Series 7 - The Contenders


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

In its game show format, reality TV is so successful that, inevitably, lines will be crossed. The Contenders has a simple premise. Each week, the show moves to another town, bringing with it the winner from the week before, who has the opportunity of freedom with three consecutive victories.

Five names are picked at random from the local registry. They are the new Contenders, who are given a handgun, ammunition and assigned a cameraman. The show is so popular nationwide, they know what they have to do. The winner is the one left alive at the end of the week.

Dawn (Brooke Smith) is last week's survivor. She's eight month's pregnant and determined to win again for the sake of her unborn child. Her old home town of Danbury, Connecticut, has been picked as the venue.

An unemployed asbestos removal worker, a 53-year-old nurse, Dawn's highschool sweetheart, Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), now married and dying from testicular cancer, a seventysomething angry old man and an 18-year-old all American girl, with supportive parents and a bullet-proof vest, are the chosen five. Only Dawn and maybe the girl, who has the confidence of youth, has any enthusiasm for the fight. Soon, none of them will have a choice.

The concept is bizarre. Killing people on TV? Even as satire, that's taking things a bit far and yet Daniel Minahan's movie doesn't look like satire. It's too... real.

When John Waters took a gun to Hollywood in Cecil B DeMented, his terrorists were cinema buffs with bad attitudes. Violence was diluted into the comic mix. Not so Series 7. This is hardcore tabloid TV on film. The humour is in the presentation and almost every other line. By playing it straight, the director exposes the absurdity and horror of a nation hooked on humiliation and death.

Minahan has made the film in the style of those real life shows. It is not just a clever reconstruction, with a wink at the arty types and a tongue in cheek. This is unappologetically manipulative. Real people are put into embarrassing and terrifying situations, as the commentary continues with its highly charged wind-up and hand-held cameras endeavour to record incidents that occur suddenly somewhere else.

It comes as a surprise to discover that the characters are actors and the improvised dialogue has been carefully scripted. The performances are extraordinary in their naturalness. Series 7 is a homage to a genre, rather than a piss-take. Minahan's skill in transferring a televisual style of docudrama onto film cannot be overpraised. This is his first movie. It is a work of art.

Reviewed on: 31 May 2001
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Series 7 - The Contenders packshot
A reality TV show, in which five contestants have to kill the others to win.
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Director: Daniel Minahan

Writer: Daniel Minahan

Starring: Brooke Smith, Glenn Fitzgerald, Marylouise Burke, Michael Kaycheck, Merrit Wever, Richard Venture, Angelina Phillips

Year: 2001

Runtime: 85 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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