Brooke Smith Always Makes Me Think Of Series 7: The Contenders – Review From The Vault

Brooke Smith has really done some fine work, much of quite a while ago, and most of it better than Grey’s Anatomy… but, I can’t help thinking of Series 7: The Contenders whenever I see her.

This is an amazingly old review, and I don’t have the heart to revisit Series 7 right now, so apart from the most minor of tweaks, we’ll just have to call this a reissue.

I’m beginning to understand the difficulty in following a critic. Not only as a result of the emails I get, from the same people, one week saying I’m a genius, the next saying that I’m an ignorant idiot (If you don’t see the inherent flaw in the phrase ‘ignorant idiot’… thanks for the email).

No, I’m speaking of the other side of things. Of being the critic’s audience, not the critic. The more I read them, the more I find they simply lose me. The case that pushes me over the edge, thus causing me to mention it, is Roger Ebert. Usually, like everyone else (I suspect), I just look at what rating he gives something, and pay little attention to what he might say. Let’s face it, by and large, he isn’t all that interesting to read. Skim, yes. Read, no.  (This was far truer when I wrote this, and I completely retract this statement now)

Sometimes, however, he says or does something interesting. For example, giving very high praise to Dark City, and telling us that in the future people will look back at that movie and appreciate its greatness (not to mention providing a wonderful commentary track to the DVD). When he does things like that, I have to think he might know what he’s talking about, and then I have to pay a bit more attention to him.

Just as often, and confusing me greatly, I have to wonder if he’s as lost as he seems, or if he is really just such a pompous goof that it perfectly imitates being completely lost.

(Seriously, I didn’t like him… can you tell?)

Let me get to the movie and come back to Mr. Ebert.

Series 7: The Contenders is something that it is hard to actually call a movie, but it is. Series 7 purports to be the marathon of several episodes of a reality television show in which people kill each other. That’s right, kill each other. People apparently enter their names to be chosen, and are then randomly selected as the six contestants. Once selected, nothing much actually “happens” as far as setting things up. Someone from the show comes and gives you a gun (and a cameraman), and off you go to find and kill the other people, wherever they may be.

 

Of course, it’s the highest-rated show on television.

The contestants for this season (as Series 7 is basically the 7th season of the show The Contenders, and we’re watching the entire season in a marathon session) are:

Dawn – Our victor from the last Series. Over 8 months pregnant, but still going strong. Dawn is played by Brooke Smith who you may remember as the person in the bottom of the hole threatening to kill the dog in Silence of the Lambs.  (Okay, or from Grey’s Anatomy)

Connie – Nearly 60 and an ER nurse, but there’s some fight in the old gal yet. Connie is played by MaryLouise Burke.

Jeffrey – Married, possibly sort-of-gay, and dying of testicular cancer, Jeffrey seems to be in it because it’s apparently a good way to get killed. Jeffrey is played by Glenn Fitzgerald (Buffalo Soldiers, 40 Days and 40 Nights)

Tony – Married with three kids, none of which are his (???), Tony is out of work and doing this to support his family (???). Tony is played by Michael Kaycheck (Requiem for a Dream, Pipe Dream, and NYPD police officer. No foolin’, he really is.)

Franklin – A reclusive screwball with a protective lead coating fetish, Franklin, in a role nearly dubbed “Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film”, is going to have a hard time winning the game without leaving his trailer. Franklin is played by long-time character-actor Richard Venture (The Thorn Birds, Scent of a Woman, Courage Under Fire)

Lindsay – She’s 18, and she gets by with a little help from the men in her life. Daddy bought her some great guns and a combat knife, and her boyfriend chipped in on the bullet-proof vest. She’s got youth on her side, and some really supportive parents. Lindsay is played by Merritt Wever (Signs).

 

The only part of Roger Ebert’s review that goes right is this bit, “The killing is just the gimmick-the satirical hook of the movie….”

As you may imagine, this is rather a tiny portion of his review.

As I say, he is spot on here. Obviously, to be about nothing more than a people-killing reality show, would make for a pretty lousy movie. Where Mr. Ebert goes wrong is in what he thinks the movie “is”, which is a satire on reality-shows, and a statement on how people have lost all sense of shame, and thus will reveal their lives for a chance at fame. As Mr. Ebert suggests, this being sort of ala The Jerry Springer Show.

