Series 7 Presents Reality TV Without the Survivors
Reality" television is a kind of psychological cannibalism. It takes TV's purpose--linking audiences to advertisers--to a weird zone, where former audience members become product to be consumed by other audience members. Series 7: The Contenders takes the reality-TV gambits of Cops and Survivor to their logical end: a game show wherein middle-class people chosen by lottery are ordered to hunt down and kill one another. The last one left standing moves on to the next season. "Real people! In real danger! In a fight for their lives!" crows an obsequious offscreen host.
Dawn (Brooke Smith) is both The Contenders' biggest star, with 10 kills to her credit, and very pregnant. We meet her, denim-clad and surly, trolling suburban Newbury, Conn., for victims. Dawn's a new sort of white trash, slightly brainy and prone to emotionally distancing quips. About her hometown/designated battlefield, she notes, "Everything looks like it's been dipped in plastic." A drive past a tidy local cemetery yields a less glib, "I'm, uh, pretty sure that's where my dad is buried." Trapped in the show and disgusted by its moral bankruptcy, she's a weary pragmatist trying to survive long enough to find a more viable way to live. (One is reminded of paranoia-fantasist Philip K. Dick's observation, "Reality is what's left when you stop believing in everything else.")
Dawn's opponents are all weighted with over-the-top iconographic baggage. For working-class angst, there's Tony (Michael Kaycheck), an unemployed blue-collar cokehead. Covering the senior demographic are sixtysomething Connie (Marylouise Burke), a fanatical Catholic nurse and natural-born killer, and aging crackpot Franklin (Richard Venture). For Gen Y sizzle, there's teen pop-culture burnout Lindsay (Merritt Wever), who's prodded on to televised glory by her ass-bag father and froot-loop mom (Donna Hanover, estranged wife of New York City Mayor/despot Rudy Giuliani). Shivery echoes of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School and the recent shootings at Santana High sound when Lindsay, looking like any teen prepping for homeroom, is given a pistol, a semiautomatic, and a pump shotgun by her dad--essentials for appearing on The Contenders and, it would seem, going to school. "It shows how much he cares about me," she says.
For Dawn, however, the other contestants are impersonal targets. The exception is Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), an "ex-gay pacifist" artist dying of testicular cancer--and Dawn's long-lost high school beloved. In an ultimately pitiful potpourri of pop/psych cross-referencing, we watch Jeff, back when he had balls and dressed like a femme version of the Cure's Robert Smith, cavort around school hallways and cemeteries with a gothed-out young Dawn in a cheesy art-class-project film. Musical support is drolly provided by Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart."
As the series rolls on, Dawn gives birth and, stunned by the miracle of real-life creation, tells the unseen Contenders producers to fuck off. They retaliate by snatching the baby to assure Dawn's continued appearances and, naturally, seize on it as a terrific plot twist. Dawn, who's been scripted to mercy-kill the ailing Jeff, instead hits the road with him. What follows is funny, very strange, often obvious, but seldom less than profoundly dismaying.
Writer/director Daniel Minahan, who produced the short-lived reality TV show Front Page about five years ago (his only previous film credit is as co-writer and assistant director of I Shot Andy Warhol), has the stylistic minutiae of the form down pat, creating a convincing wide-screen replication of standard reality TV: handheld digital camera, freeze-frame suffering, sappy background footage, faux tension teasers. His one embellishment is an Orwellian satellite surveillance network that tracks the contestants' every move. It's never made clear whether the show is the spurious output of network, cable, or even government-sponsored concerns--the assumption being that all three are just different masks on the same corporate face. But further implications are even more unsettling.
Reality programming, in Minahan's view, doesn't just make us willing saps with blood-lust issues, it makes us less than human--and, bafflingly, eager to become that way. In the emotionally denuded videodrome of Series 7, murder is just another telegenic activity of humans downsized by media and advertisers into one enormous, demographically defined audience living on the anxious edge of possible redundancy and afraid of being left out of the consumerist covenant. Essential humanity competes with a bottle of Cheez Whiz for value, appeal, and psychological complexity and comes up wanting. No wonder Contenders fans happily clamor to rat out the fleeing Dawn and Jeff. As Dawn casually remarks after a kill, "Sympathy can send ya down the tubes real fast."
Series 7 offers no explanation for such consumer pathology--and, of course, any profit the film reaps will position it firmly inside the condition it derides. The more one lingers on the endlessly refracting layers of irony presented, the more vertiginous the effect. Is it, for all its grim implications, entertaining? Sure. But how much depends on how personally you take your entertainment. At one point Dawn breaks into a movie theater. The crowd, Contenders fans all, delight in their media moment, despite the semiautomatic she's aiming at them. She makes it clear that if they don't accede to her demands, she'll blow them all away. More applause. Flustered at the audience's refusal to stop being entertained even if it kills them, and its inability to comprehend just who's being threatened in the shifting reality of the game, she screams at the camera lens, "That's you, assholes!"