Simultaneously prescient and passe, Series 7 posits a lethal game show called The Contenders whose participants are selected at random through a lottery drawing, then pitted against each other until only one is left breathing. Conceived and produced before the first edition of Survivor hit the airwaves and spawned a new wave of reality programming, Series 7 would seem to be the beneficiary of extraordinarily good timing. With the stakes continually being raised on these shows (Fox’s Boot Camp featured several medical discharges from its ersatz basic training scenario and Survivor: The Australian Outback drew some of its highest ratings when a contestant tumbled into a campfire), it seems only a matter of time before the line between dangerous and deadly is erased entirely. Unfortunately Series 7 is rather thinly conceived, lacking the elaborate machinations, twisty narratives and crackerjack editing that exemplify the most compelling reality television.
Presented as a marathon screening of episodes from the seventh season of The Contenders, Series 7 begins by introducing us to reigning champ Dawn (Brooke Smith), eight months pregnant and ready to retire her crown after taking on her final five opponents. They are: Connie, the sweet old lady; Tony, the working class hero; Lindsay, America’s sweetheart; Franklin, the aged crank; and Jeff, the bitter victim of testicular cancer.Complicating matters is the fact that Dawn and Jeff happen to be former high school sweethearts.Once the game begins, there are apparently no rules; the only goal is to kill all the other contenders or let them kill each other (although no one follows what would seem to be the best course of action – hiding out until your opponents are all dead).
In execution, Series 7 plays more like COPS meets The Most Dangerous Game than any of the current batch of reality programs. As is often the case, our media-saturated culture is evolving (or devolving) too rapidly for satire to keep up with it. The stars of today’s unscripted dramas are by no means dragooned into their participation; on the contrary, it’s easy to envision applicants willing to kill to be cast on a show like The Contenders. Series 7 might have more bite if at least one of the selected challengers were gung-ho about the prospect of having free reign to blow holes in the competition. After all, the notion of unwilling contestants being roped into a game show with fatal consequences is not a new one; the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Running Man covered similar territory fifteen years earlier.
The filmmakers miss another opportunity when it comes to the rules of The Contenders, since there don’t appear to be any. Part of the appeal of contests like The Mole and Boot Camp is the increasingly convoluted gameplay that forces players to adopt ever more tricky strategies in order to survive. Throwing a few curveballs into The Contenders rulebook might have added extra spice to a concept that grows stale before the final showdown materializes.Yet despite the overall feeling that Series 7 has arrived stamped with an expired freshness date, there are pleasures to be had along the way. Director Daniel Minahan, a veteran producer of television news magazines, has a firm grasp of the genre’s audio-visual components: the bumpers leading in and out of commercials; the promos for upcoming episodes; the unctuous voice-overs. He’s also got an ear for the sort of pseudo-philosophical musings reality show participants are prone to spouting whenever they’re alone with a camera. Brooke Smith’s Dawn begins as a bitchy annoyance but eventually wins us over with her determination and devotion to her unborn child. The revelation of her past relationship with ailing opponent Jeff supplies one of the movie’s funniest moments, the unearthing of a music video the pair made in high school for the 80’s angst classic "Love Will Tear Us Apart" (a song later reprised to even greater humorous effect). The remaining contestants, though, are little more than undeveloped archetypes, none of them a fraction as interesting or entertaining as Survivor counterparts like Richard the Machiavellian schemer, Rudy the grumpy Navy SEAL, Jerri the actress/sociopath and Michael the evangelical pig killer. Despite its flashes of inspiration, Series 7 has been outstripped by the very medium it sought to parody.