment, The Contenders offers instant-gratification satire.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.