Series 7: The Contenders (2001)

Dawn (Brooke Smith) is a survivor. "Series 7: The Contenders."

Written and directed by Daniel Minahan. Produced by Jason Kliot, Katie Roumel, Christine Vachon, Joana Vicente. Music by Girls Against Boys. Photographed by Randy Drummond. Edited by Malcolm Jamieson. Production designed by Gideon Ponte. Starring Dawn Lagarto, Michael Kaycheck, Merritt Wever, Richard Venture, Marylouise Burke, Glenn Fitzgerald, Will Arnett.

Some movies start with their ideas and then run with them. They devise complications and twists, and then end up with a fully-realized piece of work. And then other movies start with their ideas…and then stop. The begin with a killer concept as their starting point, and then don’t know where to go. So they don’t go anywhere, they just rehash the same things over and over. As an audience member, a powerful sense of disappointment washes over you. Eventually you realize you’re not watching a movie. Not really, anyway. You’re watching a high concept spread into feature length.

Series 7: The Contenders is a movie kinda like that. It’s not exactly bad, per se…just unrelentingly one-note. In form, it’s intended to be a mockery of both reality television and contemporary society, positing a world in which contestants on a game show kill each other in order to win. It cozily exists within a subgenre of fiction that extends from “The Most Dangerous Game” to this weekend’s release of The Hunger Games, all centered around the idea that when a small group of people is forced to murder each other for a prize, they will comply.

Let’s dispense with the notion right now that this is shocking. Of course it isn’t. Maybe it was when “The Most Dangerous Game” was first published in 1924, but we are a long way from that world, and let’s not pretend otherwise. We’re now sufficiently jaded, I think, and are very willing to embrace the notion that people will find the tiniest of reasons to kill. After all, people do it every day on the news. Latter-day entries in this values-stripping genre even compensate for our evolved sense of cynicism by focusing on teens or children. If truth comes from the mouths of babes, then so does it come from their actions, and the truth is this: man is all too capable and willing to commit horrors.

Series 7: The Contenders ups the ante by implicating the media, taking the notions of Network to their logical conclusion, envisioning a TV show where contestants kill each other to win. They’re chosen by lottery, rounded up, supplied with weapons and told to take each other out, by any means necessary. Whoever survives the bloodbath is the winner and they get to move onto another round. If a contestant survives three rounds, they are free from the game forever. Like they would ever get that far. Heh heh heh. Of course the show plays to millions of fans all over the world (we’re told). The message here is clear: TV will devour lives if it means content that can generate ratings gold. We know this. Oh God, yes.

It’s all billed as a satire, and I suppose it is, because ohmigod, isn’t this SO like the media and isn’t this SO where it’s ultimately going? But suggesting an outrageous premise is not exactly what makes satire work, because it’s—forgive me—easy to start with a crazy idea. The function of satire is to hold up a mirror to present-day society, and to comment on it. The way that’s done is by building to a crazy idea within semi-plausible steps. Swift’s A Modest Proposal, for example, isn’t bracing because it ends in a shocking place. It’s because it begins in a routine place and escalates, all while still maintaining a language that justifies the piece’s title.

That’s where Series 7 falls short. It posits a world where life is demonstrably cheaper than ratings, but doesn’t spend much time thinking about the society that would shape such an attitude. Where do these contestants come from? How is this TV show so influential that it can stage a mandatory lottery to cast contestants that also supersedes all legal consequences? How shell-shocked are these citizens that they grimly accept their fates without too much protest? How does any of this work, really? My issue, actually isn’t that these questions aren’t explicitly answered, but that the film doesn’t seem to be acknowledging them on any fair level. It isn’t convincing or incisive enough to be efficient satire, because there’s not enough perspective.  There’s also nothing on screen that attacks the hypothetical audience of such a program, and there really should be.

Maybe the problem is buried within the film’s structure: it’s designed to look like several strung-together episodes of the reality show The Contenders, replete with satellite feed cards, handheld footage that catch rough-and-tumble action, and title sequences that outline the players with rapacious abandon. Clever. But eventually we grow tired of the gimmick, because it doesn’t really tell us enough. It’s presented as if it’s a program you’re catching right now, as if you just stumbled across it while channel-surfing, taking place in a world of suburban tract houses, cheap hospitals and empty fields that absolutely implies present-day. But that doesn’t work. Because our world isn’t like this. Not quite, anyway. If the film clearly marked itself as an artifact from a universe twisted from our own, it would work better. What, for example, do the commercials that air during the show look like (they’re skipped over in the actual film, like it’s a DVD box set). I, for one, would love to know.

