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January 20, 2001 2:00 AM
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PARK CITY 2001 REVIEW: Coulda Been a Contender, Minahan's "Series 7"

PARK CITY 2001 REVIEW: Coulda Been a Contender, Minahan's "Series 7"

Andy Bailey



(indieWIRE/01.20.01) --The morbid appeal of the reality TV craze stems from its subjects as much as its subject matter -- bring on the freaks so we can feel better about our own freakishness. Bring together lurid types from the Jerry Springer School of Grace and Diction, tempt them with trashy televised conflicts -- eating rats to stay alive; extramarital temptings on a remote island -- and the compulsion to watch becomes nearly all consuming.


Writer-director Dan Minahan, who once toiled on the set of CourtTV, takes this formula to zany new heights in his Premiere selection "Series 7," a low-budget parody inspired by the first wave of reality TV hits (Cops, A Current Affair et. al) that stands up remarkably well alongside the latest wave of meta-game shows like Survivor, programs that hurl average citizens on one outward-bound adventure after another, pitting mousy American against svelte American against bossy, bloated American in a battle of wills that could lead to a cash prize or national ridicule. What the hell else would you expect from a generation bereft of any serious warfare in its lifetime?


"Series 7" envisions a lurid America at war with itself, in which average citizens are selected via national lottery to compete as "contenders" in a televised war of attrition, stalking and killing each other off until a lone champion survives. Starring "real people, in real danger, in a fight for their lives!" according to the canned narration that grates on your nerves after five minutes, "Series 7" starts off with a disclaimer followed by jerky hand-held footage of a massively pregnant Deadhead-type storming into a convenience store, pumping bullets into an unsuspecting customer, then shouting at the clerk, "Hey, do you have any bean dip?"


All in a day's work for Dawn, the reigning champion of America's highest-rated program called "The Contenders," an Earth Mama fighting for the future of her unborn child after nailing ten kills in two previous tours --in a flashback she's shown drowning a victim in a toilet. Dawn's latest mission brings her home to fictional Newbury, CT, where her targets include Tony, a coke-snorting asbestos-removal worker and father of two (Michael Kaycheck); Connie (Marylouise Burke), a religious-fanatic nurse prone to mercy killing; Franklin (Richard Venture), a trailer-trash old coot survivalist; Lindsay (Merritt Weaver), a virginal teenager with overprotective, hysterical parents; and Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), an ex-gay pacifist artist dying of testicular cancer who was once Dawn's high school sweetheart.


Dawn's return to the dreary Connecticut hamlet, after a fifteen-year absence, includes a tense on-camera encounter with her estranged family -- only her young niece offers any sort of support, gushing, "I saw you on TV! I love you!" -- and a hilarious reunion with a bedridden Jeff that launches the movie's priceless centerpiece, a video-cam flashback of Dawn and Jeff's teenage goth days, in which the star crossed lovers perform an interpretive courtship dance to Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart."


Minahan's premise couldn't get any more clever and his wicked dialogue (including Connie's deadpan avowal that "God never gives us more than we can handle -- I'm a survivor.") courses swiftly through an otherwise obnoxious production that runs out of gas somewhere between the televised freeway chase and the shootout at the local multiplex. Plot holes pop up like land mines -- how come Tony's allowed to spend time with his kids during the filming of the program while Dawn's forced to hand over her newborn after giving birth? If Connie's such an unrepentant angel of death -- she gives Tony a lethal injection in one scene -- why does she suddenly develop a conscience and help Dawn deliver her baby?


While there's no denying that "Series 7" couldn't have arrived at a more opportune time (Minahan wrote it three years ago, believe it or not, well before people like Richard Hatch slithered into the American spectrum), there's something ephemeral about its shelf life, exposing the central dilemma of the first generation of DV features: Reliant upon on gimmickry to cover up for shoddy production values and forced story lines, the contenders to the "Blair Witch" throne resort to cheap Notice Me! theatrics knowing well that no one will want to revisit these movies a second time around.


What the movie does have going for it, aside from its killer premise, is a surly, sensational central performance by Brooke Smith, that deliciously ordinary (and very underrated) American actress whose previous claim to fame was the Buffalo Bill pit victim in "The Silence of the Lambs" who used Precious the poodle as a bargaining chip for her freedom. You knew then not to mess with the chick. Smith flounces through "Series 7," mowing down everything in her path, screaming at the top of her lungs like some enraged female phys. ed. teacher -- anything to ensure a rosy future for her unborn child. It's a ferociously funny role that puts the other, more cartoonish characters to shame. Everyone else in "Series 7" is a predictable mess, the sort of tabloid losers we've grown accustomed to snorting at on Jerry Springer. It's hard to laugh at Connie or Tony or Jeff in the same way we did the dog lovers in Christopher Guest's "Best in Show," a far more successful parody, because Minahan's contenders seem like such obvious targets of derision.


"Series 7" collapses in a silly heap of plot twists before it reaches its ludicrous, over-the-top conclusion (a new riff on the tired post-modern irony of the "Scream" series, set in a multiplex cinema, of course), but Minahan's capacity for mordant wit and up-to-the minute media satire keeps the movie afloat. It's a survivor despite it all. While it's hard to tell whether Minahan's a gifted director, he's got a wicked sensibility that's worth keeping tabs on.

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