From Scream to Goosebumps and even those annoying little snap bracelets, you’ve got to admit that the 90s were pretty terrifying. However, there’s no doubt in my mind that the scariest thing to come out of that decade was the rise of Reality Television. Quick and cheap to produce while allowing for endless variations of the same formula, it’s no wonder that shows like The Real World and Taxicab Confessions became overnight sensations around the globe.
Of course, this popularity also led to quite a bit of controversy as audiences began to question the ethics behind turning the struggles of living, breathing people into disposable entertainment. After the Reality TV boom of the past two decades, we’re all painfully aware of the horrifying issues that often plague this kind of programming, but back in 2000, there was one eerily prescient film that somehow foresaw the future of these predatory productions and their ill-fated celebrities. That film is Daniel Minahan’s underrated Series 7: The Contenders.
Presented as a marathon of the 7th season of an extremely popular Reality TV show, Series 7 can basically be described as The Running Man meets The Amazing Race. The titular show randomly picks out contenders through a lottery and then places them in a deadly game of cat and mouse where they must hunt each other down until there’s only one left. This time, reigning champion Dawn Lagarto (Brooke Smith) is forced to compete for the third and hopefully final time while also being in the late stages of an unexpected pregnancy. Of course, there are several surprises in store as the producers do their best to provide hungry audiences with an unforgettable competition.
While it’s easy to dismiss The Contenders as a reactionary parody of Reality TV tropes, the project was actually being shopped around by Minahan as early as 1998 (originally in the form of a TV series), preceding the premiere of shows like Big Brother and Survivor which kick-started the genre’s “golden age”. The director’s initial intentions were simply to create a caricature of what he perceived as the dark side of television, but he ended up with a prophetic vision of a world where entertainment had gone too far, predicting harmful trends that we now consider staples of Reality TV.
By today’s jaded standards, some of the film’s over-the-top lines and visual gags don’t even register as humor anymore, as we’ve seen similar incidents in everything from Iron Chef to Punk’d. From manipulative interviews to executive meddling for the sake of ratings, everything here but the legalized murder has become commonplace in television. That’s why I’d argue that Series 7: The Contenders is much more disturbing now than it was during its original release, as modern audiences have had time to realize that we’re not too far off from enjoying televised murder.
The film’s realistic presentation is part of the reason why this satire is so believable in the first place, with Minahan perfectly replicating the manic energy of a ruthless television crew desperate for scraps of drama. The upbeat editing and humorous narration (provided by a pre-fame Will Arnett, who later shows up as the program’s host) also add to the experience, making The Contenders feel like something you might actually stumble upon while channel-surfing in the 2000s.
I particularly enjoy the confessional interviews, which allow us a brief glimpse inside the mind of regular folks who find themselves committing atrocities in order to survive. From elderly nurses to cancer patients, it’s the kind of gratuitous cruelty that only Reality TV can provide, and it only works because of the film’s dedication to crafting believable characters. There are no action heroes here, only normal people forced into stardom as they unwittingly become modern-day gladiators.
Dawn (whose name was inspired by a close friend of the director) makes for an unusually compelling protagonist, having developed a cynical outlook on life after a troubled upbringing and two previous seasons on The Contenders. While you may remember Brooke Smith as Buffalo Bill’s main victim in Silence of the Lambs, I can assure you that she’s no damsel in distress here, with her character going so far as to call her competitors before the game just to psyche them out and give herself (and her baby) an advantage.
The movie is really at its best when engaging in this kind of dark humor, with several memorable moments like a teenager bragging about how her boyfriend paid for half of her Kevlar vest and several obvious hints that the game is clearly rigged. I also love how the show reveals to the competitors that they’ve been selected by simply showing up to their homes unannounced and handing them a gun while capturing their befuddled reaction on camera.
Unfortunately, the movie runs into some issues with its heavy-handed script and a second act that kind of loses itself in the minutiae of Dawn’s backstory. Her relationship with her estranged family and the other competitors is interesting enough, but these scenes sometimes bog down a movie that would have worked much better with a more frenetic pace. Even so, Series 7 is still a highly entertaining ride that leads to a devilishly clever climax.
I won’t spoil anything for those of you who haven’t seen the movie, but suffice to say that the “series finale” features classic game show tropes and an ominous teaser for an even more disturbing 8th season, making it clear that the show must go on. There’s even an absurd dramatic re-enactment of Dawn’s final confrontation, and I love how it’s implied that this cathartic conclusion might not be what actually happened once the cameras stopped rolling.
Series 7: The Contenders may not be a perfect film, but there’s so much heart behind the satire that I can’t help but appreciate its vision of a world where life is only worth its weight in ratings. Reality TV probably won’t be condoning murder anytime soon, but this hidden gem reminds us that the media we consume says a lot about who we are, and it’s scary to think that the film’s promise of “real people in real danger” sounds so damn interesting.