Series 7: The Contenders (2001)

Rating: B-

Dir: Daniel Minahan
Star: Brooke Smith, Glen Fitzgerald, Mary Louise Burke, Will Arnett

The events of 9/11 seemed to stem the flood of “reality TV” shows on television, at least temporarily, but this film still represents a jarring vision of where it all might be leading. It’s structured as three episodes of The Contenders, a TV show that pits six individuals – five selected at apparent random, and the previous winner – against each other, in a duel to the death around their town. Anything goes; it’s simply last man – or woman – standing. The depiction is spot-on; if they ever did the show, this is exactly what it would look like, and the unsung hero of the movie is the Narrator (Arnett), whose dry voice-overs give the film much of its sting.

It would also probably work better on actual TV, given a structure which includes advert breaks; maybe they should have filmed fake ads? There’s also a lack of any background to lend plausability, and no explanation for why the killing of innocent civilians is permitted – it might have made more sense to have the participants volunteering, for cash or other reasons. The artificially-created drama (the reigning champ is brought back to her home town, with her first love one of those she must kill. Oh, and she’s nine months pregnant!) is a pointed stab at the manipulative nature of television, and the final episode makes for powerful viewing. If you never quite forget it’s a movie, it’s still better than most things you’ll see on TV.