Series 7: The Contenders

on January 20, 2001 by Bridget Byrne
   If "Series 7" wasn't so well made it might be easier to laugh along with it. But precisely because this satire of reality game shows is so on the mark it often induces dismay at the exact moment it generates laughter. As an indictment of modern morals and mores, it is the ultimate primer on just how far down the tube modern society has fallen.

   Conceived and executed by Daniel Minahan in the flash-and-slash probing style of the television shows it so aptly, cruelly and insightfully parodies, this film is directed and acted within accepted truth. Nobody plays for laughs, pushes for satire, even blinks or winks a minuscule fraction, which might separate an audience for buying into the film as though it were indeed the seventh series of the reality show "The Contenders," a life-or-death variation of sensationalistic shows like "Survivor" and "Cops," which spill uncouthly from current TV screens.

   As "The Contenders'" reigning champion, Brooke Smith gives a performance that ought to win awards. There is not the slightest hint of condescension, no play-acting, no distancing of self from character in her depiction of an utterly driven, eight-months-pregnant murderess. She comes as close as the art of acting allows to being the marauding Dawn, hunter and hunted. The rest of the cast of pursued and pursuers, moving through the very ordinary landscape of modern America from malls to track homes to hospital rooms, can't quite match Smith's prowess and completeness. But they all have moments in which they encapsulate the mix of banality, boldness and despair that makes them seem viable as competitors in the kill-or-get-killed scenario which the unemployed family man, the emergency room nurse, the all-American teen, the cancer stricken artist and the reclusive old fanatic all signed on for, just like the alienated Dawn.

   The actors have mastered Minahan's dialogue to the point where it seems utterly natural. Their words, thoughts and feelings capture the weird, mundane, extraordinary, foolish, self-absorbed longing that underscores a need for attention in a world obsessed by personal rights at whatever the cost to others. Their deeds are horrific, the final winning moves--in a culture long over the top--deep into the abyss.

   Minahan handles all the visual and emotional fakery that makes up reality television with blisteringly vicious insight. The result is an extremely clever and intelligent autopsy of a world that has long given up on the truth and has no concept of whether what it sees and believes is live or on tape, real or simulated, moral or immoral, funny or horrific. Laugh if you think you can still tell the difference. Minahan throws that concept into the movie too, and not just for laughs. Starring Brooke Smith, Michael Kaycheck, Marylouise Burke, Merritt Wever, Richard Venture and Glenn Fitzgerald. Directed and written by Daniel Minahan. Produced by Jason Kliot, Joana Vicente, Christine Vachon and Katie Roumel. A USA release. Satire/Drama. Rated R for strong violent content and language. Running time: 88 min

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