Series 7: The Contenders (2001)
“Are you game?”
Director: Daniel Minahan
Cast: Brooke Smith, Marylouise Burke, Mark Woodbury
Synopsis: A TV program selects people at random to kill one another for fame and their freedom.
With Series 7: The Contenders, writer/director Daniel Minahan mimics the format of a typical reality TV show but takes the concept a step further than real shows by having the contestants – a randomly selected group of people from one small American town – trying to kill one another in order to become champion. It’s an idea that still seems preposterous to us today, but with reality shows going to increasingly disturbing lengths in order to snare their audiences, it doesn’t exactly push the boundaries of believability as much as it should. One thing’s for sure – if anyone was ever sick enough to stage this kind of show, there would be no shortage of viewers.
Brooke Smith plays Dawn, the heavily-pregnant winner from series 6 who must kill another group of fellow contestants in order to retain her title – and her life. She’s not your typical heroine: she’s fairly plain, has unkempt hair, and dresses like what Americans would call ’trailer trash’ although, as the action takes place in her own home town, we see that she is actually the black sheep of a reasonably well-to-do family (’you wouldn’t even shave your armpits,’ Dawn’s mother tearfully berates our girl as she forcefully takes her sister’s car and drives away). Apart from Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), a young man dying from testicular cancer who was once Dawn’s high school sweetheart, the other contestants are simply there to make up the numbers. There’s a middle-aged nurse who efficiently despatches her paralysed victim with a lethal injection; an attractive teenager, egged on by her overbearing parents; an old man who vocally opposes the show while forced to comply with its rules in order to survive, and a family man whose initial bravado quickly crumbles once the show gets under way.
The first thing to hit you about the movie, is how perfectly it mimics the format of reality TV, suggesting that little has changed – other than the subject matter of the programmes – in the years since the movie was released. For any reasonable, thinking human being that has to be a source of disappointment. The execrable phenomenon of reality TV should have played itself out a long time ago, but like a deranged movie monster, it just keeps on going. The film contains all the required ingredients: the contestant interviews, the persistent voice-of-God narration, the previews and summaries contained either side of ad breaks, serving to illustrate the production-line banality of these type of programmes regardless of their content. And as the story unfolds it becomes increasingly far-fetched in order to inject the suspicion that, far from complete reality, these programmes are (gasp!) scripted in order to increase viewing figures.
Perhaps The Contenders biggest problem is that it doesn’t really have anywhere to go that is anywhere near as insightful as its basic premise, which is revealed to us in the first couple of reels. By following the route of deliberate audience manipulation Minahan is forced to turn a biting satire into a piece of romantic tragedy that simply looks as fake as it is supposed to be. Either way, the film does at least do a good job of highlighting the blurring of fiction and reality practiced by these woeful programmes which, nevertheless, seem to have obtained an iron grip on most Western societies.