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Series 7: The Contenders Review

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Catch back to back episodes of America’s highest rated reality-show Contenders. In a marathon 90 minute special six heavily armed contestants battle each other to the death to become the reigning champ and to win the chance to go in to Series Eight.

★★★★★

With the summer TV schedules upon us and the predictable slew of reality swill clogging up the airwaves, the time would appear to be perfect for an acid piss-take of the noxious small screen genre which telly execs no doubt gleefully refer to as a ‘phenomena’. And this is indeed such a welcome urea extraction project, albeit a slightly botched one.

American director Minahan (who, along with Mary Harron (American Psycho) worked on segments for the BBC’s The Late Show in the ‘80s) presents Series 7 as a ‘marathon’ replay of episodes of a reality show in which a group of strangers are compelled - it’s not made crystal clear how - to off each other on prime time, last punter standing winning a place on Series 8.

There are some blacky funny bits: the reigning champ is a nine months pregnant woman (outstandingly played by Smith) with violent mood swings and dietary cravings, who is called on to nix an ex-boyfriend - a terminal testicular cancer case who is suicidal (“Will Dawn be able to extinguish this old flame?” the gravelly voiceover crows). There’s a teenage girl contestant with pushy parents, and an impressed beau who gives her a Kevlar Vest as a token of his affection. And Minahan has great fun recreating the zappy graphics and jittery editing of pop TV.

But for satire like this to be effective, the concept needs to work - and this one needs a few more meetings. For a start, why don’t the reluctant contestants get together and refuse to play ball? And the general public seem remarkably uninterested in the chaos erupting around them: at one point a murderous nurse stalks through a hospital corridor followed by a film crew, and no-one bats an eyelid.

But a more important flaw is that it’s unclear exactly what Minahan’s trying to say. If it’s just ‘TV is crap’, then it’s hardly a revelation and this uncertainty, combined with no back-story or framing device, conspires to give the movie a sketchy, ill-conceived feel.

A sporadically amusing but overambitious first feature that would have worked better as a short. Still, it provides a respite from blockbuster fare and a much-needed poke in the eye for reality TV junkies.