The style is repetitive, which becomes actively annoying when the film pursues what resembles an actual story, most of it centered around the movie’s most compelling character, Dawn (Brooke Smith) who is pregnant and treats her condition as an accident, although since it conveniently allows her to drape her actions in an almost-noble brand of self-preservation, I have my doubts. There’s also probably a note sounded here about the abortion debate. I mean, I guess. Yeah. Why not?

The other combatants are as follows: Connie (Marylouise Burke), a grandmotherly ER nurse who kills with kindness, Jeffrey (Glenn Fitzgerald), a victim of testicular cancer, Anthony (Michael Kaycheck), a drug-addicted asbestos remover, Franklin (Richard Venture), a crochety old man, and Lindsay (Merritt Wever), a teenager who gets a makeshift pep squad in the form of her parents. All of the characters of course cover the full spectrum of ages, but they are curiously all white. An odd move, to be sure, for a TV show presumably trying to embrace all demographics.

The characters go about their mission to murder each other by staking out homes, issuing ultimatums, and even meeting at mutually-agreed-upon arenas for bloody combat. There are supporting roles for spouses who may or may not love their significant others, but definitely do not wish to be collateral damage of The Contenders. And there’s a secret connection between Dawn and one of the other contestants, which would be significantly unfair to reveal.

Some of this is clever. Some of it is actually pretty funny (in one mean-spirited moment, Jeffrey’s wife praises her husband’s attempts at photography while we see a slideshow of painfully dull images of ranch homes). Some of it is downright confusing (if the cameramen are free to observe the action without suffering casualties, why are they at times inconveniently removed from the action, such as when Lindsay goes on a kill while the camera guy waits in the car?). All of it is punctuated by dispatches from the narrator (Will Arnett), who is supposed to be irritating, I know, but he goes over the line.

The most salient points the film makes is about the pervasiveness of media. There are potshots made at the cult of celebrity, but these feel underthought because the premise of a randomized assortment of people belies any notion of fame-seeking. (Plus, that would make them, you know, irredeemable psychopaths). What’s more interesting is the characters’ conduct while the cameras are rolling. Dawn threatens her mother and sister at gunpoint when they won’t lend her their car. Anthony excuses himself pathetically when going to take cocaine in the bathroom. In one especially telling moment, Lindsay resists her boyfriends sexual advances because she’s supposed to sever emotional ties, and not at all because there’s a cameraman in the room. The obligatory talking head scenes that pepper the narrative are also illuminating, mostly in the way the subjects don’t see anything about them as particularly illuminating, if you catch my drift.

Watching the movie, I wasn’t drawn into the narrative or much swayed by the irony. They seemed at odds with each other, and frustratingly half-baked.  We’re violently pulled out of the story every time the graphics and teasers appear…which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if I couldn’t help but feel that we actually are supposed to be touched by what happens to the characters. And at the same time, the constant acknowledgement of the TV show feels insecure and unconvincing, probably because the Contenders game has few rules and little structure. I honestly don’t see people tuning in for this every week. Each episode would be exactly the same. Even when we get to the precious twists in the conclusion, they feel curiously empty. Series 7 plays like the kind of movie that has a beginning and has an ending, but while envisioning it, no one really conceived of what the middle would be.

Series 7: The Contenders has not really aged well. It came out in 2001, just at the lip of our current glut of reality television, and while its alarmist sense of morality may have played better then, it now feels facile. Or at the least not very insightful. If there had been more layers or angles to its satire, it would have felt meaner or more significant. But it plays now like ancient news. Certainly we’re not shocked that some people are willing to do anything to be seen on screen. Hell, the people who made this movie are capable of the same thing. After all, they made this movie.

Trivia: Director Daniel Minahan, who definitely displays talent here, later went on to become a hard-working house director for HBO. Good for him.

GRADE: C

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