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SERIES 7 THE CONTENDERS, 2001
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SERIES 7 THE CONTENDERS,  MOVIE POSTERSERIES 7 THE CONTENDERS, 2001
Movie Reviews

Directed by Daniel Minahan
Starring: Brooke Smith, Glenn Fitzgerald, Marylouise Burke, Angelina Phillips
Review by Conor Duffy


SYNOPSIS:

A reality TV programme picks six regular people, seemingly at random, and pits them against one another in a lethal game where the winner must kill all of their opponents.

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REVIEW:

Writer-director Dan Minahan came up with his idea for Series 7 while working on a reality TV show. Seeing this staple of network television as ripe for satire, he even pitched the fake concept of random strangers forced into mortal combat to an executive in 1998. Among the first notes that came back from the executive was, "Can it be more sexy and less violent?"

It really is a case of life imitating art, as Series 7 hilariously skewers reality television while giving a worrying clue as to how far a network might go for ratings. While we haven't reached the point of regular folks being given hand guns and sent off to shoot one another, shows such as “Fear Factor” and “Survivor” aren't a hundred miles away from such a concept. Thankfully, it remains fictional for now, yet perfectly attacks everything that is wrong with reality TV and its satire still has considerable bite almost a decade after its initial release.

Series 7: The Contenders is shot as a marathon episode of a game show, apparently supported by the government, where six people are chosen from a random lottery. They are given a weapon and with seemingly no choice but to take part, each contestant must hunt down the others, with the winner being the sole survivor. As the show goes into its seventh season, the reigning Contender is Dawn (Smith), eight months pregnant and already the winner of the two previous series. All she has to do is win one more to claim her freedom, and she is determined to do so for the sake of her unborn child. Things become more complicated, however, when series seven takes place in Dawn's home town of Newbury, Connecticut. Among the other five competitors chosen is Jeff (Fitzgerald), a suicidal artist suffering from testicular cancer. We discover quite quickly that Dawn and Jeff knew each other as teenagers, which raises the ire of Jeff's wife Doria (Phillips.) The other contestants include an unemployed asbestos remover, a vicious old man living in a house papered with tin foil, an eighteen-year-old high school student pushed to win by her overbearing parents and a religious, soft-spoken nurse named Connie (brilliantly played by Marylouise Burke) who proves to have a greater killer instinct than any of the others.

Minahan's script perfectly uses all of the clichés employed by reality television producers. Interviews and heartfelt meetings between Dawn and Jeff are shamelessly used to tug at the heartstrings and create a false sense of emotion in what is really a show that callously kills people for entertainment. Series 7 pokes fun at the way people watch Big Brother or numerous "Celebrity" game shows to laugh at real-life embarrassment or marvel at the contrived arguments that flair up between contestants. When one contestant tries to escape, the footage is edited to look like a highlight of "World's Deadliest Police Chases," complete with heart-pumping music and a dramatic final showdown that results in the escapee suffering a "self-inflicted" knife wound to the back.

It all works so well because the cast always play it straight. Their characters could easily have become two-dimensional parodies of the fame-obsessed wannabes that fill hours of television every week, but we actually start to feel sympathy for them. Just the sight of Dawn, heavily pregnant and chasing people down with a semi-automatic pistol, is so ridiculous that you can only laugh. But Dawn's motive is a simple one: all she wants is to earn her freedom and keep her child safe. Brooke Smith portrays her character as someone who is more worldly-wise than well-educated, but with enough wit and ingenuity to stay alive. Glenn Fitzgerald as Jeff, a man dying of cancer and whose sexual orientation is brought into question on national television, is full of male insecurities and fears. Emasculated by his illness and full of regrets, his seemingly perfect marriage to Doria is torn asunder by the revelations brought about thanks to the show. Angelina Phillips plays his doting wife, but one seemingly always on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It's hard to really like her, but one can sympathise with her simple naivety and the way she reacts when Jeff's feelings about Dawn come back to the fore.

However, the most memorable of the characters is Marylouise Burke's quiet nurse Connie. She seems so unassuming at first that one wonders how she'll survive more than five minutes, yet we quickly learn just how cold and clinical Connie can be. Small remarks made during interviews reveal a dark side that really comes out once the bullets start to fly. She is a complicated character, ready to kill the others for living sinful lives, but forced to help Dawn when she goes into labour during a fight. She is the closest we have to a conventional villain in this film, but the real villain is surely the people who allow her to unleash such an aggressive part of her personality.

Indeed, the true villains of Series 7: The Contenders are always the producers of the show themselves - editing sequences for maximum emotional impact, reconstructing scenes not caught on camera, even robbing us of a real climax when the original footage is "inexplicably" corrupted. Instead we get a final scene that feels like the end of a twisted Hallmark movie, and the promise of even more action in Series 8. It's true that life and television go on, and no matter what happens to any of the characters in this piece, the important thing is that it will all happen again next week. It's this total disregard for human dignity - human life - and the public's unquenchable thirst for such programming that Series 7 attacks so brilliantly. Ironically, Minahan has spent many of the years since its production working on numerous TV shows - though, fortunately, none of them reality-based. That his directorial debut has become ever more incisive is a bad sign for television but a good example of his talent as a writer and director.

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