The Cost of Self-Awareness
Of the many disturbing scenes in Series 7: The Contenders, perhaps the most disturbing concerns a perky blond 18-year-old named Lindsay (Merritt Wever). She’s been selected as a contestant for the fictional reality TV game show, The Contenders. She has no choice but to compete, and in order to win, Lindsay must kill her fellow contestants, all given their own guns and a camerapersons, so that their exploits might be documented for our—or someone’s—viewing pleasure. Lindsay’s parents, obviously worried about their little girl’s health and well-being, decide to drive her to her deadly encounters, like they’re driving her to the movies. And so you see them, proud and worried, in their car parked near a golf course, giving Lindsay a little pep talk, just before they send her off, in tears, to do what she must. The camera stays with the parents, watching nervously as Lindsay disappears over a rolling green hill, primed to kill kill kill. Or so they hope.
Such is the absurd and frightening logic that informs most every incident in Daniel Minahan’s satire of reality TV game shows. The contenders are way beyond eating worms for the camera; they’ve headed off into territory that was once known as science fiction. And yet now, strangely, six years after writer-director-former-tabloid-TV-producer Minahan first came up with the concept, it’s not so outrageous as it probably seemed back then, before the cutthroat-corporate meanness of Survivor and the utter cynicism of Temptation Island became the reality of reality TV.
Series 7: The Contenders follows the formula of a Real World-type marathon, with the half-hour (more accurately, twentysome minutes) episodes coming one right after the other. Looking to seduce viewers with competition and vile melodrama like all reality shows (except maybe Big Brother, which seemed intentionally boring), the series called The Contenders focuses on a feisty protagonist, reigning champion Dawn (wonderfully, completely convincing Brooke Smith). Having endured two previous series, the perpetrator of ten kills is now eight months pregnant (by whom, we’ll never know) and tired. Her rage and frustration, as well her dark roots, are showing. Told that she need only complete one more “tour” (as they used to call year-long terms of service in Vietnam), before the producers will let her go “free,” Dawn is determined to win this last round and save her baby’s life. The film/TV series opens with a last-season flashback to her final successful hit—as she flies into a convenience store and guns down a surprised last victim—boom! No doubt about it, this girl’s got star quality.
To up the emotional ante for the new season, the show’s producers send Dawn back to her hometown, fictional Newbury, Connecticut (actually, Minahan’s hometown, Danbury), after fifteen years away. There she must not only contend with the usual opponents—in this case, the aforementioned Lindsay; Tony (Michael Kaycheck), an unemployed asbestos-removal worker who’s desperate to support his family; Franklin (Richard Venture), an aging conspiracy theorist; and Connie (Marylouise Burke), a deeply religious ER nurse with access to lethal drugs—but also Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), Dawn’s very own high school Goth-boy-pacifist sweetheart. Their backstory, told via confessional interviews and dramatic re-enactments, reveals that they hated school and their peers, and shared a passion for Joy Division (shown in their homemade music video for “Love Will Tear Us Apart [Again]”), and the sad fact that he left her when he found he was gay. Now apparently straight again and married to fretful Doria (Angelina Phillips), Jeff is also dying of testicular cancer, and has somehow come to believe that being killed by his former amour will be the most valiant, romantic, and practical thing to do.
The film certainly has the familiar reality TV mechanics right. Randy Drummond’s all-over-the-place camera work, soap-operatic close-ups, awful graphics, action-crescendoes before commercial breaks, an ominous voice-over narrator (“The only prize is the only prize that counts: your life!”), and moody music (the film is scored by the brilliant Girls Against Boys—and it’s almost worth the price of admission just to hear them back in action). The settings for these encounters are perfect—they shoot one another down at the golf course, in the mall, at home, even in the hospital. At the same time, Series 7 has set itself a challenge, to convince viewers who can’t bear the thought of sitting through such a reality TV marathon (under the banner of full disclosure, I’ll confess that I’m a freak for all-day Real Worlds, but can’t abide Survivor for more than five or six minute chunks). And so, the movie must induce you to identify with—or at least like—the protagonists. Dawn more than fits this bill—she’s cagey and funny, and pissed off enough at her circumstances that she seems recognizable, and not nearly so annoying as those wannabe calendar-pin-ups on the Outback Survivor.
Still, the movie has to include some of the shows’ cheesy spectacle and infamous venom, not to mention the bleak ritual of the nightly news (there’s a car chase that recalls OJ on the freeway). Perhaps worse, it has to do all this while affirming the “family values” that these shows tend to trample, in order to define itself as less morally reprehensible. There’s a cost for this strategy, and on occasion Series 7 slips into a kind of condescension toward its lesser (loser) characters and or its imagined TV audience. And in this way, the film allows you to feel all right about watching it: you, the movie viewer, are smarter and more self-aware than those folks who watch such violent pap on TV for real, aren’t you?