“Can an ‘ex-gay’ pacifist become a Contender?” asks the announcer of the fictional TV show, Series 7: The Contenders, that makes up the narrative of this film. It’s a question utterly typical of this fresh, funny and ultimately deeply disturbing work. Many films are touted as being “different” and even “unlike anything you’ve seen before,” but very few actually are. Series 7 actually is, though it achieves this by being very much like things you have seen before, only in a wholly different context. The premise is very simple: Make a movie (shot on digital video) that actually presents itself as a “reality-based” TV show in which contestants take the Survivor concept to its logical conclusion by actually killing each other off. These are the Contenders of the title — persons drawn from a lottery (apparently government-sanctioned) who are given weapons and a list of their opponents and thrust into a kill-or-be-killed mindset. It is never made clear what the winner wins — if anything — just as it is never made clear who is behind the series, whether or not the Contenders asked to be on the show, or how truthful what we’re seeing is. This, of course, is the point of the film. We are meant to take the reality of what we’re shown at face value, even when much of that reality is in doubt. When one contestant tries to make a run for it, he’s subdued by people from the show and somehow manages to paralyze himself with a self-inflicted knife wound — in the back. As obedient viewers who accept the reality of what we’re shown and told, we aren’t supposed to question this. Similarly, a “technical problem” renders the story’s actual climax unwatchable and we are treated to an “authentic” dramatization of what happened. Again, this is not to be questioned because we are the utterly conditioned audience of the show. This works on two levels. Being outside the TV norm, the theatre audience immediately feels superior to the ostensible viewers of the bogus series — but, wait, we are the viewers. Moreover, the characters are so effectively drawn that it becomes impossible not to become embroiled in the plot or choose sides. In this respect, Series 7 slaps us into a sense of awareness that — at least on some level — this is what we have become. What is shocking about the film isn’t its violence (which is relatively subdued) but the offhand nature of that violence and the way in which it is all casually accepted. Series 7 takes place in a world that can no longer be shocked or outraged, a world where everything counts only as entertainment. Even more chilling are the remarks of the Contenders themselves, as they blandly rationalize their actions and parade their deepest secrets for mass consumption. The most disturbing is probably the intensely religious 57-year-old nurse, Connie (Marylouise Burke), who goes to confession — recounting her sins of the week — yet makes no mention of the fact that she’s been responsible for the deaths of three other Contenders. The main focus, character-wise, is on the reigning champ, eight-months-pregnant Dawn (Brooke Smith) and “ex-gay” artist Jeffrey (Glenn Fitzgerald), who is dying of cancer and has a secret past with Dawn herself. The results are something like Jerry Springer Meets Survivor — funny, strangely moving, and too real for comfort. Interestingly, writer-director Daniel Minahan’s concept for the film predates the explosion of “reality” TV and the film was in production before Survivor ever hit the airwaves — making it an unsettlingly prophetic work. The real question is: Will we learn anything from what we’re shown, or will it merely be assimilated as just another media event?
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