“Normally, I don’t do car chases. They’re tacky and innocent people can get hurt. But this nurse has got to be stopped. She’s a fucking psycho.” —Dawn, Series 7: The Contenders
It’s a scenario at least as old as Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game”: Man hunting man, the most cunning creatures on the planet. It’s a story about power and control, often laced with commentary on the excesses of the privileged class or the “bread-and-circuses” offered by totalitarian governments to placate (and/or intimidate) the bloodthirsty masses. And in the last few decades, “The Most Dangerous Game” has been reworked so many times that it’s near the saturation point: There’s The Running Man, first a Stephen King novel and then a movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Richard Dawson; the relatively straightforward Connell adaptation Surviving The Game with Ice-T; Battle Royale, a Japanese novel turned manga turned cult classic; and, most recently, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, a young-adult crossover hit that’s only just beginning to tap into the Harry Potter/Twilight wellspring. Whatever their flaws—Surviving The Game, for one, is pretty flaw-ful—they have in common an irresistible baseline of suspense, as people are forced to abandon their compassion and empathy to serve a more fundamental instinct to survive.
That old gray lady of reality television, Survivor, was only just getting started when Series 7: The Contenders, Daniel Minahan’s often fiendishly clever twist on the story, debuted at Sundance in 2001, but it got the syntax of reality television exactly right. Part of that is owed to personal experience: Minahan cut his teeth producing segments for tabloid newsmagazine shows and has a great feel for how such stories are pulped up in the editing room and relentlessly teased before commercial breaks. He also reportedly immersed himself in hours upon hours of popular reality shows at the time, from MTV hits like The Real World and Road Rules to syndication staples like COPS and Real Stories Of The Highway Patrol. Though it takes place in contemporary America, the film is his satirical vision of where the reality-TV craze might lead when pushed to its natural extreme. And who among us hasn’t wondered where the genre could go after hitting its creative peak with The Littlest Groom?
The title Series 7 refers to the name of a hit television series that pits five randomly selected “contenders” and the winner from the previous season against one another in a battle to the death. There are no carrots, just a stick: Winners are granted their freedom only after wiping out contestants in three straight seasons. Due to some agreement between the government and the show’s producers—the regrettable absence of context for which I’ll get into later—participation is mandatory and enforced by armed officials who hand contestants guns as if they were process servers. Series 7 takes place in Newbury, Connecticut and unfolds to the audience like a condensed, commercial-free three-episode marathon. Meet your Contenders:
Dawn (Brooke Smith): A two-time winner and the favorite to take the third, despite being eight months pregnant. She’s tough and unapologetically ruthless; before the third series even starts, she stalks a few contestants by phone, “just to fuck with them.”
Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald): In the terminal stages of testicular cancer, Jeff already has one foot in the grave before the show starts, but while he’s not afraid of dying, he’s “scared of getting killed.” And in a big dramatic twist, it’s revealed that he was once Dawn’s high-school boyfriend.
Connie (Marylouise Burke): A sweet middle-aged nurse… or is she? Empathy is hard for her to come by—she sighs at having to treat everybody that comes through the emergency room, even “human garbage”—and she proves to be Dawn’s craftiest competitor.
Anthony (Michael Kaycheck): A middle-aged father of three, an ex-con, and someone given to soft-peddling the many misdeeds that have defined his life.
Lindsay (Merritt Wever): A bright, chipper 18-year-old with suffocatingly supportive parents and a boyfriend so considerate he goes halfsies on her bulletproof vest. (That still doesn’t get him past third base, however.)
Franklin (Richard Venture): Old coot.
Series 7: The Contenders was one of those Sundance buzz films that died off the mountain, but the primary reason it lingers isn’t a high-concept hook well (if superficially) executed, but Brooke Smith’s performance as Dawn, which has to rank her among the all-time movie bad-asses. By the time we catch up with Dawn, she’s done two tours of reality-show duty already, and her blunt matter-of-factness after killing a fellow Contender is oddly winning. (“Hey, do you have any bean dip?,” she asks after offing someone in a convenience store.) She’s not a wily survivor, like Katniss in The Hunger Games, but an unapologetic aggressor in the game, having long-since resolved that her survival is paramount and the others must be killed. It’s a credit to Smith that she still evinces sympathy for Dawn from the start, despite an at-times comical brusqueness; she’s like someone in a near-perpetual state of road rage, just blasting on the horn until the traffic clears. In this wonderful scene, Dawn pays a visit to her estranged mother and sister, but it’s not exactly the tearful reunion the show’s producers might have expected:
If a reality show like the one depicted in Series 7 did exist, Minahan has fully and persuasively imagined what it might look like. The parameters of the game are simple and neatly established, with Newbury city limits serving as a playground much like the island in “The Most Dangerous Game” or the arena in The Hunger Games. But Minahan’s real strength is his understanding of how characters on reality shows are packaged—through confessionals, manufactured drama and deceptive editing, and a narrator who gooses the footage whenever necessary. He also captures how revelations are drawn out and teased to the point where the plotlines are stretched thin as tissue paper and what’s “coming up” on a show consumes nearly the entirety of the show itself. Then there are sequences like this one, which uncannily recreates the mind-numbing car chases on Real Stories Of The Highway Patrol, complete with helicopter vantage points and a baby ominously referred to as a “tiny hostage”:
Yet as much as Series 7 gets the look and feel of reality television exactly right, its conceptual narrowness severely limits what it can accomplish as satire. Satirical targets don’t get any fatter than reality TV, and Minahan’s “marathon” format doesn’t allow for the context that might have been more politically or culturally damning. Unlike the viciously funny TV segments in Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop or Starship Troopers, there’s never any suggestion that the show is the product of a government bent on controlling the populace. The lottery, for example, is an arrangement between the government and the show’s producers, but to what purpose does it serve the former? (The freak “coincidence” of Dawn’s former lover being part of the cast subtly raises the probability of the lottery being rigged, but Minahan doesn’t follow through.) And why do the characters, even one as frank and rebellious as Dawn, never push against their obligation to participate? It’s a little hard to discern what Minahan is ultimately trying to say with Series 7, beyond expressing a generalized contempt for reality TV and the lobotomized chip-crunchers who consume it.
Though Series 7 is disappointingly thin beyond the surface, it should be said that its surface is more persuasive than any film about (or tangentially related to) reality television, including white elephants like The Truman Show. If a show about people forced to kill each other could ever be produced, Minahan reveals how it might be as bloodlessly palatable as the average episode of COPS. Such is the ironic power of reality TV: It distances us from reality far more effectively than escapist fiction. We don’t know these people; they’re just characters on some dumb TV show we feel guilty about watching, but not guilty enough to stop. Now pass the Funyuns.
February 10: The Last Seduction
February 24: Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas
March 10: Enter The Void (director’s cut)