Shoot to kill

Series 7 takes aim at reality TV

Daniel Minahan’s Series 7 accomplishes the seemingly insurmountable feat of satirizing television’s “reality shows.” As a genre, they’re perfectly self-parodying. What could be more absurd or demeaning than Fox’s “Temptation Island” or UPN’s upcoming “Chains of Love,” in which one woman and four men are literally attached, chain-gang style, for the show’s duration?

One pitch reportedly envisions contestants hunting each other in a kind of transmetropolitan game of hide-and-seek. That’s the same essential premise of Series 7, except in the movie’s fictional program, the players shoot to kill, with the winner being the last one left alive.

Shot on video, the film presents back-to-back episodes of the seventh series of a show called “The Contenders.” Series 7’s statements may not be as grand as it intends, but it features sharp details, intriguing implications and a strong central performance.

In the first scene, a shaky hand-held camera follows a hugely pregnant woman named Dawn (Brooke Smith) into a convenience store, where she guns down a customer and then asks, “Hey, do you have any bean dip?” Dawn is “The Contenders’” current champion, a ruthless assassin not in spite of her pregnancy, but because of it: She asserts that because of the game’s kill-or-be-killed rules, bumping off others is the only way to ensure her unborn infant’s survival.

The new series begins with the selection of other contestants, residents of a Connecticut town picked randomly in a drawing like Powerball. We’re introduced to the players as they’re ambushed by ski-masked representatives of the show, given a handgun and a camera crew, and left on their own. Dawn’s rivals include an unemployed blue-collar family man (Michael Kaycheck), a Christian emergency room nurse (Marylouise Burke), an overachieving teenage girl (Merrit Wever) and an elderly crank (Richard Venture).

But the most intriguing competitor is Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), an artist dying of testicular cancer, who happens to be Dawn’s high-school sweetheart, ambivalent sexuality not withstanding. While the TV program is most interested in who kills whom, the audience is more drawn to Dawn and Jeff’s contradictory personalities.

Series 7 is letter-perfect at spoofing the sounds and styles of reality shows, from the crunchy guitar theme music to the on-the-fly camerawork of “Cops.” Will Arnett’s breathless narration is especially overwrought: “It’s a homecoming for our reigning contender as her secrets are revealed!” Money shots are shown in slow-motion instant replay, while moments not captured on film are awkwardly recreated with actors.

As a furious unwed mother-to-be, Dawn is mean as a snake, telephoning her rival players before the start of play just to rattle their cages. But we’re led to believe she had anger management issues even before getting tapped for the show. At an awkward reunion with family members, her mother says, “You wouldn’t even shave your armpits for your sister’s wedding!”

Lines like that and most of the ones involving the teen girl’s Type A parents seem self-consciously comical, more fitting to the characterizations of Best in Show. Minahan vacillates between condescending to his characters and respecting their humanity. The most genuinely poignant scene is a high school video of young Dawn and Jeff, in Goth drag, striking poses to Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Its use neatly illustrates how reality programs reduce the lives of real people into byte-sized plot points, Series 7’s most effective message.

Minahan has less certain aim in indicting the “bloodthirsty” viewing public; in his America, everyone’s a potential Contender, so watching the show would be a matter of self-preservation. But Series 7 takes the shrewd approach of simply showing the program and hinting at its creators and its audience. Trying to justify or explain such an outrageous premise, a la The Truman Show or Ed TV, would just distract us from the human drama. Likewise, it hints at the existence of an “underground” and that “The Contenders” is rigged, but leaves such details to the audience’s imagination.

In interviews, Minahan, a co-writer of I Shot Andy Warhol, is quick to point out that he penned Series 7’s script in 1996, long before the “Survivor” castaways got anywhere near that island. Credit him, then, with superb timing to have his pointed picture hit at the height of reality programming’s popularity. “The Contenders” may not be conceivable as a show on today’s networks, but it has precedents. On Minahan’s airwaves, you can imagine competing networks airing “The Running Man” and the results of “Death Race 2000.”??