“I’ve got nothing to live for, but I don’t wanna die.“
The general belief is that as a culture we love violence. It’s in our games, our shows, our music and our kids practice it on playgrounds. But that’s only true in a certain light; the reality is that we prefer a specific kind of violence, one that fits with our other cultural vice, sex. We want horror movies where sexy young things meet horrible ends, like some kind of generational vengeance. We want action stars that can fuck and gun, blasting baddies and bringing damsels to the heights of arousal. We want violence as foreplay, violence as style choice, violence as accessory. What we don’t want is to have our noses rubbed in this allegedly unhealthy impulse, to be forced to question what our marrying of violence and sex means. What we don’t want is a film like Series 7: The Contenders.
The 21st century answer to the similarly forgotten, unloved Man Bites Dog, Series 7: The Contenders arrived in 2001 to empty theatres and mixed reviews that included such great pull quotes as Roger Ebert’s declaration that “the movie has one joke and tells it too often, for too long.” Structured as a marathon session of reruns of a reality program called “The Contenders,” Series 7 doesn’t just aim to mock reality television; it holds a mirror up to it and lets the format shoot itself. At the time the film was made, reality TV wasn’t yet omnipresent, with “Survivor” only a year old and “Jersey Shore” but a glimmer in some MTV exec’s eye. “The Contenders” itself is an extreme concept, one where real people are forced to track down, taunt and murder one another in order to survive. But it’s filmed and presented in a way that’s startling in its accuracy, with its jump cuts, confessionals, motion graphics and snarky commentary courtesy of Will Arnett.
The star of the titular series seven of “The Contenders,” and our sort of protagonist, is Dawn Lagarto (Brooke Smith), an eight months pregnant woman who has become the show’s greatest star after finishing two “tours” and murdering 10 other contestants. Dawn’s third tour finds her sent back to her hometown of Newbury, Connecticut, facing off against five other residents, including her former flame Jeffrey Norman (Glenn Fitzgerald), a starving artist who just so happens to be suffering from testicular cancer. In true reality TV fashion, “The Contenders” hinges on crafty coincidences, whether it’s the lottery system used to choose contestants miraculously pulling up Jeff’s number, or the “random” decision that forces Dawn to compete in her long abandoned hometown.
Dawn herself is a perfect central character for a film of this nature, a dead-on interpretation of the now standard “person you love to hate” reality TV trope. Set up against Connie, a creepily emotionally detached ER nurse who views herself as morally superior to the rest of the world who may or may not already be an “angel of death,” Dawn is nonetheless, to quote Scott Tobias, “an unapologetic aggressor in the game, having long-since resolved that her survival is paramount and the others must be killed.” Series 7, then, really succeeds in how effectively it portrays Dawn, never shying away from depicting her as that “unapologetic aggressor,” but also making it clear that she’s a victim here, at the mercy of ratings and ad dollars. It’s telling that her other competitors fall along reality TV tropes as well, like the over prepared go-getting teenager Lindsay (Merritt Weaver), broke down unemployed family man Tony (Michael Kaycheck) and wild card retiree Franklin (Richard Venture). Jeff, as both love interest and resident sad sack, even serves as the kind of narrative instigator and rising star reality TV producers love.
All of these elements serve to make Series 7 a film that remains timeless, acting as both queasy predictor of future trends (like a sequence where home viewers are able to call in and potentially change the course of the show by reporting on the whereabouts of contestants) and exact replica of reality programming. But these traits also served to scare audiences away, particularly at a time where reality television was still a relative novelty and the honeymoon with the American public hadn’t quite ended. Series 7 hints that “Survivor” fails at the promise of its own title and that audiences are not-so-secretly hoping for real survival, which is made all the clearer when you consider the fact that director-writer Daniel Minahan originally pitched the film as a fake reality show, only to have it rejected for not being “sexy” enough.
Some critics, including the aforementioned Tobias in his recent reexamination of the film, also took the it to task for not having more beneath its surface, but even that misses the point. Minahan leaves much of the narrative open ended, never explaining, for instance, why the government allows this show to happen. But there are plenty of reasons for Minahan to have left those questions unanswered, and the mystery suits the format as well. The show has its own clear rules, like any good reality TV program of this nature would have, but there’s also indications within the narrative that the entire enterprise is a complete fabrication, something that is most explicitly laid out in a scene where Franklin starts to spout off his conspiracy theory before being gunned down. Likewise, the film’s Sweeps Week finale provides a lot of evidence to support what Franklin appeared to be saying in his final moments.
Similarly, criticisms like Ebert’s “one joke” remark are laughably off base if not understandable. Series 7 bravely sticks to its guns and refuses to deviate from its mock-rerun format, never giving context to what else is happening in the world outside “The Contenders.” The complaint that the film is just one joke is, of course, accurate, but the efficiency of its satire relies on that; to break from it would be to betray the concept. Minahan isn’t interested in improving the reality TV format, or glossing it up in the name of art. His interest is in holding a magnifying glass up to what would become the dominant television format of the 21st century in order to ask if this was what we really wanted. By rejecting the movie in droves, audiences quite clearly appeared to be saying “YES!” and Minahan has subsequently mostly stayed away from film, ironically developing an in-demand career as a director of the kind of television programming that’s caused critics to perceive the post-”Survivor” era as a renaissance of narrative television, with credits on “Game of Thrones,” “Six Feet Under” and “Deadwood.” Did Minahan make that career shift because audiences weren’t interested in his prognosis? Or because he was right?