The Most Dangerous Game Show

Series 7 dares to make us care about reality TV

Ever wonder what post-postmodernism would look like? Well, it has already arrived in the form of an extremely articulate and worryingly complicated movie called Series 7--which, in perverse acknowledgment of its daring, has been allowed to screen just once at the Uptown Theatre (on Saturday at midnight, so don't delay).

The premise of this Sundance buzz magnet is indeed snappy: A TV show called The Contenders selects six people at random and gives them weapons; whoever is left alive wins the prize. We don't know what the prize is, or how murder could have become legal in this movie's America, but at least the latter is handled with wit: A girl frisked in a shopping mall tells the cop who's eyeballing her gun, "It's okay--I'm a Contender." The entire nation is in on the excitement, and the film itself slips comfortably into "mockumentary" mode, playing as a marathon session of the series' seventh-season episodes.

On the face of it, Series 7's work of Media Parody (file it next to Man Bites Dog and Bamboozled) would seem to require either the Wagnerian bravura of Natural Born Killers or the quotidian dinkiness of the small screen. But writer-director Daniel Minahan (who penned the sharp-eyed script of I Shot Andy Warhol) has some unsettling tricks up his sleeve. Perfectly mimicking the style of reality TV (right down to the "sensitive" moments set to an excruciating Lilith Fair ballad), Series 7 lets us "get to know" the six reluctant killers. Lindsay (Merritt Wever) is a teenage cutie with controlling parents and a failing hold on her virginity. Tony (Michael Kaycheck) is an unemployed asbestos remover who snorts coke in the bathroom while his wife cooks for the kids. Connie (Marylouise Burke) is a ruthless pro-lifer who says that her job as an ER nurse is just like on the hit NBC series, "only much longer." Franklin (Richard Venture) is the Contender closest to Survivor's Rudy, a crotchety old wacko who seems to have been largely edited out of the show. Jeff (Glen Fitzgerald) is a seemingly gay visual artist and terminal cancer patient who could have been teleported into this world from a Todd Haynes movie. And the Designated Protagonist is an unattractive and unrelentingly angry pregnant woman named Dawn (Brooke Smith).

Shooting to kill: Brooke Smith in Series 7
Shooting to kill: Brooke Smith in Series 7

The genius of Series 7 is that it puts our responses to these dweebs through the ringer. Even casual viewers of The Real World or Survivor (or distant cousins such as The Jerry Springer Show and MTV's Loveline) know that the first rule of most commercial entertainment--You gotta like the characters!--is thrown out the window. In the parallel universe of reality TV, we're given the chance to root for--and massively dislike--whomever we choose. And while most reality-TV pundits have focused on the "new voyeurism" of these shows, the truth is that their appeal is much closer to that of an Andy Warhol movie: We get to see "real people" half performing and half "being themselves," and we get to gloat and giggle at their mistakes and humiliations. Even when the shows provide their characters with those "sensitive" moments, one senses the director's awareness of our deep disgust. Identification and vicariousness get wobbly and weird.

But Series 7, produced by indie icon Christine Vachon, goes even further. Just as audiences watching Vachon's production of Haynes's Safe didn't know whether to laugh, sob, or shriek at the plight of Julianne Moore's multiallergic protagonist, here the viewer is forced to undergo several stages of readjustment, like a patient who has just received a terminal prognosis. First, we settle into the parody--recognizing, perhaps, that reality TV is an easy target, but laughing anyway at the jokes that are obviously intended as jokes. Then the unpleasantly thin characterizations begin to grate. Then, most disturbingly, we begin to care.

I say that Series 7 takes a post-postmodern turn because it starts from the classic high postmodern stance--irony, pastiche, the critique of our own detachment--and then moves into a place where sincere emotion, sarcastic commentary, and cold-blooded surreal japing are indistinguishable. Are we meant to become involved with these characters--particularly when the dying Jeff and the Terminator-like Dawn fall in love? Or are we meant to view the brilliant narrative twists from an arctic remove, noting how much subtler and more surprising Minahan's plot sense is compared with The Mole or Big Brother?

Like other Vachon movies (e.g., Kids, Happiness, Swoon), Series 7 is chock full of "subversive" and "transgressive" elements, but here they fit perfectly into the milieu. For instance, we feel the filmmakers' glee during a hair-raising scene in which a young girl--not too far removed from the phylum of Britney Spears or Jennifer Love Hewitt--gets her face bashed in with a metal pole while her parents stand and watch. In a more straightforwardly fictional movie, such an atrocity would never happen. But in a landscape designed by Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer, why not? Ditto the suicidal musings of the cancer-riddled Jeff. Is this a case of left-wing filmmakers spiking the Kool-Aid--or is it just another uncomfortably personal "character beat" à la Temptation Island?

Except for Burke's turn as the nurse who's forced to midwife Dawn's child, promising to murder the mother afterward, the performances in Series 7 aren't particularly strong. And yet the movie remains gripping because Minahan maintains a boldly elastic tone while pushing one hot button after another. The director doesn't insist on teaching us a lesson, as Spike Lee did repeatedly in Bamboozled, and he doesn't let himself off the hook for the perpetuation of such sick pleasure. To its credit, Series 7 hews as closely to the thing it's describing as one could imagine. Minahan's film may be a lesser work than Natural Born Killers, but it achieves something more complicated: It leaves us wondering about our relationship to real human life amid the numbing glut of media product, appealing to us in precisely the same way that its junk-TV subject does. It provokes us into a contemplative state by making us sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride; it points up ideology while seeming to have no ideology itself. It's a modest movie that creates, believe it or not, something genuinely new.

 
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