Follow me on Twitter: @You_Total_Cult.
The YTC podcast can be found at http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk/blogs/youtotalcult/
Remember in that sixth series of Big Brother when someone ate a live goldfish out of another person’s crotch? Or how about that amazing episode of Call Centre when a bomb threat was called in but it was actually Anthrax that was released? Or in Jersey Shore when the gang signed up to go fight Al Queada but got assassinated en route? Well no, me neither. Probably since I made all that up. Although it could have happened and I just don’t know about it. You see, I don’t watch much ‘Reality TV’.
Sure, I sometimes sit back and laugh at suckers paying a fortune for an item in Storage Wars and then finding it to be worthless. I occasionally marvel at the sheer portion-size in Man Vs Food. Heck, I’ve even suffered a minute’s worth of Made In Chelsea just to see what the hell a ‘Binky’ is.
Series 7: The Contenders was a film that I initially saw at an Arthouse Cinema when it was released in 2002. Having enjoyed it at the time, I was pleased to find it more recently for the princely sum of £1 in a second-hand DVD store.Given I just began the 99p challenge in my last blog entry, i decided the extar 1p counts as close-enough. So Series 7: The Contenders is the second feature film to meet the 99p-£1 challenge.
Of course this also means that I am violating my own rule about only picking unfamiliar films, but hey I’ve drunk a lot since 2002 and been on meds a few times. So I’m stretching my own rule due to my puny brain, and I can live with that compromise.
So, does Series 7′ hold up 12 years later? Well, interestingly watching the movie again a decade on, it now actually holds up better in some ways and worse in others.
The film opens with a standard television warning that ‘Due to the graphic nature of this program, viewer discretion is advised’. Then only a few seconds later a pregnant woman shoots a man to death. Well, they did warn viewers.
The film pretends to be a marathon airing of an entire season of an American Reality TV show called The Contenders. This conceit is that an American town seems to be selected at random and that all the citizens have numbers within that town assigned to them. If their number is drawn in a special lottery then they are entered into the aforementioned TV show as ‘contenders’.
As contenders, each person is now a part of a documentary/game show. This pretty much amounts to being filmed 24/7 whilst you hunt and kill the other contestants whilst avoiding them killing you first. The only prize in winning this game is a greater appreciation for life if you win, aka survive.
Unfortunately winning also means you get enrolled into the next season, so it’s not necessarily a prize long savoured…
The satire of trash TV is easily the biggest part of the Series 7: The Contenders and this is evident right from the offset. Not just in the concept itself but also in its execution. The techniques used throughout the movie mirror those of 1990’s when programs such as Cops were all the rage. So to the movie replicates these sorts of shows use of lots of cameramen running, Dutch Angles, crash zooms and a deep, over the top dramatic voice over that deliver constant tag lines such as;
“These cats … don’t have … nine lives!”
Pretty soon we meet the contestants in this marathon screening of the seventh season. True to any ‘real’ television show, they are a wonderful mix of types, and two of whom have a secret history. Cue the drama created by mixing a suburban dad who was once a Marine, a sweet old Catholic nurse who does not believe in murder, an hobo-looking conspiracy nut, a teenage girl from a wealthy, WASPY family, a male cancer patient keen to die and the pregnant lady from the opening scene of the movie.
Each contestant gets their own camera crew to follow them around, so the audience slowly uncovers more about them. However, much like in any TV series or film, even this fake reality show clearly has a split between a main cast and a supporting cast. Series 7’ mainly follows the pregnant Dawn, the married, cancerous and bitter Jeff and the Catholic Connie. The rest of the contestants are essentially cannon fodder along the way.
Dawn is the reigning champ and is arriving for this next series, series seven. Coincidentally this is also Dawn’s home town. Even more co-incidentally, Jeff is her ex-boyfriend. The film follows the two as they slowly reveal their linked back story over melodramatic piano songs in the background.
