As it turns out, I’m part of the problem.
Well, not at first. There was a long time there where I turned my nose up at the very notion of reality TV. I was above it, see. I only watched scripted stuff; reality was a cultural millstone dragging our society into the barbarous muck. I was also a snob, which you could have probably figured out when I used the phrases “cultural millstone” and “barbarous muck.” This was the case until a friend of mine abruptly vanished for a couple months. No one knew where he was. He just stopped showing up to group gatherings. Just as suddenly he reappeared and we all found out where he’d been: filming the fourteenth season of Survivor.
Out of a grudging sense of obligation bolstered by the fact that we occasionally pass as brothers, I watched the show. And I was hooked. I don’t know what it is about taking starving and sleep-deprived people and forcing them to participate in athletic events and Machiavellian scheming that’s so goddamn entertaining to me. Since that season (which most Survivor fans will tell you was one of the all-time worst due to an ill-advised haves/have nots dynamic), I have been a guiltily loyal fan of the reality TV juggernaut. It irrevocably knocked me off my obnoxious post as self-appointed Judge Judy and Executioner of what makes television worth watching. So, when someone complains that reality TV is a cultural millstone dragging society into the barbarous muck, well, I’m one of the dicks pulling that thing down.
Mocking reality TV, even when Survivor was just a rough outline on some of Jackie Treehorn’s stationery, was nothing new. People were doing it long before the generally-accepted birth of the genre with MTV’s The Real World. Stephen King’s The Running Man was published in 1982, and though it’s a far cry from Governor Schwarzenegger’s blockbuster, it was a clear warning against the kind of normalized voyeurism and the accompanying decline in empathy reality television has created in the culture. Today’s movie, Series 7: The Contenders, was written and shopped long before Survivor, though the points it makes feel entirely modern.
Series 7: The Contenders exists in the universe of the film as an airing of a marathon of the seventh season (“series” is British for season, which is a little confusing since the film takes place in Connecticut, but whatever) of the popular reality TV program The Contenders. This show takes six people chosen randomly by lottery and forces them into a to-the-death game of cat and mouse. Because the film exists as a fictional piece of media, it is light on the exposition, never going into detail on why a television show like this would exist or would have the sort of power to arm citizens for the purpose of televised premeditated murder. The show has an undeniably powerful place in the culture, shown when a contender even passes through security unmolested when she shows off her microphone rig and says, “It’s okay, I’m a contender.”
The dialogue makes references to the idea that the contenders entered the lottery of their own free will. Why would anyone do this? This becomes an even bigger question when the show introduces the contenders, who include heavily-pregnant killing machine Dawn (the fantastic Brooke Smith, who you remember rubbing the lotion on its skin from Silence of the Lambs), father-of-three Tony, and teenaged Lindsay (a larval Merritt Wever). Again, no one ever comes out and says what the rules are, rather couching everything in the reasons they signed on. Based on the sketchy information, it seems like entering the lottery offers some financial rewards, which entice laid-off Tony and soon-to-be single mom Dawn. Additionally, Dawn is the reigning champion, having already survived two series, and if she lives through one more, she gets to go free. As a bit of a “celebration,” this season of the show takes place in her hometown which she left fifteen years ago after getting an abortion.
There is some recap of Dawn’s previous appearances, shot over interviewers with the present crop of contenders. Religious nurse Connie is judgmental, while Tony is dismissive and insulting. The film admirably shows Dawn murdering people in particularly brutal ways, not allowing her the dodge so often used in stories like these (most notably in The Hunger Games) in which the heroine never has to do anything bad. No, Dawn has plainly become a monster through her two tours on The Contenders. And she’s our protagonist.
Writer/director Daniel Minahan, known for directing episodes of every HBO show you like, wisely juxtaposes Dawn’s deadliness with her pregnancy. Not only is Dawn pregnant, she’s about five minutes from delivery. This is sometimes used for laughs, but mostly it’s about taking an obvious avatar of comforting femininity and turning her into a remorseless murder machine. In fact, it is Dawn’s status as a mother that draws the most disgust. Her abortion makes her an outcast at home, and it’s only her celebrity (as a murderer) that prompts her niece to a declaration of love. The interviews are shot through with both text and subtext, stating that Connie and Tony wouldn’t dislike Dawn quite so much if she wasn’t subverting the role culture has demanded she take.
The film is preoccupied with the roles of women, feminizing or marginalizing the male contenders. Tony is emasculated by his layoff (and the later revelation that none of the three kids are his, meaning his wife has been cheating on him for at least the baby), Franklin is an old man who barely gets any screentime (although what he has counts among the most effective in the film), and cancer patient Jeff has been literally castrated in the course of his treatment. The women are far more important at driving the narrative. Other than champion Dawn, there’s Lindsay, an overachieving teenager. Her reason for signing seems like it might be rebellion or else a misguided bid for parental approval from her overbearing father. Lest we give him too much power, Lindsay promptly stabs him in the arm to show who’s boss (we don’t need Carol Clover to interpret that one). Connie, a creepily religious nurse who implies that she’s killed a patient here and there, goes from being horrified by the deeds of others into a cold-blooded assassin. Even damaged Dawn displays more humanity than Connie, when she attempts to warn Lindsay of immanent bludgeoning death.
The thrust of the plot concerns itself with the shared past of Dawn and Jeff. It’s pretty easy to guess in the broad strokes, but far more interesting are the implications that no one ever expresses on camera. The idea that for Dawn’s final tour on The Contenders, the lottery just happened to select her ex-gay ex? I don’t buy it. The game is rigged, and plays in the same queasy territory as the loved ones episodes of Survivor, in which starving and exhausted people just crumble at the sight of the same people who annoy them in their day-to-day existences.
The strongest recommendation from this film hit my twitter after I posted that I would be reviewing it. I got a tweet from Anthony, my Survivor pal. “One of my faves,” he said about Series 7, “and kinda close to what it feels like.”
For more about survival techniques, check out this episode of the podcast.