As the reality TV phenomenon continues to evolve in much the same way as irradiated insects, it is perhaps time to go back and remember Series 7: The Contenders, a film that has lost none of its relevance since its release in 2001.
The film deals with a reality TV show called “The Contenders,” now in its seventh season. Contestants are selected in a lottery, and participation in the show is compulsory. The rules are simple: kill the other contestants. The winner is the last one standing, but that sim…ly means that person is off to the next season. Ultimately, the only way out of the show is feet-first.
The idea of people being killed for entertainment is hardly new to this film. Roger Ebert traces the film’s antecedents back to 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game, wherein Leslie Banks as Count Zaroff forces shipwreck survivors to be the object of his hunts. But there are no spectators in Zaroff’s world. Much closer, especially in satiric intent, to Series 7 are the likes of Rollerball and Death Race 2000 (both 1975), especially the latter, which has hilarious colour commentary by inane TV personalities as the race takes place.
Series 7 takes Death Race 2000’s conceit further yet, in that the entire film is the show – there are no sequences that are not supposedly being televised. So the film is shot on video, and the entire parade of maudlin, manipulative reality TV montages and promos are paraded before us (“Tonight, on a very special season finale of The Contenders…”). Will Arnett’s narration is almost too true-to-life to be considered parody. Nothing in his delivery is exaggeration. In fact, nothing about the film is at all beyond what one would expect to see in such a show. The only difference is, people are being killed here.
Writer/director Daniel Minahan had been labouring in the reality trenches at Fox TV, and clearly had had enough. He began work on the film prior to Survivor’s first season, the film was released around the time of that show’s second bow. Critical response was mixed. Among the criticisms were that the actual shows had already surpassed the absurdity of this one, that it was too dead-accurate an imitation to work as satire, or that said satire was limited by the fact that the film refused to look beyond making fun of TV conventions. To these critiques, I would respond that the satirical tactic here consists firstly in making the viewer all the more conscious of the ridiculous conventions it presents without a jot of caricature. In other words, they are already so absurd as to be beyond satire, but we still accept them too easily. Also, there most certainly is an attack on the wider society here. It is crucial to note that the film does not appear to take place in a near-future setting. It could easily be taking place today, and that is very much its point. As well, the flatlined reactions of bystanders to the murders, and the complete acceptance of television’s hegemony paints a pretty sharp picture of a society that has surrendered the notion that anything other than TV actually matters. Reigning champion Dawn’s niece, who has never met her aunt before, tells her, “I saw you on TV. I love you.” That is the world these characters live in. So do we, the film strong implies. The vision is a bleak one. The slogans for “The Contenders” boast, in common with other such shows, that this is “real life.” The dark punchline of the movie is that, for once, the tagline is true. It isn’t that the show is accurately mirroring life, but that life has now degraded itself to the point that there is nothing outside the show.
All very dark, then. But also extremely funny. The disc comes with the usual complement of features, including a director’s commentary, and though the case indicates a fullscreen presentation, the picture is actually shown in the original 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.