This is what this movie “is” in much the same way that Bring It On is a movie about cheerleading.

Of course, this is a movie about reality-shows, and certainly it is satirizing them, but that isn’t really what’s going on. The movie is a running commentary, not on how we’ve lost our pride, but on how we’ve got no pride to lose, or at least on how many people don’t. It’s not that people have no shame, and will spill all their dirty laundry to anyone who will put a camera in front of them. It’s that people say the same things in the context of this movie that they say in “real” situations, and they’re just as stupid in either case.

It’s (now careful if you’ve heard this term from me before and are opposed to it) telling a story by way of hyperbole.

The incredibly smothering and forceful parents who make themselves feel better by allowing their child “freedom”, seem really stupid (and are hilarious) when they cheer their daughter on toward the kill, only to demean her when she returns fait non-accompli, because (wait for it) that’s just how stupid that type of parent really is.

The irritated man who speaks so condescendingly to his wife because all she had to do was kill him, and now she’s botched that just like everything else, is the furthest extension of that idea as well.

It goes on and on.

The wife, with no (well…, little) provocation, who upon learning that a woman is at the door who has come to kill her husband, can only manage to worry about the fact that there may be some love interest at work here. (As an aside comment on the true beauty of the thing you can add in, “And there is!”)

The nurse who has never hurt anyone or wanted to. Sure, she helped a few people die who were suffering, but after all, that sort of thing goes on more than you think. She, the angel of mercy, who sees what she does (at least in one situation), conveniently, as a mercy killing. She, who despite the fact that the show is televised and everyone knows what she’s doing, goes to confession and neglects to mention that she’s killed people, even when the priest, having seen the show, prompts her.

“Any other sins?”

“No, that’s it.”

(pause) “Caawwwwwwnie?”

The family that seems not at all concerned by the fact that Dawn has murdered several people, but refuse to get past the fact that she had an abortion a decade ago.

And on and on it goes. Believe me, it goes on and on. Nothing is left untouched. And, as I said to my wife shortly after viewing this, it is the complete demoralization of virtually every possible relationship between people.

We watch as people explain, justify, and rationalize an outrageous multitude of actions, intentions, and “sins”. If the theories are so stupid as to be hilarious here, they’re as stupid when applied to… well, to things other than ludicrously pointless murder as legitimate television fare.

It is, in fact, a brilliant commentary, a remarkably funny comedy, and it does get to make fun of reality-shows and those who watch them as an added bonus.

Hopefully, I’ve painted a picture here that will give you some idea of what is going on in the show. Technically, it runs just as these shows do, complete with suspenseful cliffhangers, catchy theme song, goofy “build the tension and emotion” montages of what we’ve seen already, and even recreations of important “plot developments” not caught on film. It has an amazing amount to say, and manages to say it, albeit darkly, with a good pace that keeps you watching, and more importantly laughing.

I say hopefully, because I am hoping that you will be able to appreciate the full extent of the utter confusion I experienced on reading this bit in Mr. Ebert’s review.

“The dialogue, I suspect, is not intended as satirical at all, but simply reflects the way people think these days.”

I’m actually not even going to comment on that, as it really would take too much out of me. I’m just going to have to leave it to you to make of it what you will. (As a hint, recall that I mentioned being lost.)

(As an update hint on reissue – the subject of the satire here is fairly precisely “the way people think these days,” so that’s what threw me a little)

Series 7: The Contenders is the brain-child of Daniel Minahan (I Shot Andy Warhol), and the commentary on the DVD and other insights to be found in the various special features alone are worth the price of owning this treasure. Minahan began playing around with the general idea (as a movie) at a Directing Workshop at Sundance, and what was filmed there is included. Even before that, his original idea was for this to be created as a fake reality show that would air on television. He put the idea together and submitted it to station executives. (According to Minahan this is absolutely true)  The response?  “Can you make it more sexy and less violent?”

If I’ve given you a proper understanding of what’s going on here (big picturewise), there is a very real sense in which that fact about the world is more this movie than this movie could ever be.

Here’s about four minutes of intro to the movie

 

Are You Screening?

 

Marc Eastman
Marc Eastman is the owner and operator of Are You Screening? and has been writing film reviews for over a decade, and several branches of the internet's film review world have seen his name. He is also a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Broadcast Television Journalists Association.

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