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Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2002

Nailing Big Brother to the wall

Series 7

Rating: * * * 1/2
Director: Daniel Minahan
Running time: 86 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

Reality TV is one of those cancerous forms of pop culture that grows so fast and so rampantly that it creates an equally powerful opposite reaction. In this case, the backlash begins with "Series 7: The Contenders," a canny parody of reality TV that takes the concept to its logical extreme: a show in which the contestants have to kill each other to survive.

News photo
Glenn Fitzgerald in "Series 7: The Contenders"

No doubt, this must be the wet-dream scenario of the producers of "Survivor" and in choosing it, director Daniel Minahan (screenwriter of "I Shot Andy Warhol") definitely shows a keen sense of the all-American interplay between celebrity and guns. But the problem that faced Minahan was a subtle one: How does one parody a genre that has already hit the ridiculous lows of "Who Wants To Marry a Millionaire?" or "Chains of Love?"

Minahan succeeds by playing it straight, making a film that looks exactly like the TV shows it's sending up, so much so that the one outrageous plot twist seems all too believable. Minahan has obviously done his homework, and he shows his mastery of the genre's tropes in a wickedly funny opening sequence. "Previously on 'The Contenders' . . . " says the generically deep-voiced narrator, and the film cuts to a sloppily shot DV clip of a heavily pregnant woman, Dawn (Brooke Smith), the reigning champion. "There's nothing I wouldn't do for my baby," she tells the camera.

Cut to her striding into a 7-Eleven and putting a bullet in a guy's head as he buys a burrito. Then to another cut, and another . . . It has that Attention Deficit Disorder rhythm of the commercial trailer, with the narrator hyping it up: "Real people . . . in real danger. A game without rules, where the prize is the only one that counts . . . your life."

The faux-program begins as Dawn is dropped into her hometown of Newbury, Conn., to take on five new challengers: Tony (Michael Kaycheck), an unemployed middle-aged guy whose marriage is on the rocks; Connie (Marylouise Burke), a religious, 57-year-old nurse; Lindsay (Merritt Wever), a high school teen with smothering parents; Franklin (Richard Venture), a crusty 72-year-old retiree; and Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), a former high school classmate of Dawn's who is dying from cancer. Like any reality program, the contestants seem chosen as much for their emotional baggage as for their resilience under stress.

The cast get the tone just right, nailing that quality of people on reality TV who, once they get used to the camera, start to treat it as their private confessor, and even play to it. They mostly appear in the two types of shots that define the genre: long, real-time sequences where nothing much happens, combined with casual-looking soundbites that have been carefully culled from hours of footage. Minahan's perfectly constructed fiction shows us how manipulative these shows are in the first place. When life becomes a TV program, it ceases to be "real."

The contenders arm themselves, lock the doors and prepare to kill or be killed. Lindsay tries to gun down Franklin in his home, as her parents cheer her on from the SUV. Dawn hunts down Tony, who freaks out and tries to flee. (Cue the requisite aerial shot from a helicopter tracking the car chase.) Connie displays a surprising ruthlessness, while Jeff just doesn't care, refusing to play the game. Could it be -- as his wife suspects -- that he still carries a torch for Dawn? Stay tuned, for the exciting season finale!

About the only thing the film gets wrong is the idea that the contestants are compelled -- presumably by law -- to play the deadly game. Anyone who's seen the depths humanity will sink to on TV in exchange for a cash prize, or a mere 15 minutes of fame, knows that there would be no shortage of willing contestants. Then again, the idea of TV ratings driving state policy isn't that far off the mark.

Like "Dr. Strangelove," "Series 7" finds black humor in a near-future scenario that's just one step removed from reality. The idea of a gun-ambush entertainment program in the U.S. may seem inconceivable, but then again, 10 years ago, so would the notion that there would be guards with metal detectors stationed at the entrance to your local mall. And that, ironically enough, is one scene in this film that is, in fact, reality.

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