Series7Perhaps the ultimate satire on America’s reality TV craze, SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS, about a reality program whose participants must kill each other in order to advance, is funny, disturbing and far more insightful than most of us would feel comfortable admitting about the extremes of such programming and viewing audiences’ complicity in it.

SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS was a box office failure during its initial theatrical run in early 2001, despite the fact that its producers had hopes for a BLAIR WITCH PROJECT-like success (having strategically premiered it at the 2000 Sundance film festival, where BWP had its lucrative bow the previous year).  Unfortunately, they ended up with the late USA Pictures distributing the film; in an apparent fear of controversy, USAP gave it an extremely limited release and avoided several major film festivals.  The film’s DVD release was similarly sparse and, with the subsequent collapse of USAP, is now out of print.  The film may not be perfect, but it didn’t deserve the fate that befell it.

Independent movie stelwart Christine Vachon, whose Killer Films co-produced SERIES 7, claims on the DVD that the film was released “too late” to have much of an impact.  Personally, I believe the opposite is true.  I was one of the few who experienced the film during its initial theatrical bow and, as I remember, didn’t much like it; at the time it seemed like the reality TV wave (then emblemized by SURVIVOR and BIG BROTHER) was peaking, and furthermore, the film appeared to be reiterating a point already beaten into the ground by the likes of NETWORK, THE RUNNING MAN, the French film PRIZE OF PERIL, AMERICA’S DEADLIEST HOME VIDEO, Peter Watkins’ GLADIATORS, MAN BITES DOG, NATURAL BORN KILLERS, S.F.W. and BATTLE ROYALE, which was released around the same time.

That, however, was then and this is now, when reality television has all-but engulfed America’s major television networks, and has furthermore taken some decidedly twisted turns (FEAR FACTOR, anyone?).  Nowadays SERIES 7 seems far more relevant and even prophetic than it did back in ’01—real life hasn’t quite caught up with this film’s macabre narrative, but it’s definitely close.

The narrative is presented as a compilation of episodes (complete with commercial brakes) from an imaginary TV series called The Contenders, in which six randomly chosen civilians try and kill each other off; the survivor gets to advance into the next round.  The film opens on Dawn, an expectant mother who’s managed to best her opponents in Series Six of the series, and so is now the reigning champion of Series Seven.  Opposing her are Tony, a gruff family man; Connie, a (seemingly) kind-hearted nurse; Lindsay, a teenager struggling against her overprotective parents; the delusional Franklin, who lives in a trailer park; and Jeff, a suicidal artist dealing with testicular cancer and a manipulative wife.

After much expository action, the game begins when Dawn tries to take out Tony in his house.  The latter escapes with his baby son, leading police on a high speed chase topped off (COPS-like) by a tense confrontation with a knife.  Tony ends up in the hospital where Connie administers a lethal injection.  Connie next attempts to corral all her opponents together in a shopping mall where she can easily pick them off by sending each a letter from “the underground” that promises freedom from The Contenders.  Her plans are thwarted, however, when Franklin, remembering a near fatal golf course confrontation with Lindsay, sees the girl at the mall and beats her to death with a cane.  Connie manages to shoot Franklin and then escapes, with Dawn on her tail.

A new wrinkle is introduced with the revelation that Dawn and Jeff had a relationship in high school; Jeff is apparently “the only man” Dawn ever loved.  The two get together and Dawn agrees to administer the suicidal Jeff a lethal dose of pills later that day…but first she attempts to shoot Connie, which backfires when Dawn goes into labor in Connie’s bedroom.  Connie agrees to set aside the rules of the game in order to deliver the baby while Jeff, upset that Dawn hasn’t shown up to administer his death, decides to do the job himself.  His attempt fails, however, and Connie once again tries to administer a lethal injection; luckily for Jeff, he’s stronger than she and manages to kill her.  This leaves Jeff and Dawn as the only surviving players, set for a showdown on a nighttime football field, although this confrontation has some surprises neither they nor the show’s producers foresaw…

Writer/director Daniel Minahan was a prolific TV producer before he made this film, and that experience shines through in the oft-ingenious way he filters the drama of SERIES 7 through the syntax of modern day television.  Thus this digitally shot film, which is presented as a televised compilation, actually works better on home video than on the big screen.  Anyone who’s ever viewed SURVIVOR or BIG BROTHER or THE APPRENTICE or THE CONTENDER or THE AMAZING RACE or TEMPTATION ISLAND or FEAR FACTOR (which, I imagine, covers most of us) will immediately recognize this film’s outrageously hyperbolic, exploitive narration (“these cats don’t have nine lives!”).  Other brilliant touches include the periodic commercial break segments that show clips from upcoming scenes and a hilarious “dramatic recreation” in which bad actors step in to replace the “real” participants.

If I have a beef with the film, it’s that it may be a bit too short.  Minahan claims he was afraid that by providing too much detail of his film’s universe it might push it into science fiction territory, an approach he reckoned (correctly) that the material couldn’t support.  Fine, but a little more insight into the mechanics of The Contenders would have been appreciated; it seems to be a government sponsored endeavor with high ratings, but the film is never very specific concerning the whys and wheres of its central conceit.  Of course, given the current state of the American media, it won’t be long before SERIES 7 ceases to seem like fiction at all, science or otherwise.

Vital Statistics

USA Films/Blow Up Pictures

Director: Daniel Minahan
Producers: Jason Kliot, Joana Vicente, Christine Vachon, Katie Roumel
Screenplay: Daniel Minahan
Cinematography: Randy Drummond
Editing: Malcolm Jamieson
Cast: Brooke Smith, Glenn Fitzgerald, Mary Louise Burke, Richard Venture, Michael Kaycheck, Merritt Wever, Donna Hanover, Angelina Phillips, Tom Gilroy, Nada Despotovich, Stephen Michael Rinaldi, Alex Yershov, Danton Stone, Joseph Barrett