Screen Gems

It took a gay director to make a thriller this crazy…and this funny

Series 7: The Contenders

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Subversive: Series 7

As director Daniel Minahan continues his moment in the sun with the success of the series Halston, we think it best to take a look back at another one of his biggest artistic triumphs. Series 7: The Contenders debuted in 2001 to little fanfare, probably because audiences at the time didn’t quite understand its premise, or its flavor of satire.

My, how time changes things.

Series 7 uses the faux-documentary style to tell the story of a fictional reality show called The Contenders. Contestants on the show are chosen at random to compete in a televised battle to the death; the last contestant alive is declared the winner, and goes on to compete in the next season of the show. If someone wins three seasons in a row, he gets his freedom. The show also outfits each contender with an explosive device that detonates should he try and escape.

The film catches up with reigning champ Dawn Lagarto (Brooke Smith, The Silence of the Lambs), a woman eight months pregnant and on the verge of finally freeing herself from the game. She’s horrified to learn that her high school boyfriend Jeffrey (Glenn Fitzgerald) gets chosen as one of her fellow competitors, despite his dying of testicular cancer. As the game progresses, Jeffrey and Dawn rekindle their friendship, and he agrees to let Dawn euthanize him because of his cancer. Meanwhile, the other players begin offing each other and come for Dawn and Jeffrey.

Series 7 (and Minahan) foresaw the world of reality TV of the early 2000s and the grotesquery that would come along with it. Despite the absurd, murderous premise, it’s not hard to imagine contestants on Survivor, Big Brother, or American Idol offing each other in the name of ratings. For that matter, the film also predicts the people-in-need freak shows of Breaking Bonaduce, The Two Coreys, Lindsay or any other number of reality shows that followed troubled individuals who would have been better served by a trip to rehab than a television audience.

The movie also benefits from the affecting performances of Fitzerald and, in particular, Smith. She’s one of the great character actresses working today, and Series 7 gives her the kind of role she deserves. A terrific supporting cast helps as well, including a very young Merritt Weaver as a hilarious, bloodthirsty high schooler.

Series 7 makes a bold, subversive, personal statement. If a Marvel or Star Wars movie had this level of artistic will and wicked humor, it would cause a frenzy. As it was, the movie arrived just a bit ahead of the curve. 20 years later, it plays even better than when it originally premiered and still retains all its sharp observations about reality TV and consumerist culture.

Series 7: The Contenders predicted what fans of Halston have just now come to realize: Daniel Minahan is one Hell of an artist.

Streams on YouTube.