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'Series 7': A Killer Satire

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2001


    'Series 7' Brooke Smith plays one mean mother-to-be in "Series 7: The Contenders." (USA Films)
I would normally file reality TV shows under the category of TRASH: Too Ridiculous Already to Satirize Humorously. I mean, where's the genius in poking fun at anything devised by television network executives?

But "Series 7: The Contenders" definitely mines all available ore from this low-yield soil. It's as funny as you could reasonably expect without Christopher Guest being involved in the project.

Structured in the style of such reality-TV shows as "Survivor" – with all those confessional interviews with the participants, over-the-top narration and even teasers before the next commercial break – "Series 7" takes things to the next obvious level: murdering to win.

"The Contenders," a fictional TV show set sometime in the not-too-distant future, selects contestants through a lottery system to participate in a kill-or-be-killed competition. Six people, each armed with a gun and followed by a camera person, have to blow away their fellow contenders until one is left standing. The only prize in this game is life itself.

"Everything you're about to see is real," intones the announcer, as the "Contenders" show begins its seventh season in a highly successful series. The front-runner in this show is clear enough: Dawn (Brooke Smith), an eight-months-pregnant single woman in her thirties who smoked the competition in Series 5 and 6. With 10 kills to her name, and a child growing inside her, she's time-tested, with a lot to live for.

We've already seen "Bloody Mama's" fighting skills in the previous series. Walking almost nonchalantly into a convenience store, she executes a contender at close range, then asks the store clerk: "Hey, do you have any bean dip?"

Dawn's five new contenders are:

Tony (Michael Kaycheck), a 39-year-old unemployed asbestos-removal worker whose domestic problems give him a certain desperation.

Connie (Marylouise Burke), a 57-year-old nurse whose meek manner belies her powerful determination to win.

Lindsay (Merritt Wever), an 18-year-old who does everything her parents say, including "Kill!"

Franklin (Richard Venture), a 72-year-old conspiracy theoriest who's not going to take this lying down.

And finally, Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), an artist who hates violence, has terminal cancer and used to be Dawn's high-school squeeze. Dawn's going to have to cap him, sentiments and all.

It's lonely at the top.

Dawn, who has to divide her time between slaughtering her rivals and visiting the baby doctor, has learned the trick to this game: be aggressive and efficient, then move on to the next victim.

She starts her campaign by calling Connie, the nurse, on her cell phone, telling her a bomb is about to explode in her house, then waiting outside in her camper van – firearm at the ready – to plug her.

What happens, including the darkly amusing finale, isn't as important as the goofy things that happen along the way. Writer-director Daniel Minahan, who co-wrote the 1996 "I Shot Andy Warhol" and developed "Series 7" at the Sundance Writers Lab, originally conceived this as an actual TV series.

That telegenic atmosphere remains, a sort of episodic mayhem intermixed with documentary deadpan. Tony's wife informs him, for instance, that Tony is not the father of their daughter, just as Dawn is firing a volley of gunshots into the side of their house. And then there are the overly devoted parents who drive Lindsay to her first attempted killing, waiting patiently in the family wagon while their beloved daughter does her good-girl best to execute old Franklin.

"If you're calling to score a kill," says a user-friendly voice at the "Contenders" show switchboard, "Please press 1 now."

The comedic performances are uniformly good. Smith, who played the hostage-daughter in "The Silence of the Lambs," is just right as the tough, seen-it-all refugee from small-town America. And Burke's almost chilling as the nurse whose bedside manner becomes her greatest weapon. Of course, in a black comedy like this, you can't expect things to turn out too happily for most. Everyone but one is going to have to go. But as "Series 7" speeds toward its inevitable conclusion, at least the contenders make this downward spiral something to savor.

"Series 7: The Contenders" (R, 88 minutes) – Contains violence and obscenity, as well as details of a surgery and a birth.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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