Daniel Minahan’s Series 7: The Contenders, despite the passage of several years, remains one of the tightest, most effective satires in recent memory; a brutal, savage send-up of American gunplay, yes, but also a bitter little pill of societal scrutiny that peers into our hearts and finds little beyond a thick, impenetrable wall of gooey sentiment. It’s an odd mix to be sure, this marriage of bloodlust and misty-eyed emotionalism, but it so defines the nation’s character that it seems impossible to believe we’re able to put down our handkerchiefs long enough to carry on with our maniacal mayhem. Series 7 handles each with great care, never believing one is more or less important than the other. And while it would seem that the very nature of the “reality” show in question leans in the direction of our murderous spirit, keep in mind that for every on-screen kill, there are at least three flashbacks or “nostalgia clips”; all set to soaring scores of near-angelic beauty. For even in the midst of death-as-entertainment, we must pause for tales of human interest, much in the way that ribald, televised debate and crass commercialism are occasionally interrupted by “celebrations” of the lives of expired servicemen who gave their last on the streets of Iraq. Even newspaper accounts succumb to this Orwellian retreat from hard reality, as the senseless deaths day after day are couched as mini-dramas, complete with “families back home” and “dreams deferred.” Utter waste, after all, needs meaning.
Lest Series 7 sound heavy duty, keep in mind that in addition to the brilliant social criticism, it is undeniably hilarious from start to finish, sending up our need to relate to “real” people while simultaneously standing in judgment of them. Because the movie is presented as an actual television program (one is reminded of both Cops and Cheaters), it is striking to see how closely they follow the conventions of the genre. There’s the “hero” of the piece (Dawn), who is not only the reigning champion, but eight months pregnant and still in love with a man she must now kill. Dawn’s first scene is an instant classic, as she waltzes into a convenience store, pumps multiple rounds into some poor sap at the counter, and immediately inquires, “Hey, do you have any bean dip?” As played by Brooke Smith, she is trashy, vulgar, and unpredictable, but an acceptable champion because she keeps the audience hooked week after week. Throughout the film, we are treated to clips of her assorted kills, including a delightful throat-slashing in an elevator. Dawn is doing it all for her baby, of course, and with a start we realize that yes, if such a series were to make it to the small screen (and given our bizarre support of — and lust for — televised executions, it just might), TV executives would insist on a childbirth scene at some point (preferably during sweeps). As we travel with Dawn, we hear about her homecoming, her past life in the host town of Newbury, Connecticut (including the nugget that she lost her virginity in the now-imploded roller rink), and her strained relations with friends and family.
But she still loves Jeffrey, the standard artist of the piece; a man who “believes in non-violence” and also happens to be dying of testicular cancer. Again, he’s a stereotype from top to bottom, but rather than being portrayed broadly, he’s utterly believable. We know that Jeffrey and Dawn will end up together at the end, but that’s not a flaw of the film so much as a fulfillment of reality television’s utter predictability. Without a contrived romantic involvement of sorts, people will lose interest. They’ll watch people die, but they’d prefer it if they made out a bit first. There’s also Lindsay, the young student who hates her father; Franklin, the grizzled old salt who’d likely be shooting humans for sport even without the show; and Anthony, the resident goombah who is out of work, desperate, and still fancies himself a boxer. It seems fitting that he eventually finds himself on the run, having kidnapped his son, who is actually not his son, which leads to a hostage situation, attempted suicide, and quick trip to the hospital. But above all, there is Connie. As portrayed by Marylouise Burke, she is one of the most memorable creations of recent years; a dedicated nurse, devout Christian, and murderous misanthrope packed into 57 years of heartbreak. Describing life in the ER, she states, “Some of these cases are human garbage…But once you get anything on them that resembles life, you’ve got an obligation to bring them back.” Her oath compels her to first do no harm, but she’d rather have a few less life-affirming options tucked beneath her starched whites.
