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If you are calling to score a kill, press 1 now.

.....

The Innocent Bystander: "What the hell is this all about?"

"Series 7 - the Contenders", or Series 7 for short, is a film about a television show that seems at once fantastically, outrageously bloodthirsty and frighteningly plausible. The movie is presented as a marathon edition of the seventh round of the show. Shot on video and in fullscreen, it never breaks the illusion of being a TV show. There is a cheesy and unbelievably bloody title sequence with aggro theme music, a "viewer's discretion" warning about graphic carnage, and breaks for commercials, with recaps and previews, roughly every fifteen minutes. The commercials themselves are absent, which is a mixed blessing.

The show depicted, "The Contenders", is next year's Survivor. Reality TV with a bloodlust beyond the norm, the show pits six ordinary people against each other in a battle to the death. The only rule is that contestants cannot kill themselves. If you want out of the game, you have to be killed by a Contender. At the beginning of Series Seven, we are introduced to Dawn, the very pregnant sole survivor of Series Six. She has to kill five "randomly selected" citizens of her old hometown in middle Connecticut.

Anybody who has read any serious science fiction in the last thirty years is already familiar with the premise of "Series 7". The most popular show on television is the deathmatch between ordinary people - average citizens Just Like You And Me, pitted against each other in a bloody duel to the death, yadda yadda yadda. This scenario is so old it's almost a joke. But there's one thing that makes this film stand out from the Running Man and the dozens of similar stories that came before it. "Series 7" is not presented as science fiction, taking place in some sterile future where legions of gray-suited drones work at mindless jobs. It takes place in suburban Connecticut, in the present time. The characters are absolutely normal people, and the most advanced technology in the film is a GPS locater attached to each contestant's belt. Series 7 is presented as just another reality show, like Survivor with guns, or Cops without badges. And it doesn't seem unrealistic at all. I'm almost surprised we haven't already seen a show like "The Contenders".

.....

The Critic: "You bloody idiot, I already saw it, and it's nothing but a two-hour gladiator battle with buckets of gratuitous bloodshed!"

Well, it is a damn good thriller. The plot twists like an eel on acid, as the contestants go around screwing each other and forming ten-minute alliances seemingly at random. We don't know until the very last second of the movie who is going to survive. The kills are pretty graphic, and we see not only the real-time deaths of the present Contenders but a couple of rapid sequences recapping Dawn's previous kills. Dawn kills like a pregnant Terminator, and at least one of her opponents is no less efficient.

But there are several other layers to the movie. A lot of social commentary gets snuck into the bloodshed. You'll notice the calm-voiced announcer/commentator twisting events to shape our perception of the Contenders, much like wrestling producers turning their performers into "heels" and "babyfaces". Maybe it's just that I've been reading a lot of paranoid literature lately, but after Series 7 I started wondering how many times television commentators had done the same thing to me without my noticing. Then there's the way the contestants each justify their actions, all in different ways. For Dawn, it's the undeniably real threat to her unborn baby. For the psychotic nurse, it's the elimination of undesirables from society. For the teen princess, it's just about being on TV and making her parents happy.

Watching this movie is like volunteering for schizophrenia shots. We want to stay aloof while we watch the vicious undercurrent of modern society expose itself. We want to think we are above the stupidity of the Survivor fans. We laugh at the obviousness of the TV manipulation. We cringe from the gore. And then the ending comes, with a gutshot twist, and we reel, horrified laughter spilling from our mouths. And then we start thinking. The tape rewinds, and we are still thinking. We go to work the next day, and we are still thinking. And to our shame, what we are thinking most of all is "God damn it, Series Eight would totally kick ass!"

.....

The Trivia Geek: "OK, just tell me who's in it already."

A painfully awkward silence and some coughing.... Nobody's in it. "Series 7 - the Contenders" was released in 2001, written and directed by Daniel Minahan, who also wrote another blink-and-you-missed-it art film, "I Shot Andy Warhol". Dawn Lagarto is played by an excellent but sadly unknown Brooke Smith, and her ex-boyfriend ex-gay ex-Goth most-definitely-ex-pacifist Jeffrey Norman is played by another unknown, Glenn Fitzgerald. In another one of the clever bits, these actors are briefly replaced by stand-ins for the movie's paranoia-inducing penultimate scene. To be honest, I doubt that a movie like this could ever have been made with big stars and an established director. Just watch the damn thing.


"And here are the randomly selected contenders for this series!"
A quick note on something that ZeroSignal, and perhaps many other people, missed: it's fairly clear that the contestants for this show were not randomly selected at all. They were carefully chosen to maximise the drama, and represent an interesting spectrum of target demographics, just like the people on Survivor and other real reality shows. The selection of Dawn's old flame Jeffrey is an obvious play for dramatic interaction, but more monstrous in my opinion is the choosing of teen princess Lindsey. Far from being "dumb luck", her role is critical. She is the sacrificial lamb that the TV audience is meant to cry for, at the same time the movie's actual audience reels in disgust at her whole family's utter monstrosity. In my opinion this is one of the film's most masterful elements.

Series 7: The Contenders (2001)

Directed by: Daniel Minahan (I Shot Any Warhol)
Written by: Daniel Minahan
Genre: Action, Comedy, Satire

Cast: Brooke Smith, Marylouise Burke, Glenn Fitzgerald, Michael Kaycheck, Richard Venture, Meritt Weaver, Donna Hanover, Angelina Phillips

Plot: The film is presented as a "marathon" session of series 7 of fictional Reality TV show "The Contenders", where six strangers are randomly selected to fight each other to the death. Contestants cannot kill themselves and have to survive two series before they are let go. Series 7 of "The Contenders" sees pregnant survivor of series 6 Dawn Legarto (Smith) going up against ex-high school sweetheart Jeffrey Norman (Fitzgerald). Also in the running for the final prize is Catholic casualty nurse Connie Trabacco (Burke), father of two Tony Reilly (Kaycheck), elderly, paranoid, conspiracy theorist Franklin James (Venture) and teenager Lindsay Berns (Wever).

