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'Series 7: The Contenders': An uncomfortable reflection on us

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Series 7: The Contenders

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"Series 7: The Contenders" is a blistering take on America's obsession with violence, guns, reality shows -- it's basically "The Hunger Games" meets Shirley Jackson's short story, The Lottery.

In a national television broadcast, five reality contestants are randomly determined by lottery and then given one goal: to kill each other. They get a pistol, but they can use whatever method necessary to execute each other. They have no choice in the matter, their only hope being that if they win three tours they go free.

In an uncomfortably prescient parallel to reality, the contest takes place in Newbury CT, just an hour away from Newtown, CT. It takes place there for a reason: it is Dawn Lagarto's (Brooke Smith) hometown, the current reigning champion who also happens to be eight-months pregnant and is on her third tour. The contenders include emergency room nurse Connie Trabucco (Marylouise Burke), ex-boyfriend of Lagarto Jeffrey Norman (Glenn Fitzgerald) who is dying of cancer, unemployed father Anthony Reilly (Michael Kaycheck), retired crank Franklin James (Richard Venture), and 18-year-old student Lindsay Berns (Merritt Wever).

There are no Hollywood deaths in "The Contenders." The violence is sloppy and ugly, with Reilly using Fhis daughter as a shield, Norman trying to kill himself, Trabucco abusing her access as a nurse to hospitalized contestants, and Berns pumped up by her parents as an overachiever with a gun. On the one hand, all of the contestants are tabloid headlines: the coward who puts a child at risk in a gun fight, the suicidal shooter, the angel of death nurse, the student who snaps. But each actor brings a poignancy to their roles as they shamelessly delude themselves into thinking their chosen tactic will work. In "The Contenders," not even suicide is a guarantee.

But there's one more character in the film that must be mentioned, and that's the reality show production itself. Throughout we get a nagging sense that something isn't right, and that meta-narrative grows as different characters suffer mysterious wounds (one contestant manages to somehow stab himself in the back) and others scream that the entire show is fixed. Reality, it seems, isn't all that real.

The conclusion reaches a climactic battle between the final two contestants who do their best to reveal the truth -- and are then co-opted by the show, who uses a reenactment to show what "actually happened." "The Contenders" asks you what's worse: a reality show about killing people to survive, or a stage series of executions. That's what makes it so brilliant and, in our 24/7 news culture, so terrifying.

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