Connie, of course, is the “Angel of Death”, but more than that, she’s judgmental, unfeeling, and a calculating liar. In fact, despite having killed two people before our eyes (including one in a shopping mall with a high powered rifle), she reveals to her priest that since her last confession, she’s guilty only of having “taken the Lord’s name in vain, lied twice, and had impure thoughts about a certain television personality.” Even when the priest utters a knowing, “Connie?”, she defiantly replies, “That’s all.” Connie’s other big scene involves Dawn’s expected delivery, even though both are immersed in the final chase to close out the show. Dawn breaks into Connie’s house, has her caught dead to right in the bathroom, but then her water breaks, allowing Connie to leap from the toilet, seize her gun, and take control of the situation. Connie is tempted to end Dawn’s life right then and there, but Dawn asks that the innocent child’s life be spared. “Okay,” Connie says, “I’m going to save the child’s life…but then you’re dead.” Even when Dawn’s baby is literally spewing forth, Connie can’t help but lecture the poor child. “People like you shouldn’t have children,” she states. “You should be sterilized.” Then, covered in blood and taking orders from 911, Connie continues her attack, blasting welfare, single motherhood, and the poor, all in one fell swoop. It’s an Oscar-worthy turn, and as such, received not a whit of attention.
Connie has the best moments, but Minahan’s dialogue soars throughout. Upon reuniting with her estranged mother and sister (Laura), Dawn is lectured by each in turn. “You wouldn’t shave your armpits for your own sister’s wedding,” mom cries, quite reasonably it would seem. Then, after Dawn pulls a gun and demands to have her sister’s SUV, Laura erupts: “You are an animal…You’ve always behaved like an animal…and a whore…and an addict…and now you’re a murderer and a thief.” Even Anthony, before he expired, agreed: “God should come down and fuck her mother, just for having her.” She’s earned the name “Bloody Mama” for a reason. And she’s also hounded for autographs, recognized at the hospital, and clearly a boon for the network. Still, leave it to Connie to add the last word: “She’s unkempt…She’s got no faith…I think she’s a soulless creature.” Yes, she is, but she’s one American mother who would fight like hell for her unborn child. That’s why we love her.
The melodrama surrounding Dawn and Jeffrey reaches its zenith when the film shows us clips from their high school days, including an indescribably hilarious music video the two created in art class. In addition to being an unmistakable product of the 80s, it is everything we expect budding, self-described “artists” to create when nobody in authority has the stones to flunk the lot of them and light the fucking tape on fire. Mixing goth, cheesy effects, random chase scenes, mannequins dressed like priests, and heart-rending lyrics about nothing in particular, the whole mess reeks of two dumb kids laying on heavy-handed symbolism so thick that they forget what the hell they’re even symbolizing. It’s a sharp, unexpected little treat, and the film has the good sense to show clips of it yet again during the bloody conclusion. Speaking of that end, the pair of doomed lovers end up on the run, in a movie theater, making threats, and demanding to see Dawn’s baby. Jeffrey’s wife returns, shoots Dawn, and he then turns the gun on himself, ensuring that the pair will stay forever locked in a forbidden embrace. If it seems a bit too outrageous, even for reality TV, it is, for the clips we see are a re-creation of actual events, the footage of which was mysteriously destroyed. Our suspicions are confirmed moments later when Jeffrey turns up alive for Series 8, which will no doubt feature a fully healed Dawn, Connie’s vengeful sister, and perhaps Lindsay’s mournful father. Anything is possible.
At bottom, the film succeeds because all of this — as silly as it sounds out of context — is presented in a dry, unforced manner that never betrays its fictional roots. The acting is fierce, yet natural, and there’s little doubt that improvisation was actively encouraged. Even the best satire can push its points too far, but because of this film’s structure and tone, there’s no outside commentary to overstate the case. It is simply “unvarnished” filmmaking, as we follow the TV cameras around with these unlucky saps who had the misfortune of hearing their numbers called. And while it no longer shocks to state that television and good sense long ago parted ways, it still seems revolutionary to suggest that people will accept anything — war, famine, rape, colossal injustice — so long as we know the parties involved love their mamas. Or that their smiles “light up a room.” Or that as kids, they used to sing songs and hold bake sales. It’s the new method of detachment, equally insidious: set it all to a sweet lullaby, and we’ll forgive. Add a baby, or a dog, or a tearful hug, and we’ll even help with the clean up.