A great moment of this shared history between Dane and Jeff is that they met in Art Class at high school. So the film cuts in footage from their Avant Garde video projects from their art class. Wonderfully it’s pit to Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” for the final touch. This small send up pokes an affectionate finger of fun at Goths-Alt kids, film students, and pretentious art students (All of which someone writing a film blog may well know all too well. It may even cut a tad too close to home!).
“Yes, but is it art?”
As Series 7′ plays out, Dawn and Jeff vary between trying to kill one another to reuniting, as Jeff leaves his wife. Meanwhile the films other lead, Connie, is shown praying and discussing the value of human life as both a Catholic and a Nurse. This is whilst Connie is simultaneously presented as the most tactical and efficient killer of the whole show!
Connie is very much representative of various hypocrisies. Both her religion and her vocation serve to undercut her actions. Yet Connie is perhaps even more representative of hypocrisy in a specific-cultural sense.
Given that Series 7: The Contenders is parodying American TV culture and the desensitising of viewers as whole then, it stands to reason that Connie is representative of any person that condemns an ‘evil’ in society except for when it actually benefits them.
Furthermore Connie discusses having watched the past seasons of The Contenders TV show. Her own denouncement of violence on the surface, whilst reveling in watching it from the comfort of her own home, is apt for anyone watching any action packed reality TV. Of course it is also a condemnation of to anyone watching the film of Series 7: The Contenders itself.
As the movie plays out, more contestants become eliminated, including the great concept that concept that the conspiracy nut participant (who had singled out the show as fake) mysteriously died via ‘stabbing himself in the back’.
Cannon fodder aside though, the story primarily focuses on Dawn as she goes in to labour. After giving birth in the same hospital that Jeff is being treated for cancer and shockingly in which Connie works, the ‘show’s’ producers kidnap Dawn’s newborn for its own safety.
Jeff and Dawn reunite and refuse to play The Contenders any longer. They use their weapons to kidnap their cameramen and then take a nearby cinema hostage. This action causes a Producer from the show to finally appear on screen, played by Lego The Movie’s VIP Batman voice, Will Arnett
In an ending that is both clever and a little unsatisfying, Jeff and Dawn demand the return of the baby and their freedom from the TV show or else they will shoot the producer. Armed guards appear at the edge of the screen and suddenly the footage cuts to a ‘recreated scene featuring doubles’.
Aided by the Over the top Narrative voice over, the recreated footage states that Jeff’s estranged wife sneaks into the cinema and kills Dawn in a jealous rage. Jeff then shoots his wife, before turning the gun on himself in depression.
The reconstructed finale is an explanation that is so overtly fake, even within a film that is itself fictional, that the whole of The Contenders show is shown to be as constructed and heartless as possible. Dawn and Jeff are clearly ‘taken out’ by the Production company. The Contenders show makes its own dramatic ending, lies to its viewers and moves on to Series 8. Logically this is great Added to the level of coincidences in the Lottery selections et al, the film sets out to satirize the constructed nature of Reality TV as a whole.
As a viewer of the movie it is admittedly a little dull to see the protagonists of Dawn and Jeff disappear from the movie in an instant. Still, this is a necessary disappointment of an ending is completely fitting to the movie. Any Series 7: The Contenders viewers should feel a little cheated, to replicate the manipulation of the imaginary viewers of The Contenders show.
Series 7: The Contender is a lot of fun to watch. Low budget but clever, in some ways it was way ahead of the curve on its mocking of Reality Television. Since its release the medium seems to have grown in more bizarre and manipulative ways over series such as Shipwrecked, Survivor and I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!
Perversely though, for a film looking ahead to where Television was starting to head, the movie has also has dated a quite a lot. The technology used to track the characters, ie black and white CCTV or giant Video Cassette-loaded camcorders, make it hard not to also view Series 7 as outdated.
Still, for a fun movie that turned out to be even more relevant than the first time I saw it over a decade ago, Series 7: The Contenders was a great watch. Especially for £1.
2-0 to the 99p(ish) Challenge!
Next Time something completely different. Get ready to brawl!
Thanks for reading,