Like Network, Sidney Lumet’s exquisite 1976 satire on television culture, tabloid journalism and on-air exploitation, 2001’s Series 7: The Contenders plays better now than it ever did during its run in theatres. In fact, what I considered a clever-if-underwhelming mockumentary, more in tune with science-fiction dystopia tropes, bits of The Most Dangerous Game/The Seventh Victim and the “found footage” mini-boom of the 1990s (Man Bites Dog, The Blair Witch Project), seemingly content with making only perfunctory jabs at American culture, it now feels eerily prophetic. Few things are as good as Network, though, and Series 7 doesn’t even come close to approaching its menace and insight. But it’s a solid film, strangely more captivating the second time around, and while it doesn’t sink its teeth into its subject the way I expected in 2001, I’m not sure teeth-sinking was ever its set goal.
Instead of pointing the finger at the network executives hoping to cash in on sensationalism (Network) or implicating us citizens as some of the main culprits in allowing such heinous, violent activities to occur (2000’s Battle Royale), Series 7 creeps in with its verisimilitude quietly, humorously and with great irony. Its genre bending is remarkably effective, and through the guise of a fake television show marathon, it feels more real than the other two aforementioned films, and therein lies the film’s power. (“Lies”? “Lays”? Dammit, grammar.) I’m not watching Japanese teenagers stylishly eviscerate and blow up each other while crying, and I’m not watching Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway be all clever and Paddy Chayevsky wordy; I’m watching a handful of mostly unknown actors (I recognized three, but I’m also a horrible freak) wander through a regular, ho-hum setting and doing their damnedest to infuse their [I would say intentionally] underwritten characters with a nice, internal, unflinching reality that I am unable to find in pretty much every mainstream Hollywood thriller. Because it’s such a cheap, small film, the actors and writer-director Daniel Minahan allow the characters and situations room to breathe.
And you know what that feels like? Modern reality television. Not the wild, tightly-plotted-in-the-editing-room competition shows on the four major networks. I’m talking cable. The quiet channels. And what’s amazing about how the film manages to capture this feeling? This film was workshopped in 1998 and had its final version released in 2001, when most of these shows had yet to exist. The common answer as to when the current American reality television boom started is in the summer of 2000, when both Survivor and Big Brother premiered on CBS. And most everything you know now, all the shit that people either love, hate or love to hate — from the crazy competitions to the slices-of-life stories to the celebreality to the optimistic/charitable ones — came after this movie was made. Now the film doesn’t feel like such a stretch.
No, to my knowledge there has yet to be a gigantic reality competition show that pits people against each other on as large and uncontrolled scale such as this, even though every few years there are rumors of gigantic but safe (read: non-lethal) bounty hunter games in pre-production. It’s easy to see why these never come to fruition. There are simply too many variables, too many liabilities, too many ways to get hurt, and too many ways to cause a public panic. The closest thing to what this would look like is probably The Amazing Race, but if Phil Keoghan didn’t exist and the locals in each country at the Detours and Road Blocks were not previously cast, trained and debriefed by Jerry Bruckheimer, Bertram Van Munster and their gaggle of technical advisers and lawyers. (Or if you’re not a reality television nerd, the short answer is that it would be chaos, and many, many people would get hurt or even killed.) But it doesn’t seem as crazy anymore. I’m not here to tell you that reality television is going to get so out-of-hand that we’re going to start to murder each other for fun (at least, not until the Rapture commences), but if it did, it would look like this. I wouldn’t have said that ten years ago, but now I see almost no difference between this film and what I see on television. Just minus the weaponry.
Yes, I’m allowing myself to babble on and on about reality television, and I’m fairly certain most of my readers could not give less than a fuck about most of this, but everything needs perspective, and Series 7 has turned into something borderline-brilliant, however accidentally. Minahan comes from a background of working on tabloid news television, so he wasn’t trying to combine extreme violence with some silly and obvious themes just to make a buck. (For that, I point you to the 2007 Steve Austin-led WWE action film The Condemned, which is a pointless but amusing piece of shit.) He was more interested in treating this situation from a human interest perspective, and so while the few sequences of violence in Series 7 are effective like a motherfucker, it’s the one-on-one interviews, the backstories and the self-justification of the contestants that really stick.
Series 7: The Contenders is prime for some major analysis and a whole heap of respect. And as the “found footage” genre has grown even more over the last ten years, from dramas to horror films to monster movies, and even those films that somehow walk the line between narrative fiction and documentary, I think that with the right advertising campaign, this film could have been a sleeper hit if released today. But it wouldn’t feel as prescient, and now you’ve learned why it’s nearly impossible to predict if any kind of art will find an audience at the right time.
And hence, you have once again been granted permission to free yourself from my addled mind, which is filled with, among other things, The Celebrity Apprentice and Undercover Boss. And Network. There’s lots and lots of Peter Finch running around this noggin.
-Just in case you gave a shit, the three recognizable actors for me were Brooke Smith (the girl in the pit from Silence of the Lambs and Dr. Erica Hahn on Grey’s Anatomy), Glenn Fitzgerald (the priest brother on Dirty Sexy Money) and Marylouise Burke (Anne Heche’s mother on Hung). Apparently, the young teenage contestant is played by an actress who’s a regular on Nurse Jackie, but I have yet to watch that show.
-Oh, and the film is narrated by none other than Will Arnett. Put that in your pipe, persons who…don’t care.
– On a side note, I have yet to read the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, which also fits into the whole battle-it-out-for-television subgenre, but all three books are resting on my Kindle, and by god, I’m going to get to them soon.