Series 7: The Contenders
review by Elias Savada, 2 March 2001

Drop dead satire can be a tricky genre to master, and Series 7: The Contenders -- partly by coincidence, but mostly by a good, tight script -- has fallen out of the idiot box at just the right time. It actually was dreamed up years before Survivor and Big Brother were conceived. With a dollop of originality, a pinch of drollness, and a dash of dry wit, it sends up survivor-based reality television with a deadly dose of gladiator humor digitally mixed with all the technical tricks found in the ever-growing number of small screen programs it is mocking. The only things missing are the Saturday night special commercials. Director-writer Daniel Minahan has cooked up a warped stew of those video documentary conventions that invariably grab our attention every night in the comfort of our couch potato lives. He has created a universe so realistic, it is as chillingly believable as was Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast War of the Worlds was for an unsuspecting public. Today's more sophisticated audiences, especially those living in the fictional community of Newbury, Connecticut, won't necessarily flee for their lives, but they might find their make believe neighborhoods overrun by strangers, anxious to jump on the tabloid bandwagon and join in on the action that has made Minahan's contest such a hit. Yes, that's them in your back yard looking for the next Blair Witch.

Without a doubt Minahan's style of guerrilla filmmaker will turn a head or two out there in multiplex land. One has to bear up under the film's throw-it-at-me attitude to fully appreciate what being pulled off. On the most simplistic level, The Contenders is just another wildly successful "game show," having finished off it's seventh season. Series 7 is the ultimate eighty-five-minute recap, a marathon edited to the fast-paced hilt to keep the fans and sponsors happy in post-season letdown. Contestants, picked at random by lottery (a shapely model nonchalantly picking the ping pong balls), are a demographics cross sampling who must scrape together every square inch of gray matter to psych each other out for the top prize -- which happens to be your life.

Readers of Shirley Jackson's 1948 short story The Lottery will notice a similarity in the ideological worlds depicted in Newbury and Jackson's unnamed New England village. Reaction to the former were hundreds of letters to the New Yorker expressing "bewilderment, speculation, and old-fashioned abuse." At least in Minahan's cautionary tale of fast-food murder begins with a "due to the graphic nature of this program" disclaimer. If you're not hip to the wickedly entertaining humor from the start and gullibly believe that "everything you are about to see is real," you'll probably walk out within minutes, or start writing your Congressman by the time you get home from the theater.

The cast, a generally unrecognized lot of character actors, is put through their rigorous paces and each shines within their own space or in duet with a significant other or adversary. The contestants include serial mom-to-be Dawn Lagarto (Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street's Brooke Smith), the eight-months-pregnant reigning champ ("Mother! Hero!! Contender!!!), back for a riveting delivery in her hometown. A thirty-nine-year-old unemployed father and former juvenile delinquent (Michael Kaycheck as Tony Reilly) is the first of the five new competitors greeted as if winners of the Publishers Clearing House. Marylouise Burke is the God-fearing angle-of-mercy nurse Connie Trabucco; Franklin James (Richard Venture) is a seventy-two-year-old retired piece of white trailer trash; giggly teenager Lindsay Berns (Merritt Wever) is prouder of her arsenal and the bulletproof vest gifted to her from her boy friend than she is of her overprotective, cheerleading parents; and suicidal Jeffrey Norman (Wes Bentley look-alike Glenn Fitzgerald) is an emaciated victim of testicular cancer and semi-aborted love interest from Dawn's high school days.

Each is armed with live ammunition and accompanied by a cameraman in flak jacket and therapy. Within this unprincipled moral void there are occasional honorable moments, even if they are painted with comical undertones. Dawn declares a truce with Jeffrey to work out unresolved issues from their semi-torched love affair (showcased by their fifteen-year-old amateur punk music video Love Will Tear Us Apart). His gaunt features and weakened condition suggest it is a time for self sacrifice at the hands of an old flame.

The omnipresent camera captures nearly every weird moment. Dawn's gynecologist notes she is three centimeters dilated. "If you feel anything unusual or strange, call me." In a garage face-off with her mother, sister, and niece, Dawn shows how expendable her family really is. Minahan tosses his actors about in a salad of reality show wizardry, and therein lies the darkness of the gallows humor and the brilliance in which it is depicted. Interviews, voiceovers, cut-aways, dramatic re-creations, the aforementioned music video, home movies, and self-promoting teasers ("Rules are as simple as life…and death!" "Is Dawn ready to extinguish an old flame?"), and Hellishly appropriate music by Girls Against Boys are all, pardon the pun, dead on.

Oh yeah, there's a surprise ending.

Move over Cops! Take your America's Most Wanted and shove it, Fox. Vote Survivor into oblivion. USA Films takes it to reality TV's outer limits with Series 7: The Contenders. God Bless America.

Click here to read Elias Savada's interview.

Written and
Directed by:

Daniel Minahan

Brooke Smith
Marylouise Burke
Glenn Fitzgerald
Michael Kaycheck
Richard Venture
Merritt Wever
Donna Hanover
Angelina Phillips

R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
parent or adult





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