Hello, friend. Here’s the thing. This Saturday, when you watch HBO’s “7 Days in Hell,” featuring “Saturday Night Live” scene-breaker Andy Samberg and “Game of Thrones” bastard-who-knows-nothing Kit Harington, you might turn to your loved one/cat/couch cushion and say, “What the hell did I just watch?” And I am here to tell you, it’s okay. Because you are not alone.
First off, we can’t call it a TV show because it’s a standalone project. We can’t really call it a movie because it clocks in at 42 minutes. So let’s call it a “comedy special.” A comedy special, directed by Jake Szymanski, that debuts under the guise of being a presentation of HBO Sports.
HBO Sports is, of course, an esteemed brand when it comes to covering major athletic events, especially on a documentary level. Led by Bryant Gumble, it’s made icons out of the people who reveal the truth of what happens behind the sweat and tears and triumph on the field. Chris Collinsworth spent nearly two decades there before moving to Sunday Night Football, and nearly every great boxing analyst — from Harold Lederman to Larry Merchant — spent some time on the premium network covering some of the sport’s most iconic bouts.
There’s no Chris or Bryant here, though. Instead, after the HBO Sports logo comes narration by Jon Hamm, which introduces the story of a legendary 2001 Wimbledon tennis match between Aaron Williams (Samberg) and Charles Poole (Harington) that lasted seven days.
If you’re not familiar with the rules of tennis, you won’t really need much introduction. The only basic thing to know is that for a player to win a match at Wimbledon, they need to win by two games in the final set (for a scoring breakdown, see Wiki), which is how, if absurd circumstances and bad luck and maybe a vengeful Queen of England strike, you could be playing tennis for a week straight.
(Fact-check No. 1: In reality, the record for the longest tennis match ever is three days.)
(Fact-check No. 2: But a match lasting more than one day on the court isn’t unheard of, due to weather or other issues.)
(Fact-check No. 3: The actual winner of the 2001 Wimbledon men’s competition was Croatia’s Goran Ivanišević.)
(Fact-check No. 4: This is an absurdist comedy, and none of the above actually matters.)
Both Samberg and Harington, as the competitors, are surrounded by some of the people you might expect to be in a ridiculous mockumentary-style comedy — Fred Armison, Lena Dunham, Will Forte — as well as some you wouldn’t, like June Squib, David Copperfield and a bunch of famous tennis pros including John McEnroe and Serena Williams. According to “7 Days in Hell,” Aaron Williams is Serena Williams’ adoptive brother, which in both premise and execution is one of the best jokes of the hour. But there’s also Michael Sheen, who might have stolen the show for me as a very… engaged British talk show host who interviews Charles about his tennis career. Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that Squib plays Queen Elizabeth II, who is displeased.
Weirdly, in a cast of comedy greats like the above, Harington is the stand-out. It helps that Charles is so well-drawn and specific, but he throws himself into the role with such enthusiasm and physicality that he’s not only the most likable character of the bunch, but maybe the most emotionally affecting. It’s always annoying when a good drama actor who’s also good-looking reveals secret comedy chops. It’s just not fair.
Samberg, meanwhile, uses muscles that have become well-honed over 10 years in professional comedy, but that doesn’t make his antics any less enjoyable. Aaron, as a character, has enough definition for Samberg’s strengths to stand out. He doesn’t let the wig and costumes do all the work for him, this time, and it’s welcome.
“7 Days in Hell” is written by Murray Miller, whose credits on animated comedies like “King of the Hill” and “American Dad!” show here. Not only do some of the stunts border on cartoonish, but you can sense his apparent liberation from a standards and practices department in some of the more explicit moments. (I was not expecting to see so much male genitalia, and that’s all I’m gonna say.)
But it somehow works. It’s a thin premise — a ridiculous one even — and if it didn’t occupy this weird space of “comedy special,” if it tried to stretch things out to be feature-length or create an ongoing series around the idea, it probably wouldn’t work. Fortunately, it’s a perfect six-inch sub of comedy; not a full meal, maybe, but just the right amount, especially for something clearly defined as stand-alone.
“7 Days in Hell” isn’t the only comedy/sports project coming from HBO in the following months. Perhaps the only reason the quasi-ubiquitous Will Ferrell isn’t in this is because he already filmed a baseball special for the network, “Ferrell Takes the Field,” which is set to premiere in September. But after “7 Days in Hell,” it’s exciting to see what might come next from this weird genre/format hybrid. There’s a lot of talk about “brands” in entertainment, and major corporations being concerned about tarnishing them. But for those seeking the unexpected, this sort of crossover is one of the best things to happen yet.
“7 Days in Hell” premieres Saturday at 10pm on HBO.