Because the world is always a mess, we’ve decided to look back at dystopic works and examine why they remain so potent no matter how many years have passed between their creation and now. This week’s installment is on Daniel Minahan’s Series 7: The Contenders and its warning that the media’s commodification of white rage and violent opposition went tragically unheeded in 2001.
Roger Ebert probably didn’t think he was being overly optimistic when he panned Series 7: The Contenders by stating it “has one joke and tells it too often for too long.” At the time the film was made in 2001, reality TV wasn’t yet omnipresent, with Survivor only a year old and The Briefcase but a glimmer in some network exec’s eye. More importantly, the pop culture landscape certainly hadn’t gotten to the point where reality tv would help propel a deranged con man into the presidency.
To Ebert and others, Series 7 likely seemed overly bleak and hyperbolic, a desperate, seemingly overblown warning about the looming commodification of hate and the pending tyranny of the idiot masses that would result from indulging in that for too long. Maybe Ebert was right in his time to condemn the film for its obsessive focus on the violent dumbing down of society but with hindsight, Series 7 looks like one of those works we should have taken more seriously, a pre-dystopic work for a nation that was closer to the end of its great political experiment than anyone else would have thought.
Structured as a marathon session of reruns of a reality program called “The Contenders,” Series 7 deviates from similar works that preceded it, like The Running Man, by removing the campiness and stripping away all cinematic pretenses to instead hold a mirror up to the reality tv genre and let the format shoot itself. “The Contenders” itself is an extreme concept, one where real people are forced to track down, taunt and murder one another in order to survive. But it’s filmed and presented in a way that’s startling in its accuracy, with its jump cuts, confessionals, motion graphics and snarky commentary (courtesy of Will Arnett) making it seem less gladiatorial and more like the junk basic cable programs we obsess over.
The star of the titular series seven of “The Contenders,” and our sort of protagonist, is Dawn Lagarto (Brooke Smith), an eight months pregnant woman who has become the show’s greatest star after finishing two “tours” and murdering 10 other contestants. Dawn’s third tour finds her sent back to her hometown of Newbury, Connecticut, facing off against five other residents, including her former flame Jeffrey Norman (Glenn Fitzgerald), a starving artist who just so happens to be suffering from testicular cancer. In true reality TV fashion, “The Contenders” hinges on crafty coincidences, whether it’s the lottery system used to choose contestants miraculously pulling up Jeff’s number, or the “random” decision that forces Dawn to compete in her long abandoned hometown.
Dawn herself is a perfect central character for a film of this nature, a dead-on interpretation of the now standard “person you love to hate” reality TV trope. Set up against Connie, a disturbing, emotionally detached ER nurse who views herself as morally superior to the rest of the contenders and may or may not already be an “angel of death,” Dawn is nonetheless, to quote Scott Tobias, “an unapologetic aggressor in the game, having long-since resolved that her survival is paramount and the others must be killed.” Series 7, then, really succeeds in how effectively it portrays Dawn, never shying away from depicting her as that “unapologetic aggressor,” while making it clear that she’s equally a victim here, at the mercy of ratings and ad dollars. It’s telling that her other competitors fall along reality TV tropes as well, like the over prepared go-getting teenager Lindsay (Merritt Weaver), broke down unemployed family man Tony (Michael Kaycheck) and wild card retiree Franklin (Richard Venture). Jeff, as both love interest and resident sad sack, even serves as the kind of narrative instigator and rising star reality TV producers love.
All of these elements serve to make Series 7 a film that remains timeless, acting as both queasy predictor of future trends (it’s terrifying to watch Series 7 now from my home in Austin, after the Texas state government in its infinite wisdom has decided to make it legal to not only carry guns on school campuses but also goddamn swords) and exact replica of reality programming. But these traits also served to scare audiences away, particularly at a time where reality television was still a relative novelty and the honeymoon with the American public hadn’t quite ended. Series 7 hints that Survivor fails at the promise of its own title and that audiences are not-so-secretly hoping for real survival, which is made all the clearer when you consider the fact that director-writer Daniel Minahan originally pitched the film as a fake reality show, only to have it rejected for not being “sexy” enough.
Some critics, including the aforementioned Tobias in his reexamination of the film, took it to task for not having more beneath its surface, but even that misses the point. Minahan leaves much of the narrative open ended, never explaining, for instance, why the government allows this show to happen. But there are plenty of reasons for Minahan to have left those questions unanswered, and the mystery suits the format as well. The show has its own clear rules, like any good reality TV program of this nature would have, but there are also indications within the narrative that the entire enterprise is a complete fabrication, something that is most explicitly laid out in a scene where Franklin starts to spout off conspiracy theory before being gunned down. Likewise, the film’s Sweeps Week finale provides a lot of evidence to support what Franklin appeared to be saying in his final moments.
