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[whitespace] 'Series 7: The Contenders'
Reality TV Bites: Glenn Fitzgerald is unaware the world is watching him during a private moment in 'Series 7: The Contenders.'

Unlucky '7'

'Survivor' gets a literal interpretation in reality-TV spoof 'Series 7: The Contenders'

By Jim Aquino

IS A SPOOF of reality TV necessary when the real thing is already a laugh riot itself? I kept asking myself that question during filmmaker Daniel Minahan's trash-TV satire Series 7: The Contenders, which the first-time director wrote years before the current wave of cheesy and repugnant reality programs like Survivor, Big Brother and Temptation Island.

Minahan, trying to atone for his past as a producer of tabloid TV (his résumé includes a stint with that bastion of journalism known as Fox News), wants to shake the shit out of moviegoers desensitized by trash TV with a fictional show that has "Fox" written all over it: the immensely popular snuff spectacle The Contenders, in which contestants chosen by lottery must kill each other for a million-dollar cash prize. The Contenders' reigning champion is eight-months-pregnant, gun-toting Dawn Lagarto, played with don't-screw-with-me ferocity by Brooke Smith (The Silence of the Lambs, Vanya on 42nd Street), who gives more to the one-joke material than it deserves.

The film opens with Dawn returning to her suburban hometown of Newbury, Conn., where she must defend her title against five new contenders. They include cranky, middle-aged ER nurse Connie (Marylouise Burke); 18-year-old Lindsay (Merritt Wever), who comes complete with an overbearing stage mom (Donna Hanover, Rudolph Giuliani's ex); and suicidal testicular cancer patient Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), who also happens to be Dawn's ex-boyfriend. (At one point, the show unearths a hilariously overwrought experimental video of Jeff and Dawn during their Goth phase, set to Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart"--it's a dead-on parody of all those cheesy home-movie assignments almost everyone from my generation will remember, with horror, from high school.)

Structuring the film like a marathon of the fake show's seventh-season episodes (thus the title Series 7), Minahan gets most of the details of the reality genre right, from the smarmy offscreen narrator (Will Arnett, sounding like movie trailer announcer Don LaFontaine on steroids--wait a minute, isn't that redundant?) to the soapy cliffhanger narration preceding each commercial break ("Will Dawn kill the only man she loved for the sake of her baby?") to the lurid surveillance footage title graphics straight out of The World's Scariest Police Chases 6. But that's about as clever and nuanced as the satire gets; it never ventures beyond "Everyone in reality TV is a smug, narcissistic bastard, and as for you viewers, you're all dupes for eating this stuff up"-style commentary, hardly an earth-shattering observation. There aren't even any jokes about the corporate sponsorship of these shows, which was lampooned memorably in The Truman Show.

Series 7 has its moments (and it's a little more tolerable than smug, hypocritical screeds like Natural Born Killers and the current 15 Minutes), but it reeks of "been there, done that." The concept of televised murder (which has been covered before in '70s satires like Death Race 2000 and Network) is no longer shocking or outrageous in an age when PBS stations consider broadcasting executions and nothing is too low for reality show participants, who toss away their ethics faster than Richard from Survivor tossing away his pants.

Series 7: The Contenders (R; 85 min.), written and directed by Daniel Minahan, photographed by Randy Drummond and starring Brooke Smith, Glenn Fitzgerald and Marylouise Burke, opens Friday at Camera One in San Jose.

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From the March 15-21, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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