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Series 7: The Contenders (2000)
Director: Daniel Minahan
review by Ellen Cheshire
The Running Man meets Survivor in Minahan's hip take on the current phenomenon of reality television programmes - Series 7: The Contenders.
'The Contenders', thankfully a fictional reality game show, is now in series seven. At the beginning of each series five competitors from one town are chosen at random, and along with the reigning champion from the previous series, they have to hunt down and kill each other until just one remains. The current champion is Dawn (Brooke Smith) who, although eight months pregnant, has survived two series and killed off ten other contestants. To be free she has to complete just one more series and see off her five new competitors. To up the stakes for series seven, the producers have sent her to her hometown of Newbury, Connecticut (actually filmed in Minahan's home of Danbury).
Minahan's satire on reality TV game shows is frighteningly realistic, the killers are monitored 24 hours a day with their own individual camera crew, and the results are low grade, badly framed shots with poor sound quality. Then there are the on-camera interviews, where the competitors open up their hearts to the nation. Dawn is now tired and emotional, revisiting her hometown and confronting past memories makes her more determined than ever to win this final series. But what of her new competitors? Lindsay (Merritt Wever) a bright 18-year-old student, Tony (Michael Kaycheck) an unemployed asbestos removal worker, Fanklin (Richard Venture) a conspiracy theorist, Connie (Mary Louise Burke) a devoutly religious ER nurse and Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald) a landscape artist dying of testicular cancer.
The film unfolds in 20 minute episodes, and just like the worst of trash TV's docusoaps it is complete with cheesy graphics, voiceover narrative, atmospheric music, cliffhangers at the end of each break, slo-mo replays of the 'kills', 'best of' highlights and on-camera confessions. As it becomes clear that there is more between Jeff and Dawn than is first supposed, archive material of their high school video project - Love Will Tear Us Apart is revealed. When Jeff and Dawn decide they no longer want to play the 'game' and switch off their cameras, we continue the story through the security camera footage. Where no camera was present, the producers have kindly provided us with naff dramatisations to fill in the missing gaps.
The cast is excellent and despite the fragmented nature of the storytelling technique you get to know the six protagonists during their fight for survival. Brooke Smith is so convincing as Dawn that you find yourself drawn into her world as she switches from feisty to fragile, pissed off to funny. Her reunions with her mother, sister and high school sweetheart show us a complex woman who is having to come to terms with her new-found and unwanted celebrity. Dawn has suddenly thrown into the nation's living rooms, been dubbed 'Bloody Mama' and still has to find time to visits for Doctor's visits and scans. Series 7: The Contenders is a funny hip film for a knowing audience, an audience of film fans who can look down on those TV viewers caught up in the dull lives of nobodies who want their 15 minutes of fame in front of the nation. This is a moral tale, and should be shown as a warning to executive producers of Survivor, Big Brother, Pop Idols et al as the frightening future of reality TV. On the other hand, maybe not, it may give them ideas...
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