Series 7: The Contenders

Time and again Hollywood, wearing its artist’s beret, attempts to satirize the entertainment business, of which Hollywood itself is so huge a part. Time and time and again it fails. I wonder why that is? By coincidence, we have the two latest attempts opening in consecutive weeks. But where 15 Minutes is a typical failure Series 7, written and directed by Daniel Minahan, may be the most successful attempt ever made by a movie to hold up to ridicule the movie business’s televisual cousins. True, in imagining a “reality” TV series called “The Contenders” in which six ordinary people try to kill each other until only one is left alive, it is even more exaggerated than 15 Minutes, but it is much more successful, I think, because Minahan does not attempt to moralize or show-off his own righteousness at the expense of his characters as John Herzfeld does.

Instead, we see “The Contenders” as if we were watching it on TV and as if Minahan was the show’s producer. The result is that, although the movie is very clever and very funny, one seldom has the sense that it is trying too hard for its comedy. Once you grant its preposterous central premiss, this is surely very much what such a show would look like. Every artist and filmmaker begins with a “Say that x, then y” where x must be accepted for the sake of argument to get to y. Minahan uses that moment of initial grace to slip past us the most outrageous thing he has to offer. Say that there was a TV show in which people killed each other. We know it could not happen, but OK, what then? Everything else is entirely plausible and, indeed, familiar. As a result his focus is not on the outrageous thing that couldn’t happen but on the thousand less outrageous things that can and do happen.

In such a context of the TV murders, that is, the worst thing is not the killing, since that is not real, or really real, but what the killing is used to set off in sharper relief, namely the absurdity of the whole TV talk show business. That makes it not so much a satire as what we might call a meta-satire. By identifying himself with the imagined network exploiters, Minahan sacrifices any explicit moral content, seemingly ready to delight instead in the sheer raw fakery of “reality” TV by creating something analogous to it. If you liked “Survivor” you’ll love Series 7 of “The Contenders” in which the returning champion, Dawn (Brooke Smith) has to off her fellow contestants, including an old boyfriend, while nine months pregnant. Or, as the announcer puts it: “The clock is ticking for America’s longest contender and the tiny life within her.”

In other words, Minahan succeeds, paradoxically, by making the outrageous seem less outrageous rather than (as in 15 minutes) more so. There is no point in stoking the fires of moral indignation about a media environment that is as pervasive as the air we breathe—not to mention something that the stokers themselves are more than usually implicated in on the supply side. Instead, we can just enjoy Minahan’s dead-on parodies of TV fakery, both emotional and rhetorical. “Everything you are about to see is real,” his announcer solemnly intones. “Six strangers brought together by the luck of the draw in a contest where the only prize is the only prize that counts. Your Life.” He all-but ignores the seemingly unignorable fact of murder-for-entertainment, using it instead to contextualize those lesser moments of TV exploitation that we know so well and so kicking the clunky old apparatus of media “satire” into gear.

There is no more to be said but to point to some of the most delicious moments of this unsatirical satire. I particularly liked the introduction of contestant Tony (Michael Kaycheck) whose attempts to interest himself either in killing or being killed are sidetracked by casually revealed details of his collapsing marriage, culminating in his wife’s informing him that the only one of her children he thought was his wasn’t. The real-life desperation with which he attempts to kidnap the child is treated with scorn by the producers. “This vicious coward” isn’t playing the game. Everybody else, however, is given the opportunity for the sort of homespun banalities and sentimental self-justifications that are familiar from a thousand TV interviews. Connie (Marylouise Burke), the matronly nurse who is equally skilled with a hypodermic and a sniper’s rifle tell us, for instance, that “I believe what they say: God never gives us more than we can handle..This is happening for a reason.”

Most comical of all, perhaps, is Lindsay (Merritt Wever), a high school girl, and her parents who treat her participation in the contest as if she were taking the SATs. “My parents are very overprotective,” she complains, but adds to the camera: “If I don’t win the game, I want my parents to know I love them a lot, and thanks for everything.” They send her off with a parental pep-talk more appropriate to a soccer game. “This guy’s an easy mark Go in there and do some damage,” says dad. “Go on, honey,” adds mom; “shoot baby.” When she comes running back from her first confrontation, wounded, Dad is irate: “Did you get him? where’s your gun? You are going to go back out there and get that 9mm and kill that old f*****.”

And, like any teenage girl, Lindsay lashes out at him: “I hate you!”

I could go on. There is one delight after another in this movie. But you should see for yourself

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