Even those few American souls who've never seen an episode of either Survivor and managed not to give in to Temptation Island are certainly aware of the phenomenon of Reality TV. Roundly criticized for being exploitative, crass, and cruel to animals, these programs devoted to putting allegedly normal people into extraordinary situations and watching them squirm have become a ratings bonanza, and with a writer's strike looming, we're sure to be bombarded with more of these plotless contrivances.

In fact, commercials for one new version, Fox's Boot Camp, have been in heavy rotation recently. Apparently the idea here is for clueless saps to be suckered into volunteering for the high-intensity treatment from a gang of drill sergeants, with the last one standing getting the grand prize. Perhaps the next series will skip all the lollygagging around and simply offer folks cash money to chop off their own fingers or put out cigarettes on their bellies. After all, no one's forcing them

Which brings us to Series 7: The Contenders. This wicked satire takes the reality-show idea to its logical extreme, depicting a program that pits its contestants against one another with their very lives at stake. You don't get voted off this show--you get killed.

Dawn, the reigning champion, is eight months pregnant, and she returns to her hometown of Newbury, Connecticut, to face off against five randomly chosen competitors. Armed and dangerous, they race around town knocking one another off. In the midst of the carnage, Dawn pays a visit to her estranged family and learns that one of her targets is her high-school flame, now suffering from testicular cancer.

Shot, naturally, on video, Series 7 doesn't reach too far beyond its initial premise. In a sense, satirizing reality programs is somewhat self-defeating, since the originals have already been pilloried, but the mixture of banal interviews of the contestants with footage of their bloody battles does have a bit of an edge to it. The creepiest character is Connie (Mary Louise Burke), a sixtyish nurse who seems the most retiring of the bunch, until she starts talking about the mercy killings she's performed and lays an ambush at the local shopping mall.

Brooke Smith, who has appeared in Silence of the Lambs (as the girl in Buffalo Bill's pit) and Vanya on 42nd Street, does an admirable job of making the slovenly, amoral Dawn, who feels she must kill to provide for her unborn child, into a sympathetic lead. As the details of her relationship with the terminally ill Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald) are revealed, something like an emotional core begins to develop.

Writer-director Daniel Minahan came up with the idea for Series 7 before the first season of Survivor launched the reality tidal wave. In terms of publicity, he's fortunate that his film is coming out now, but the perfidious machinations of network executives in the interim have also blunted his satire, making the idea seem much less radical than it surely once did.

One aspect of Survivor et al. that Minahan misses is the volunteerism. The phenomenal need that some Americans feel to be on television drives them to sign up for these shows, and once there, to engage in enough ludicrous behavior to stand out among the crowd. On Series 7, however, contestants are forced to participate, chosen randomly, given weapons, and followed by a camera crew until they die or win.

Apart from limiting the exhibitionism of the contestants, this arrangement presupposes some sort of government-network collusion that strains credulity, even in a satire. It also points to the fact that this concept has been tackled before, in movies like The Tenth Victim and The Running Man.

Still, much of Series 7 is trenchant and raw, presenting a vision of American entertainment that's nightmarish, inhuman, and not too far removed from reality.