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'Series 7': A Satire Out for Blood

By Stephen Hunter
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)
Wow! What a great TV show! See, it's like "Survivor" with Glocks. These six folks are given guns, a play area and time limits. Each must hunt and kill the others as cameras follow them around. The winner is the last one standing. The footage is then smoothly edited, punched up with graphics and dramatic narration. No wonder it's a hit! I can't wait for "Series 8"! Then –

What? It's not real? You mean those guys didn't really die? It's a . . . movie? It's a . . . satire?


As you can see, "Series 7: The Contenders" has but one joke. But as you can also see, it's quite a funny one, and it's amazing what laughs director Daniel Minahan and his cast manage to spin out of it.

Minahan, who also wrote the film, has studied the culture of television, particularly the contagion of phony "reality" shows, so he's able to deadpan the absurdities with a deft touch. All the slo-mo repeats, the over-the-top music, the soullessly slick computer graphics, the earnest unflappability of the host, the pretend intimacy, and the utter willingness of otherwise quite normal people to yield all privacy – even the privacy of dying – for a few minutes of boob-tube fame.

Yet the triumph of the movie is that, underneath its consistently funny surface, each victim is real, comes from a life, has loved ones, issues, agonies, memories, eccentricities. So that's where an undercurrent of pain lurks, and that's what gives the film its special electricity.

It's also a shot at stardom for a much-underrated actress, Brooke Smith. Smith, who was memorable in both Jonathan Demme's "The Silence of the Lambs" (she was the senator's kidnapped daughter) and Louis Malle's "Vanya on 42nd Street," plays Dawn, the central contestant. Dawn has an attitude, a handgun and a baby about to pop out. She's the reigning champion, and this edition of the game – its seventh – is to be played in Danbury, Conn., which, not so coincidentally, is her home town.

One look at Dawn and you know the sort of incoherent life she's led. You see it in the eternal sadness of her face, the tangle of dark roots in her unwashed and casually pinned hair, the ill fit of her secondhand clothes. She's from prosperous if stuffy people, she had a messy high school career clotted with sexual and narcotic episodes, and somehow never caught the express lane to the upper middle class.

She's now adrift, her mood angry and desperate, and her destiny bleak, having soon enough that new mouth to feed, if someone doesn't blow her brains out. Smith is authentically vivid in this role, with great, sad eyes, a sonorous voice and a believability quotient that goes a long way toward selling the documentary conceit of the piece.

Of the other contestants, the most chilling is Connie (Marylouise Burke), a nurse whose hospital experience has inured her to the shock of death, and so she's able to get with the program right away. She has the cold look of someone who has given too many enemas and changed too many bedpans. And she engineers the game's biggest coup, a double-kill at the mall, something for the record books.

The others include a teenage girl, an angry old man, a pugnacious worker with a coke habit and a disintegrating marriage (who, despite his macho posturings, is in touch with his inner rabbit), and finally an artist (Glenn Fitzgerald) who's dying of cancer and who happens to be Dawn's old high school boyfriend and the author of the event that sent her spinning on her downward path.

Of course the joke is mostly on us. We sit there, feeling insufferably superior because we know it's all a joke; yet as the movie wears on and the contestants start dropping, it seduces us until, damn our black hearts, we've come to really care who wins. The suspense may be fraudulently manufactured but it captivates us nevertheless, and by the end we're reduced to the bloodlusting anonymity of the true culprits in all this jaded junk, and that is the TV audience.

Once or twice, the movie falters. One of the deaths – a beating – is so horrible that it jerks you out of the movie with its disturbing imagery, and it takes some time to get back in. I understand that was the point, but it is counterproductive because it breaks the spell of the narrative.

And I think Minahan errs at the end when he repeats a device. In one key plot gambit, he has it that the cameramen weren't available, so the episode is "re-created" with actors who look somewhat like the originals. That's a funny riff on the sleazy nature of these shows, but then he does it again at the climax, and the impact is muted both by the familiarity of the concept and by the fact that we're seeing not people we've come to identify with, but their near doubles.

"Series 7: The Contenders" (88 minutes) is rated R for graphic violence and profanity.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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