At first, the joke of Daniel Minahan's Series 7 looks almost too obvious for words. A cool blooded formalistic parody of reality TV, the movie consists of one quick fire episode after another, all shot on video and hyped by a manly voice of tabloid dread narrator, in which we follow six contestants on a popular weekly television series called ''The Contenders'' as they attempt to kill each other off.
Chosen at random, these ''normal'' middle class citizens, each with his or her own luridly pathetic back story (they're even grouchier than the rat pack competitors on ''Survivor''), stalk each other in cars, parks, homes, and shopping malls, the vicious hunt and peck feuds erupting into real live gunfire and bloody on camera death. Dawn, the show's eight months pregnant reigning champion, is played by Brooke Smith, a gifted character actress who is best known for her fearful, gnashing performance as the girl in the pit in The Silence of the Lambs.
Smith has wide, doleful saucer eyes, an elegant square chin, and fleshy cheeks that make her look a bit like Madonna as drawn by Modigliani. As the feral, desperate Dawn, who has a way of firing a pistol -- blam! blam! blam! -- as if she secretly enjoys it, Smith hurls her bulky body around the wintry suburban avenues of Newbury, Conn., with a willful ferocity that's even scarier than the harm she inflicts on her fellow contestants.
One of them (Glenn Fitzgerald) turns out to be Dawn's former high school sweetheart, who is now dying of testicular cancer; just because they're at mutual gunpoint doesn't mean they can't enjoy a sentimental reunion. ''Series 7'' fuses the backstabbing exhibitionism of ''Survivor'' and ''Temptation Island'' with the herky jerky true crime surveillance fetishism of ''COPS,'' jacking up the aggression of both formats to its absurd logical extreme -- i.e., organized homicide as the ultimate way to boost ratings.
The movie has the look and feel of one of those ''Saturday Night Live'' miniparodies that's exquisitely clever and close to the bone. This one, however, goes on for 86 minutes, long after its satirical point has pierced our funny bone. The murder as entertainment premise of ''Series 7'' is proof that even the blackest of humor is no longer particularly outrageous (I can't imagine anyone going to see this movie who would actually be shocked by it).
That said, the lampoon, repetitive as it can be, ripens in unexpected ways. The subtle underlying gag isn't that we're seeing ordinary citizens engaged in crass televised homicide. It's that their action news savagery is as banal as it is genuine -- a case of Machiavellian ruthlessness as the ultimate in packaged, conformist behavior. The murders are comic high points because they so deftly capture what television is becoming: not drama, or even voyeurism, but an invisibly orchestrated series of camera ready one upmanship rituals in which people compete like children to act out their knee jerk disdain for each other, that disdain echoed in the audience's ironic detachment from everyone on screen. In ''Series 7,'' life has become media, and the true survivor is anyone smart enough not to let reality get in the way.