Review:
"The prize is the only prize that counts... your life." In a darkly funny twist on the Reality TV genre, Series 7: The Contenders follows a marathon session of series 7 of fictional Reality TV show "The Contenders". The rules of the show are simple - six contestants are selected at random from the population to fight to the death.Contestants cannot kill themselves and have to survive two series before they are let go. A concept that plays especially well in modern times, where popular Reality TV shows such as Survivor as opened the door for all manners of crazy, stupid and self-destructive tomfoolery to be shown on television in the name of ratings, Series 7 is a black comedy satire that deliberately pushes your moral buttons to make you think "indeed, how far would we actually go in the name of entertainment?" as well as the much more disturbing thought of "what would I do if it was their lives or mine?".

What makes this satire so effective is that the concept of the show itself isn't actually that extreme compared to some of the things we have been seeing on television lately. The news shows footage of real-life death, destruction and violence daily and Hollywood is often loaded with heavily-stylised versions of the same. So, once put in the context of modern times, the idea of real people really killing each other for entertainment doesn't seem so strange. The satirical nature is kept up beautifully during the course of the show with some delightfull little details, such as the phone-in system used by contestants to log kills ("if you are calling to score a kill, press 1 now") and the hideous exaggeration of emotional tension for entertainment value often present in real-life Reality TV shows.

The characters are another of the show's strengths because they indeed seem as real as you and I. The show interviews each of the contestants as they are introduced as well as through the course of the "show" and it's through these that we get to know the characters better. There's seven months pregnant sole survivor of series 6, Dawn Legarto (Smith), whose brutally effective acts of murder are perpetrated in the name of protecting her unborn child ("there's nothing I won't do for my baby"). There's Dawn's terminally-ill old flame Jeffrey Norman (Fitzgerald) whose conflict between his desire to die now and his wife Doria's (Phillips) loving desire for him to live give the film quite a lot of emotional depth. Also in the running is Catholic casualty nurse Connie Trabacco (Burke, who justifies herself as a pseudo-crusade to rid the world of undesireable elements. Elderly, paranoid, conspiracy theorist Franklin James (Venture), to whom the show represents the validification of every one of his crackpot ideas. Father of two Tony Reilly (Kaycheck) sees the show as a way of salvaging his failed marriage and relationships with his kids. And finally, teenager Lindsey Burns's (Wever) wide-eyed innocence is comically at odds with the cynical, morality-free world the show places her in. It's painfully obvious that she really doesn't belong in this atmosphere and that her random selection was one of the worst cases of dumb luck one could possibly experience.

The film is well-filmed and kept at a cracking pace by writer/director Daniel Minahan. The network television show-style presentation is consistently maintained throughout (the film was in fact conceived as a weekly television show) with gaps for commercials and subsequent re-caps, a "viewer discretion" at the beginning and a fast, busy pace. The action sequences are well-filmed and are very realistic (much of the movie is filmed with hand-held cameras, which greatly increases the "realism"), thus really giving the viewer the feeling of being "there". The plot twists and turns in a number of unexpected places, with a very suprising ending that will stay with you for days after the film's over.

Overall, I highly recommend seeing this film because it's a brutal but, at the same time, very intelligent take on what is acceptable in modern culture. Although I must give a word of warning - the film pulls no punches in terms of its subject matter and hence is graphically violent in some parts.

Rating: R for strong violent content and language (US)

Soundtrack:
Available on Koch Records, the track list is as follows:

  1. Girls Against Boys - It Begins
  2. Girls Against Boys - One Dose Of Truth
  3. Girls Against Boys - Let's Get It On
  4. Girls Against Boys - Unlucky Number
  5. Girls Against Boys - Creeping Feeling
  6. Girls Against Boys - I Knew Her...
  7. Girls Against Boys - Whole World Watching
  8. Girls Against Boys - Phone In
  9. Girls Against Boys - Tweaker
  10. Joy Division - Love Will Tear Us Apart
  11. Girls Against Boys - Ray Of Hope
  12. Julie Stephanek & Eli Janney - Sweetness Of Mine
  13. Girls Against Boys - The Set-Up
  14. Girls Against Boys - The Turn Around
  15. Robbie Kontor - Death Pact
  16. MenKing - Wedding Serenade
  17. Girls Against Boys - Dramatic Recreation
  18. Girls Against Boys - Nine Lives
  19. Girls Against Boys - The Contenders

Links:
IMDB page - http://us.imdb.com/Title?0251031

Sources:
IMDB
CDNow


DejaMorgana - Re: the selection of the contenders, this is something that Minahan himself brings up on the Director's Commentary track during one part of the movie. The selection in the movie (and in Reality TV shows in general) is indeed deliberate and often done to foster the creation of conflicts in the show, because that creates drama, which in turn creates attraction to the show and ratings. I also agree that her family's utter monstrosity is a masterful moment in the film. Witness the scene in the car after she gets shot by Franklin and also her dad's irrational insistence that she kill Franklin and his anger at her losing her rifle and not wanting to go back into the fray. It's the "Soccer Dad/Mum" mentality taken to its logical extreme, where it becomes almost sheer lunacy. It is when she snaps - she turns against him and ends up stabbing him with her combat knife - that she stops being "Daddy's little girl" and turns against her father. These are all points excellently put forward by Minahan during the course of the movie, as well as a number of interesting anecdotes and some insights into the making of the movie.

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