Daniel Minahan’s debut feature raises an interesting existential question. If we call a fictional documentary–“This Is Spinal Tap,” “Waiting for Guffman” or “Best in Show,” for example–a mockumentary, what do we call a picture like this, which is a satirical takeoff on one of those so- called “reality” shows so prevalent on the tube nowadays? “Mockreality” certainly doesn’t sound right from an ontological perspective.
But we can leave that issue to philosophers and semanticists. Whatever you care to call “Series 7,” you’d have to concede that USA Films is doing the canny thing by releasing it in the middle of “Survivor II” fever. (The other imitative “reality” shows have pretty much bombed, to be sure, but the “Survivor” franchise seems to have lost very little steam.) The movie’s structured as a marathon broadcast, replete with breathless inserts from an announcer, of the latest installment in a “reality” series in which a gaggle of contestants try to kill one another off until only one remains. (The rules of the game are deliberately kept vague.) This premise isn’t exactly new: it’s a variant of that employed in Elio Petri’s “The Tenth Victim” (1965), a futuristic comedy in which Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress were pitted against each other in a government-sanctioned contest of hunter and hunted which, in its final stages, became enmeshed with commentary on commercialization and television too. A gaudy piece of mid-sixties Eurotrash, “Victim” wasn’t actually a very good film, but it became a cult hit, and spawned a pretend-assassination game on college campuses which was generally called “Gotcha.” That, in turn, served as the title of another picture, a pallid 1985 comedy-thriller with Anthony Edwards and Linda Fiorentino. Still, both “Victim” and “Gotcha” were, structurally, conventional narratives; “Series 7,” on the other hand, is arranged like a 90-minute version of a TV show (not so much “Survivor,” which moves at a snail’s pace by comparison, but instead something like the overwrought “Cops”), with supposedly “caught-on-the-fly” episodes interspersed with snippets of interviews, connective explanations from the announcer, and even deliberately awful “recreations”–all regularly interrupted by frantically-paced network promos that bludgeon the audience with hype about the show.
It has to be said that Minahan has succeeded admirably in capturing the tone of technical cheesiness and exploitative smarminess that characterizes “reality” TV, not only in the form of series like “Cops” but vulgar talk shows, too. That the picture seems so authentically crummy is part of the gag, of course, and at first you smile in recognition at it; but it has to be admitted that the effect pales as it goes on for nearly ninety minutes. Minahan apparently recognized that the premise was too frail to support a feature without considerable embellishment, and so he’s added touches to the script that would be outrageous even in the context of the genre. The current champ on the show, for instance, is not only a straight-talking, belligerant broad named Dawn (Brooke Smith), but she’s also ostentatiously pregnant (though unmarried), so that the viewer has in the back of his mind that at a crucial moment we can expect her to give birth. But that’s not enough: another of the contestants is a creepy nurse (Marylouise Baker) who proves surprisingly adept at using all sorts of instruments of death (while, of course, still possessing the skill to deliver a baby), and a third (Glenn Fitzgerald) just happens to be Dawn’s old highschool boyfriend, now married and dying of terminal cancer! The possibilities for garish melodrama among this trio are obvious (perhaps too obvious, in fact). The remaining contestants, unfortunately, aren’t nearly so intriguing (and are given far less screen time): there’s Tony (Michael Kaycheck), a family man in desperate financial straits; Franklin (Richard Venture), a paranoid conspiracy theorist; and Lindsay (Merritt Wever), a sweet-looking ingenue who’s urged on in her murderous venture by overprotective parents. These three aren’t all that interesting, to be perfectly honest, although the latter two are involved in a particularly grisly confrontation which is clearly intended to turn the laughter in a viewer’s throat to a gasp instead. That the shift doesn’t quite work as intended is symptomatic of the entire picture’s very limited achievement. The whole concept has a rather precious, sophomorically clever feel about it which becomes increasingly grating over the long haul. The cast–especially Smith and Burke, first-rate talents who bring a lot more to their cardboard characters that can have existed on the page–participate energetically, but ultimately “Series 7” becomes a cinematic stunt that overstays its welcome, a joke that runs out of gas before the punchline arrives. It has its momentary pleasures, to be sure–the sight of Baker squeaking down a hospital corridor in her sensible shoes, headed to give a rival a decisive injection, is memorable–but as a whole it’s just too ragged and overextended to win a prize. It does indicate, however, that Minahan is a promising fellow whose future films will be worth watching for.