Under pressure and racking her brains for a ratings winner, American Broadcast Network President Katy Courbet (Mendes) comes up with an idea for a hit show - six contestants will play Russian roulette, and one will die. But will she be able to air it?
A spiritual successor to 1976’s Network, this is an all too plausible look at the logical next step for reality TV.
In a world where people take snake baths on Fear Factor, live on grubs in I’m A Celebrity… and have sex on camera in Big Brother, it requires no great leap of imagination to envisage a show where contestants actually risk death. The only fault in this satire is that it doesn’t go far enough.
A documentary crew, led by filmmaker Rex (David Krumholtz), follows network president Katy Courbet (Eva Mendes) as she searches for the big idea that will put her channel ahead. She hits on a televised game of Russian roulette, merrily brushing aside moral and practical objections in the certainty that it will be a ratings monster, and sweeping away objections with the carrot-and-stick of a charm offensive and cut-throat ruthlessness.
It’s a solid performance from Mendes, but the script doesn’t give her much beyond a familiar ball-breaking TV executive until the final act. There are only hints of the pressure on Courbet to deliver a hit, and nary a glimmer of doubt behind her plans. Krumholtz does better with less, his high-minded documentarian slowly succumbing to the siren call of TV, his intellect seduced by the challenge of sneaking this concept into the public eye. The gimmick that we are watching his film is only moderately successful - neither the man he was nor the man he becomes would allow us to see this edit - and really reflects director Bill Guttentag’s documentary background more than his character’s.
What is effective is the mix of reality telly stereotypes, like stripper Jewel (Katie Cassidy), earnest Byron (Rob Brown) and the laughably sympathetic Rick (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a God-fearing Midwesterner who risks losing the family farm after paying for his son’s medical bills. The cleverest writing comes as Courbet edits each contestant’s biography (suggesting that a mariachi band will cancel out the alienating factor of homosexuality for Middle America), but the climax pulls its punches. There is blood, but no examination of the show’s consequences, nor the effect it has on its participants. And one can’t help worrying that somebody’s going to take the idea seriously.
Smart, incisive, but not as sharp as it should have been. With a subject this ripe for evisceration, its a pity to let it off with flesh wounds.