It’s the seventh season of “The Contenders,” the highly-rated series that conscripts six strangers (drawing their name at random in a lottery), equips them with an arsenal and sends them out to kill one another. Reigning champion Dawn Lagarta (Brooke Smith), with “10 kills in two tours,” can win her freedom from the show if she can survive the next five contenders. Eight months pregnant, her condition would seem to complicate her odds, but instead the extra progesterone endows her with a killer maternal instinct. (If the scenario sounds vaguely familiar, an old “Saturday Night Live” skit cast Mary Stuart Masterson as an extremely pregnant detective.)
Completely shot in television verite, “Series 7” is a diabolically clever sendup of reality shows. The movie is structured like a commercial-free marathon: three half-hour episodes with teasers, interviews and “live” action. Writer/director Daniel Minahan took his inspiration from producing segments for tabloid newsmagazines and immersing himself in reality TV, although the movie went into production before the CBS series “Survivor” hit the air.
The show-within-a-show seems an unholy melding of “Cops,” “America’s Most Wanted” and “Real World,” but its antecedents really appear to be a blend of two short stories: Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” about a wealthy big-game hunter who turns to man as the most difficult, thrilling prey of all, and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” in which a small town’s annual ritual involves stoning one of its own by the random draw of a black ball.
The hunting grounds this time are in Newbury, Conn., which Lagarta left at age 17 after her mother threw her out of their middle-class home. The contenders include Tony Reilly (Michael Kaycheck), the blustering, out-of-work asbestos removal worker with three kids and a cocaine habit; Connie Trabucco (Marylouise Burke), the sanctimonious nurse and occasional “mercy” killer; trailer-park wacko Franklin James (Richard Venture); 18-year-old typical teen Lindsay Berns (Merritt Wever); and suicidal, terminally ill artist Jeff Norman (Glenn Fitzgerald).
The setup of “Series 7” has earned not so much the displeasure as the pique of some critics who find the format tiresome and the satire oblique. Yet reality shows are tedious and ridiculous; if anything, the production values and music of “Series 7” are too high. True, in adept hands, the script could have been laden with sophisticated irony. In deliberately sticking to formula, though, “Series 7” highlights reality shows’ inherent predictability, which audiences have come to passively demand from their entertainment.
Platitudes are uttered with complete sincerity (“Through my mistakes, I want them to learn something”). The most private, anguished moments of individuals are rendered superficial and clichd. In typical television overkill, even the drama of murder must be artificially stimulated.
The contenders’ media savvy also shows how narcissistic they and we as viewers have been trained to be. After her boyfriend huffs out after his sexual advances are rebuffed, the young Berns gives a knowing glance to the camera. Reality has become like Lagarta’s hometown: “It looks like it’s dipped in plastic.”
Smith is fantastic as the middle-class outcast and tough mercenary who will do anything to protect her unborn child. (Audiences may recognize her as the quick-witted kidnap victim of Buffalo Bob in “The Silence of the Lambs.”) While a best-actress Oscar might not be in order, Smith should at least qualify for an Emmy. Fitzgerald emerges as the old high-school love interest (the “show” even plays a side-splitting, art class video homage to the ’80s punk song “Love Will Tear Us Apart”). His vibrancy, ironically, stems from his death wish, which undermines the show’s basic premise of survival by any means necessary.
“Series 7” doesn’t explain why the contenders willingly participate, how the show got its death permit or if there is compensation beyond maintaining one’s mortality. The parody isn’t in the details, but hinges on the complicity of everyone involved: the families, who watch tormented from the sidelines but never interfere, and the viewers, the co-conspirators responsible for making “The Contenders” a top-rated show seven seasons running. It’s basically a 21st-century gladiator match where spectators watch from their living-room couches and the gladiators are prisoners not of war, but of the spectacle itself.