Series 7

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Series 7

On the popular reality-TV show The Contenders, six contestants are selected at random in a national lottery and forced against their will to fight to the death, presumably to satisfy the bloodlust of the American populace. Written and directed by Daniel Minahan, a former producer on the Fox tabloid show Front Page, Series 7 comprises a three-episode marathon of The Contenders, which looks like something that would air in a bleak totalitarian state run by Newscorp. But however shrewdly it mimics the conventions of hits such as COPS and Survivor, Minahan's design is fatally insular, lacking the distance and scope of effective satire. Series 7 glibly suggests that people shooting each other on national television is the natural end to the reality-TV craze, but unlike the savagely funny TV segments in Paul Verhoeven's Robocop and Starship Troopers, it never implicates the fascist government that supports the show or the morally bankrupt viewers who tune in every week. Instead, Minahan encourages an attitude of smug superiority over shows that are already self-parodic, in effect taking marksman's aim on a morbidly obese target. Yet there's still a lot to admire about Series 7, starting with Brooke Smith's gritty, no-nonsense performance as the show's "reigning contender," an eight-months-pregnant woman prepared to go to great lengths to ensure her child's future. Her fellow contenders include a prim, middle-aged nurse (Marylouise Burke), an unemployed cop (Michael Kaycheck), a grizzled retiree (Richard Venture), and an 18-year-old woman (Merritt Wever) with overprotective parents. But in a dramatic twist of fate—or, more likely, rigging of fate—Smith is pitted against Glenn Fitzgerald, an old high-school boyfriend who's dying of testicular cancer. Their tender scenes together, underlined by inspired cutaways to an art-class video they did to Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," lend a sliver of warmth and humanity to an otherwise cold, blunt instrument. Minahan scores minor points with his exacting send-ups of real-TV tropes, from the doom-laden voiceovers to the cheesy confessionals to the Survivor-like practice of condemning players for the ruthlessness required to win the game. One brilliantly staged sequence, an overhead view of a contender trying to escape the authorities with his infant son ("his tiny hostage"), could be lifted straight out of Real Stories Of The Highway Patrol. But no matter how skillful Minahan's execution is, it's not enough to take potshots at reality TV without also taking a hard look at the society that supports it. In this sense, Series 7 isn't much better than the loathsome adaptation of Stephen King's The Running Man, another would-be satire that was more like a long pilot for UPN's Battle Dome. After a while, the film not only fails to answer a disturbing trend; it becomes part of it.