HBO is probably best known for its risk-taking original programming. They specialize in producing and airing dense, nuanced shows that push the boundaries of what’s acceptable on television. However, it also has a reputation for its grim, dour series’ that fetishize gloominess and privilege brooding moodiness over anything resembling joy. Well, if you want an example of an HBO production that bucks that trend, look no further than “7 Days In Hell,” the absurd new mockumentary about a week-long tennis match between Aaron Williams (Andy Samberg), the bad-boy adopted sibling of Serena and Venus Williams, and Charles Poole (Kit Harington of “Game of Thrones” fame, the dim-witted prodigy who wants to impress his mother and the Queen of England. But that description doesn’t do the TV movie justice. It’s an inspired bit of lunacy that’s partly a send-up of the ESPN sports documentary series “30 For 30” and partly just a dive into an absurdist well where anything goes. There are inspired celebrity cameos (John McEnroe playing himself comes close to stealing the entire show), insane tangents into the brief history of Swedish courtroom sketches, extreme nudity, and some of the funniest performances you’ll see this year (Michael Sheen deserves some kind of special award for his role as the lecherous, chain-smoking Caspian Wint, the host of the talk show “Good Sport”). The best thing “7 Days In Hell” has going for it is brevity (it’s only 42 minutes long) as it ends just before it starts to drag, but despite its short running time, it’s one of the silliest, raunchiest, and uproarious things you’ll see on television this year.
Reviews of “7 Days In Hell”
Alex McCown, The A.V. Club
“7 Days In Hell” purports to cover a legendary week-long tennis match between two greats of the sport. In typical “30 For 30″ style, complete with somber voice-over narration (from a deadpan Jon Hamm), the mock doc tells the story of Aaron Williams (Samberg) and Charles Poole (“Game Of Thrones’” Kit Harington), two world-class players who eventually meet head-on in what turns out to be the world’s longest game of tennis. Williams, the adopted sibling of Serena and Venus Williams, is the disgraced bad boy who returns to the court for one last shot at glory. Poole is the simpleminded idiot who has only ever known tennis, a naïf trying to win Wimbledon for the glory of England (and to ensure his mother doesn’t make good on her threat to stop loving him if he loses). A parade of absurd talking heads provides color commentary on the unfolding lunacy, and at one point, a threesome takes place on court in the middle of Wimbledon. It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn there’s not much actual tennis going on in this little narrative.
Linda Holmes, NPR
This is the kind of comedy special — at an efficient 42 minutes — that stays afloat using the strategy people use if they’re racing across a series of floating buoys: you move fast, you don’t stop long enough to sink, and you don’t try to do it for too long. Near the end, “7 Days” starts to drag just a little, but they don’t try to make the bit more than it is — they don’t try to make it a feature film or build it into a series. It’s a goofy, exuberantly dirty little one-off, where Samberg and Lena Dunham and Fred Armisen and a lot of other people wear very silly wigs and there is an imposing amount of nudity (mostly male, mostly frontal, and, health concerns cause me to hope, some percentage prosthetic). There’s so much going on in web comedy that’s breaking up the expectation that everything will be (1) a sitcom, (2) a stand-up special or (3) a sketch show that it’s good to see things like this that suggest that television can absorb some of that formal experimentation and run something like this that, a few years ago, would have seemed like a much more unlikely project than it does today.
Shane Ryan, Paste Magazine
Throughout the absurdities and the provocations, “7 Days in Hell” never loses its intelligence, and importantly, it adheres closely to documentary techniques with an exquisite attention to detail that proves HBO spent real money on the project. When it deviates, it’s never for long, and the miracle of this show is that it doesn’t pander or let its viewers off the hook with an ill-timed wink. After Williams and Poole kill each other on the seventh day of their match — yes, they literally hit each other with a racket at the same moment, leading to an instant double death — the film closes with archival footage of Poole acknowledging, in younger days, that William was his favorite player. It’s an oddly sad little vignette, and oddly perfect for a mockumentary that doesn’t so much subvert our expectations as ignore them entirely. This, it turns out, is the far braver act.
Chris Cabin, Collider
One of the simpler joys of this minor delight is the hash of footage types that Szymanski utilizes, varying from photos, both real and photoshopped, to low-res sports footage from the 1990s, to the digital, high-res talking-head interviews that litter the film. The assemblage beautifully mimics the editing rhythm and the story structure that has become commonplace in television sports documentaries, especially those produced by HBO Sports and ESPN’s “30 for 30” Series. This allows the film to keep a steady visual tempo in the editing, and gives the filmmakers plenty of room to fit in cameos from a myriad of sports and comedy stars, ranging from Serena Williams, playing Aaron’s fictional adoptive sister, to Will Forte’s brilliantly crass sports historian. Through these types of subjects, including Samberg and Harrington’s characters, not to mention Jon Hamm’s narration, Szymanski paints a ludicrous, gut-busting portrait of absurd competition, which admittedly barely grazes the inherent moral contradictions and indulgent, capitalistic bent that rules all sports essentially.
Mary McNamara, The L.A. Times
The film, like the very best satire, often seems more doc than mock — Williams, Evert and especially McEnroe remain deliciously straight-faced as they describe the fictional characters and situations. If Samberg and Miller more than occasionally veer “hard-R” for male genitalia and “monarch profanity” just for the sake of it, they quickly veer back. The most absurd moments (Copperfield appearing on Charles’ shoulders, Aaron snorting coke off his tennis racket) are smart riffs on pop culture and our endless need for certain kinds of story lines, in and out of sports.
Jason Bailey, Flavorwire
But if the parodies of nonfiction filmmaking land, the film could use a bit more bite in its approach to sports. Perhaps due to the participating parties, it never quite feels like they’re going at that subject with the bite they could (and that it deserves); even a broad farce like “Talladega Nights” scored some points on commercialization, a juicy target that only gets a passing shot here, albeit a funny one, with Lena Dunham as the Jordache executive who puts Williams in a white denim outfit for his comeback. The few jabs they take at tennis — like sportscaster Jim Lampley’s pronouncement that “he was a tennis player. Who cares?” — are welcome, and remind us that something like “This Is Spinal Tap” (the gold standard for this kind of thing) wasn’t afraid of stepping on some toes. “7 Days in Hell” is a funny diversion, with some great moments. But like so many of the “SNL” sketches it resembles, it’s too chummy with its targets to punch as hard as it should.
Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com
Also far from perfect but pretty good is HBO’s “7 Days in Hell,” a true oddity that knows to end just when it’s about to get annoying. This 41-minute sports doc spoof plays like Andy Samberg’s take on ESPN’s excellent “30 For 30” series. It’s almost like a script for an “SNL” sketch that just got out of control in terms of length. Samberg gathered a number of his talented friends and the result is completely in line with his Lonely Island persona of an awkward dude-bro who may rely a bit too often on gross-out jokes but also has a tendency to make his dumb brand of humor work through the sheer force of his comic timing.
Kevin Jagernauth, The Playlist
However, “7 Days In Hell” is largely a string of punchlines without much set up. It’s a hodgepodge mix of dick jokes, sex jokes, drug jokes, and occasionally, sports jokes, that often lack focus or direction. Aaron Williams is crazy, Charles Poole is painfully reserved and dumb, and there isn’t much in the way of dynamics. But it doesn’t have to be this way. “Anchorman,” for example, has similarly one-dimensional characters, but it works because the movie gives them space to play against each other, mocks their behavior, all while slightly sending up the news team community. By comparison, “7 Days In Hell” simply leans on raunchier humor and let’s it do most of the heavy lifting, while Samberg and Harington interact very little.