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:: Series 7: The Contenders

As the rest of the world sat at home and waited with baited breath to see who, out of Andy, Sarah-Marie or the architect with the weird hairdo whose name always escapes me, would get kicked out of the Big Brother household, I went and saw my own piece of reality television on the big screen, “Series 7”, the new feature film by writer/ director Daniel Minahan (I Shot Andy Warhol).

Not being a fan of the reality television genre, I have never quite understood what made not only millions of Australian viewers, but also some of the most intelligent and discerning people I know, become fixated on watching 12 of the most uninteresting and self obsessed individuals play hacky sack and frolic in a swimming pool on the off chance that they might see a bit of testiness, back stabbing or girl on guy action (or guy on guy, girl on girl action- even better). Surely it is not because we want to be like them. They might have “the look” but when it boils down to it, that’s pretty much all they’ve got. Maybe it is because we want someone we don’t know to bitch about so we don’t have to bitch about the people in our own lives. Or maybe it is because they bitch about each other in front of a prime time national television audience that is clearly worse than our own petty indiscretions- isn’t it? What is it that makes people want to watch “real” people in a “real” house doing “real” things which is “really” just a show edited down by television network executives to half an hour of pettiness, bitchiness and occasional debauchery?

Series 7 takes those notions of reality and pushes them to the very divide between fiction and non-fiction, so at times you feel like it is teetering on the edge of May 2001 and insanity. Series 7 revolves around a reality TV show called The Contenders that is just like other reality television programs you watch on television today. A group of people who hold opposing beliefs and opinions are plucked from their ordinary lives to compete against each other. They are then confined to the limits of a small town and one by one they are eliminated. The only real difference between this and other reality TV shows you watch today is that The Contenders are each given guns and told to eliminate each other, literally.

Dawn (Brooke Smith) the reigning champion has made it through Series 5 and 6 and just needs to kill off 5 more people so that she can go back to her ordinary life with 15 kills under her belt and a much clearer notion of what it means to be alive and kicking. There is only one catch. Dawn is now 8 months pregnant and Series 7 sees her return to her hometown Newbury, the nutmeg capital of America, where she must face her past and the demons within it.

The others selected to make sure Dawn does not make it to her next birthday are: Lindsay (Merritt Weaver) the all American teenage sweetheart with all American parents and a boyfriend who is trying to get into her pants; Connie (Mary Louise Burke) a devout Christian nurse who believes God will see her through this trying time triumphantly; Tony (Michael Kaycheck) a husband and father whose life and marriage is already teetering on the edge of disaster; Franklin (Richard Venture) a neurotic older man who is more worried about the effects of electro magnetic radiation from the electricity tower outside his house than having to kill off 5 other people; and last but definitely not least, Jeff (Glen Fitzgerald) the sexually ambiguous, testicular cancer sufferer who also happens to be Dawn’s childhood sweetheart. Will Dawn reunite with her estranged family and get the support and encouragement she so sorely needs? Will she survive to see the birth of her child? Will she have the guts to kill the one and only person she ever truly loved? A Real show with real people in real danger… The Contenders.

Series 7, amid scenes bordering on hilarity and pure terror questions the very notions of reality; reality television, and why we watch it. It revels in the genre and all that it encompasses, including live action, pieces to camera, sneak previews, flash backs of past highlights and the ever classy re-enactment. Perhaps the most frightening thing about Series 7 is that it was actually intended as satire rather than a black comedy. Written 6 years ago in 1995, shows such as Survivor, Big Brother and Temptation Island were merely twinkles in the eyes of network executives and it was actually shows like The Real World and Cops that inspired the writing of the film. After years of development at the Sundance Writers Lab, Minahan first took the idea to television where he was asked, “Do you think you could make it more sexy and less violent, maybe more like Ally McBeal?” Thankfully he decided to “make the film first and sell out later” and what remains is a beautifully written and skilfully shot and directed film featuring some of the best performances you are likely to see on screen in a good while.

Minahan has said that the hardest part of making the film was to get the actors to act as if they weren’t acting. After experimenting with a variety of styles and watching countless videos of other reality TV shows, it dawned on them that most of the people in those shows are acting anyway and this is indeed where the film rings true. At times you completely forget you are not watching a television screen and that these are not real people, therein lies its brilliance.

So what is the future of reality television? Will it ever lead to something as drastic as Series 7? Minahan doesn’t think so, “My theory is that these shows are so forced and so artificial they will just go full circle……….people will actually start to create fiction again.” God forbid.

Screening at the Kino Cinemas, Cinema Nova, Cinema Europa