7: The Contenders
The degree to which American independent cinema has changed in thirty years could be measured in a double bill of Daniel Minahan's Series 7: The Contenders and Peter Watkins' long forgotten Punishment Park (1971).
In the latter, political dissidents are given the option of trying their luck against the State by becoming participants in a grisly theme park venture. Before Rollerball (1975), The Running Man (1987) or reality TV, Watkins' leftist critique of a society where media consumption goes hand in glove with social control was already fully formed.
Both Punishment Park and Series 7 use a mockumentary style to show the horrors of a media-crazed world. But that is where their conceptual similarities end. Watkins' film is a testament to the political anger felt by many at the time. It addresses issues of class, power, repression and manipulation. Series 7 is also a testament to its postmodern time. It just wants to have fun.
And fun it certainly is. Minahan has crafted a drop-dead accurate exaggeration of certain tendencies in reality TV. His model is not so much Survivor or Big Brother as Cops and Real Stories of the Highway Patrol. This mock program, The Contenders, is replete with booming voice-overs, dramatic camera angles, constant reprises of earlier events, and thundering musical accompaniment.
The conceit of Series 7 is simple but extremely effective. On The Contenders, contestants have to kill each other. More specifically, it falls to the carry-over survivor – in this case, Dawn (Brooke Smith) – to eliminate the five new players, or be eliminated by them.
But the producers of The Contenders are after more than blood. They also want tears, intrigue, surprising reversals of fortune; they need soap opera. So the pregnant Dawn is sent to her hometown in Connecticut, where Jeff (Glen Fitzgerald) was once her high school sweetheart. Then there's the nurse, Connie (Marylousie Burke) – will she really be so mild mannered when the screws are tightened? And what about teenage Lindsay (Merritt Wever) – will she turn against her nagging parents?
Minahan keeps all this moving at a pace worthy of Baz Luhrmann, and has some splendid gags in reserve – such as the repeated appearance of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" to mark the tender moments between Dawn and Jeff. The decision to never let us see outside the frame of the mock TV show – as we saw the control booth in The Truman Show (1998) or the ever-circling camera crew in Real Life (1979) – eschews many possibilities for satire, but preserves the originality of the idea.
It would be fairly silly to trumpet this movie as a savage, or even thought-provoking critique of reality TV. Only people who have never watched an episode of Big Brother could possibly be persuaded by this alarmist fantasy of the big, bad media. Much reality TV is perfectly innocuous entertainment. The same goes for Series 7.
© Adrian Martin May 2001