Written and directed by Daniel Minahan

With Brooke Smith, Glenn Fitzgerald, Marylouise Burke, Michael Kaycheck, Richard Venture and Merritt Wever

Distributed by USA Films


Do I void my credentials to write about SERIES 7, which purports to be the season finale of an apocryphal TV snuff/game show called THE CONTENDERS, by admitting that I've never seen recent programs like BIG BROTHER, THE MOLE, SURVIVOR and TEMPTATION ISLAND? I wonder if I may actually be this film's target audience, as it indulges a brand of insta-moralism about such shows that's almost as popular as they are. Shooting on DV, Minahan (a former producer for the Fox tabloid show FRONT PAGE) proves  an adept mimic of network TV's most manipulative tendencies: catchy slogans for every event, voice-of-God narration, treacly music. SERIES 7 often resembles a feature-length extension of Paul Verhoeven's media satire in ROBOCOP and STARSHIP TROOPERS. However, it's easy to blame the media for {pick a social problem}, and affirm one's own righteousness by doing so. Faceless corporations, like the producers of THE CONTENDERS, are safer targets than people who are complicit in their own degradation. Anyone with a gun can force someone to do their bidding. Probing why the cast of MTV's gross-out extravaganza JACKASS is willing to have the letters "jackass" stapled into their bare flesh or go swimming in shit for a mere paycheck or 15 minutes in the limelight is more troubling.

Each season, THE CONTENDERS chooses its participants at random. For one month, all of them are required to live in the same town and try to kill each other. In order to do so, reigning champion Dawn (Smith) has to return to her hometown of Newbury, Connecticut (played the town of Danbury), which she left after being thrown out of her house at age 17 for having an abortion. She's now 8 months pregnant. Her  high school sweetheart Jeff (Fitzgerald), a married, "ex-gay" artist dying of testicular cancer, is one of her competitors this season. So are Connie (Burke), a devoutly Catholic nurse, Bob (Kaycheck), an unemployed father , an overprotected teenage girl (Wever) and Franklin (Venture), a cranky old man.

SERIES 7 avoids the errors of Oliver Stone and Michael Haneke: lecturing us about the evils of violence while indulging the filmmakers' own bloodlust at length. (Even though Haneke's FUNNY GAMES keeps almost all its violence offscreen, his dwelling on psychological torture and pain allows him to indulge his sadistic and moralistic streaks at the same time.) Its violence is never fetishized, nor does  Minahan preach. Although it's not particularly graphic, it's often quite unpleasant, as when Minahan shows a lengthy close-up of the needle going into a man's arm while Connie forcibly gives him a drug overdose. However, concentrating so specifically on violence blunts the film's focus. It's hardly the only form of cruelty indulged by THE CONTENDERS, and the film probably intends it as a metaphor for the show's general schadenfreude, but it's hard not to take such brutality literally.

Obviously, satire usually criticizes present-day conditions by exaggeration. Nevertheless, SERIES 7 suffers from some logical loopholes. One man successfully avoids participating in THE CONTENDERS by shutting his doors and windows to the camera when first approached. Could his counterparts have done the same? (They don't seem too thrilled to be on the show.) By having the participants in THE CONTENDERS drafted into it, Minahan lets them off the hook. A premise in which competitors willingly agree to kill and put their lives at risk would have been more cutting.

SERIES 7 drops hints about its characters' troubled backgrounds - drug abuse for Dawn, a prison stay or two for Bob - but even so, Connie is the only one who seems capable of violence without being forced into it. (Not coincidentally, she's also the one Minahan devotes the most energy to sneering at it.) Despite her murder record, Dawn remains rather sympathetic throughout, as does Jeff. If these characters have any complexity at all, it owes more to Smith and Fitzgerald's performances than Minahan's screenplay, which takes scattershot aim at the "ex-gay" movement, religious hypocrisy and pretentious Goths (in addition to TV), reducing most of its characters to cartoons.

When Minahan sticks to mimicry, he creates some wonderful moments. Not all of these are reality-TV parodies: the video Jeff and Dawn made as teenage Siouxsie Sioux and Robert Smith clones, set to "Love Will Tear Us Apart" (the theme song of their doomed relationship), is hilarious. His mockery/imitation of TV clichés hits the target, as do  his points about the Panopticonization of public space. (When Dawn goes on the run, the show follows her through surveillance cameras at convenience stores and gas stations.) However, he doesn't have much control over the film's tone. One moment, he sneers at Connie; the next, he plays Jeff and Dawn's reunion for pathos. Or is that "pathos"? Either way, it's sappy.

By sticking to clips from THE CONTENDERS (including  promos for upcoming episodes, but no ads), Minahan also lets the audience off the hook. Jonathan Rosenbaum has criticized THE TRUMAN SHOW for implicitly flattering its audience by taking potshots at the one for its show-within-the-show, but SERIES 7's avoidance of this subject does much the same. Minahan implies that we're superior to the audience for THE CONTENDERS because we laugh at it, not with it. Only in the final 15 minutes does he ever show its face. The one joke he makes about it (for cheering Dawn on, momentarily forgetting that they're her hostages) is too little, too late.

Violence and the media, the ethics of filming real people's lives, the emptiness of celebrity: the issues SERIES 7 raises are worth thinking about, but they've long since become clichés.  By avoiding the issue of consent, SERIES 7 ducks the question of our own responsibility for what we moralize about: shows like SURVIVOR and TEMPTATION ISLAND would go off the air if they didn't have a pool of willing participants. Maybe Minahan's own background in TV has something to do with his film's flaws, not to mention its pessimism about resistance to it. Its structure - a series of quick, consistently funny jabs that  don't build up to anything particularly solid or thoughtful - suggests that he'd be better off making sketch comedy shows than features. As op-ed pieces go, SERIES 7 is far wittier than most , but in FEMALE TROUBLE, John Waters made a more scathing and insightful satire about many of the same subjects 27 years ago. At this point, there's nothing subversive about making arthouse patrons feel superior to SURVIVOR fans.