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.