Similarly, criticisms like Ebert’s “one joke” remark are laughably off base if not understandable. Series 7 bravely sticks to its guns and refuses to deviate from its mock-rerun format, never giving context to what else is happening in the world outside “The Contenders.” The complaint that the film is just one joke is, of course, accurate, but the efficiency of its satire relies on that; to break from it would be to betray the concept. Minahan isn’t interested in improving the reality TV format, or glossing it up in the name of art. His interest is in holding a magnifying glass up to what would become the dominant television format of the 21st century in order to ask if this was what we really wanted.
By rejecting the movie in droves, audiences quite clearly appeared to be saying “YES!” and Minahan has subsequently mostly stayed away from film, ironically developing an in-demand career as a director of the kind of television programming that’s caused critics to perceive the post-Survivor era as a renaissance of narrative television, with credits on Game of Thrones, Six Feet Under and Deadwood. Did Minahan make that career shift because audiences weren’t interested in his prognosis? Or because he was right?
What’s perhaps most chilling 16 years after 2001 and everything that landmark year ushered in is how the film perfectly captures media’s desperate need to stoke white rage and the ultimate, violent repercussions of that. Thinkpieces about the forgotten poor white America weren’t omnipresent in 2001 but in 2017 we’re drowning in them, making Series 7’s refutation of that sympathy all the more vital. As Connie puts it early on:
“I’ve learned to have a lot of empathy rather than sympathy. Sympathy can send you down the tubes real fast. You have to detach yourself from anything that’s ugly, or you can’t deal with it.”
Connie herself isn’t designed as a sympathetic character, even though she is in many ways simultaneously the most aware and conflicted character in the film, so this statement functions as meta-commentary on the media’s constant attempts to create sympathetic characters out of damaged people, particularly white murderers and terrorists (not coincidentally, every single “Contender” in the show is poor and white and half of them are desperate for medical coverage of some kind). Contrast that with a line from Dawn shortly after:
“Sometimes it’s just like you’re so angry and so confused and all you can think to do is go out and kill somebody. Like that’s the only way you’re going to feel safe again.”
If you only give Series 7 a cursory glance, it may seem like the film is presenting Dawn as sympathetic, but in actuality it’s the show within the film that’s doing that, while the film breaks down the danger of that technique. Dawn is rewarded when she lashes out and indulges in rage and the show succeeds based on how well it walks that line between making viewers sympathize with Dawn while also making it clear how volatile and dangerous she and her competitors are, nevermind the fact that the media’s enablement and whitewashing of their violence is what makes them so dangerous.
One of the clearest examples of this is when Tony flees Dawn rather than fight her, resulting in a car chase that prompts Arnett’s narrator to shift from gleefully describing the action to condemning Tony for “putting his child and others at risk,” labeling him a “vicious coward.” But Tony wouldn’t have taken this extreme action if he and Dawn hadn’t been forced into this psychotic competition. And that’s more or less the same thing we’re experiencing in our society, as the media attempts to sympathize with the new fascists while egging on their opponents so they can depict “both sides” as dangerous and violent, all in pursuit of more viewers, more ad revenue, more unrest.
Series 7 doesn’t want viewers to forgive the characters, or sympathize with them, but instead to empathize with their situations and see how we’re all being played for the gain of a wealthy minority. This is likely also why the film stays away from giving any real details on the dystopia Series 7 is set in, requiring you to instead fill in the gaps with details from our actual reality. The message is clear: this isn’t happening in some Mad Max-esque wasteland or The Running Man’s vaguely sci-fi future, but in essentially our present. There’s little difference between the fictional audience tuning in for a marathon of “The Contenders” and ourselves as we feverishly refresh social media posts about riots and standoffs between opposing protest groups.
Ever since the rise of Trump there’s been a lot of talk from people with immature notions of free speech about the necessity of “showing” shocking, vile imagery to remind people what’s going on in the world, but in most cases that comes down to someone like Howard Chaykin just wanting an excuse to get away with portraying hate crimes. Series 7: The Contenders works as art because it’s less interested in that kind of salacious, indulgent imagery than it is in breaking down the ways poor and middle class white people are encouraged to participate in explosive conflict with the rest of society by the upper classes and the danger of their willingness to give in to these violent impulses in the hope of getting rich and/or famous. That the film didn’t catch on isn’t surprising nor is it surprising that in the time since its release, we’ve only gotten closer to living out the nightmare it depicts.
Portions of this essay originally ran in a separate piece at Spectrum Culture.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover