The outer limits of reality TV are explored with morbid enthusiasm in "Series 7," in which all but one of the contestants die after 15 minutes of fame. Expertly mimicking the style of reality TV, feature is effectively satiric. Release will see its B.O. fate determined by the willingness of reality fans to pay for a heightened version of what they crave on the tube.

The presumed outer limits of reality TV are explored with morbid enthusiasm in “Series 7,” in which all but one of the contestants die after their 15 minutes of fame. Expertly mimicking the prevailing style of reality television, Daniel Minahan’s debut feature is effectively satiric while still developing and sustaining a rooting interest in its invented story over the course of a smart, short running time. Having had its opening date moved back two months from the eve of the debut of the new “Survivor” season, USA Films release will see its B.O. fate determined by the willingness of reality fans to venture out and pay for a heightened version of what they crave on the tube; cult status is its probable fate, with fluky success a la the “South Park” feature unlikely but possible. In any event, pic will endure as a homevid favorite.

Developed at the Sundance Lab and shot even before the first “Survivor” season went before the cameras, pic will remind viewers with long memories of Paul Bartel’s 1975 sci-fi satire “Death Race 2000,” in which drivers killed as part of their sport. Under the promotional banner of “Real People Real Danger,” new film proposes the existence of a show called “The Contenders” in which five contestants and a reigning champ hunt one another in a medium-size town. It’s sanctioned gladiatorial combat in a banal everyday setting, and no one seems to mind.

Presented in the format of a marathon episode of the series, pic opens with a literal bang as two-time champ Dawn (Brooke Smith) blows away a customer at a convenience store as the clerk and camera look on. Eight months pregnant and possessed of an air of desperate determination that explains her success, Dawn now returns to her hometown of Newbury, Conn., after a 15-year absence to take on five new adversaries selected by lottery.

They are Lindsay (Merritt Wever), an 18-year-old girl whose parents are so enthusiastically supportive that they chauffeur her to her attempted hits; Tony (Michael Kaycheck), a working-class stiff with an overwrought wife and three little kids; Connie (Marylouise Burke), an emergency-room nurse and devout Catholic; Franklin (Richard Venture), a nutty old trailer-park resident; and Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), a bedridden cancer victim and artist who, in a melodramatic twist of fate, was Dawn’s first boyfriend back in high school.

In pitch-perfect imitation of the style pioneered by “The Real World” and widely imitated since, the participants reveal aspects of their personal lives in amusingly frank fashion. All express considerable confidence in their chances of prevailing, and the wry-to-absurd humor stems from these ordinary folks’ unlikely turn as warriors.

As happens with all effective reality shows, “Series 7″ viewers will become attached to different contestants for different reasons. Cantankerous loner Franklin is given little air time until he executes a startling hit in a mall, and Lindsay is relatively shortchanged as well. By contrast, the funniest and most unusual is Connie, a squat middle-aged woman whose busybody personality is belied by a lethal expertise with syringes.

But the extensive Dawn-Jeff backstory gives the film most of its meat. As seen in amusing mock home movies, the two were teenage bohemian lovers, sybaritic misfits undone by Jeff’s uncertain sexual leanings. Jeff’s present wife, on a death watch for her husband as it is, can’t help but feel the heat that still exists between Jeff and Dawn, who are obliged to try to kill each other despite their renewed love. Add to that the birth of Dawn’s baby, and you have more than enough complications to make for a smashingly eventful climax.

Appropriately shot on tape and nicely transferred to 35mm, swiftly paced, endowed with just-right fatuous narration and layered with a stimulating assortment of diverse source material, the film has a dramatic arc that, crucially, sustains to feature length; editor Malcolm Jamieson deserves considerable credit for managing this while so expertly aping a short-attention-span format largely developed for MTV. Music choices are sharp, particularly the use of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” for Jeff and Dawn’s theme song.

Minahan, who previously co-wrote “I Shot Andy Warhol” for this film’s co-producer Christine Vachon, perhaps errs only in the setup, which doesn’t entirely clarify the rules and stakes of the show. Is participation in the lottery voluntary or compulsory? Are the murders on the show sanctioned and therefore exempt from prosecution? Can’t a champion retire? Is there any cash reward? If there’s no money involved, it’s hard to understand why Lindsay’s parents or Tony’s wife would tolerate their kin’s participation in the show.

But perhaps the contestants are lured simply by the desire for fame and a certain dubious immortality. After Dawn’s mother and sister mercilessly chew her out for being such an awful person, Dawn’s little niece rushes over to her and blurts out, “I saw you on TV. I love you.” From the p.o.v. of reality-TV addicts, that’s undoubtedly payment enough.

Series 7

Production

A USA Films release of a Blow Up Pictures presentation of a Killer Films/Open City Films production. Produced by Jason Kliot, Joana Vicente, Christine Vachon, Katie Roumel. Executive producer, Charles J. Rusbasan. Co-producers, Evan T. Cohen, Gretchen McGowan. Co-executive producers, Judith Zarin, Michael Escott. Directed, written by Daniel Minahan.

Crew

Camera (Duart color, tape-to-35mm), Randy Drummond; editor, Malcolm Jamieson; music, Girls Against Boys; music supervisor, Julie Panebianco; production designer, Gideon Ponte; art director, Ann McKinnon; costume designer, Christine Beiselin; sound (Dolby Digital), Mark Maloof, Eddie O'Conner, Giles Kahn, Jason Blackburn; sound supervisor, Lewis Goldstein; line producer, Libby Richman; associate producer, Pamela Koffler; assistant director, Michael Lerman; casting, Susan Shopmaker. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 20, 2001. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 86 MIN.

With

Dawn - Brooke Smith Jeff - Glenn Fitzgerald Connie - Marylouise Burke Franklin - Richard Venture Tony - Michael Kaycheck Lindsay - Merritt Wever Doria - Angelina Phillips Michelle - Nada Despotovich Sheila - Donna Hanover Bob - Danton Stone Laura - Jennifer Van Dyck Dawn's Mother - Tanny McDonald Narrator - Will Arnett
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