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It has been a decade since Dodgeball took a dig at ESPN by creating ESPN 8 a.k.a "The Ocho," and in the intervening decade, the Worldwide Leader in Sports has only expanded its vast empire. 7 Days in Hell takes aim at the bloated sports industrial complex with its endless parade of behind the scenes coverage, analysis, and, of course, documentaries. With channels and web sites and podcasts to fill, ESPN and its many competitors understand that they are in the business of crafting narratives wherever they can find them. The problem is that 99% of the time, real life, even in sports, isn't actually compelling. This tension between the storytelling and the lack of story is the engine that drives the hilarious, ridiculous 7 Days in Hell (premiering tonight at 10 p.m. ET).
This 40-minute piece, directed by Jake Szymanski and written by Murray Miller, hits every note of your standard sports documentary with savage glee, tearing apart the 30 for 30 model while following it beat for beat. Though 7 Days takes its shots at tennis, spoiled athletes, the '90s, and even Sweden, the real target of the satire is the sports documentary itself. 7 Days is about the ways that sports docs take dramatic moments and stretch them past their dramatic breaking point.
Sports docs crave a narrative, and most of the time, it takes the form of a morality tale. You need your good guy and your bad guy. Sometimes, the status quo is the enemy, as with Jesse Owens vs. the Nazis or every black athlete in American history vs. the South. A natural "man vs. world" narrative doesn't come around much though. More often, one of the competitors is the enemy: US vs. the Soviets, Nancy Kerrigan vs. Tanya Harding, every other team in the NFL vs. the Patriots. This type of story is in our nature. If we can construct this narrative, we will. By the evening of Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, even people who had never watched a boxing match were hoping Floyd would go down for the count. In 7 Days in Hell, Charles Poole (Kit Harington) is our hero and Aaron Williams (Andy Samberg) is our bad boy.
From the get go, the leads are shaped to fit their respective stereotypes. Williams is a drug-addled ex-con with big hair and a bigger personality. We watch him snort some coke, have some group sex, and, in the most classic bad boy athlete move, launch an underwear line. Charles is the unassuming wunderkind, pressured by mother and state to bring glory to the homeland. While Williams gleefully plays the role of bad boy, Poole is dragged into the role of hero. Charles, like many athletes, is groomed for stardom from an early age, and as a result develops no personality of his own. His identity is bestowed on him by others. His mother, talk show hosts, and the Queen of England want to use him to their ends, but he remains a blank slate. Even the film itself tries to mold this piece of stone into a dramatic character, and Charles remains as dense and immobile as a boulder.
Kit Harington deserves immense credit for playing the character honestly, while reminding us at every turn that he is in on the joke. He tells an interviewer, "When I’m playing, I serve the ball, and the man opposite me playing on the other side of the court, he plays it back to me." ("I understand how the game of tennis is played," the interviewer responds.) That's all he knows and that's all he needs to know to be great. Everyone else spends their time trying in vain to add some deeper meaning to that greatness, imagining depth while staring into a shallow pool.
Simply rewatching the great sporting events isn't enough. ESPN Classic tried it and nobody watched ESPN Classic. So much of sports excitement is in the moment, and the further we get away from the moment, the more the excitement fades. These documentaries depend on a parade of talking heads to give us much needed context. 7 Days in Hell wisely creates distinct personalities for these on-screen personalities. Will Forte's turn as a tennis historian anchors the fictional panel as he delivers a mixture of self-assured cockiness and fawning admiration in the exact dosage that real-life sports nuts always seem to. Michael Sheen is a vision as one of those booze-soaked cads that inhabit archival sports talk show footage. It seems that until 1990, sports anchors were more concerned with keeping their dicks and livers wet than they were with covering the sporting news. Fred Armisen rounds out the commentators as a British journalist who goes to great lengths to situate things in context, whether those things are snorting cocaine off of the sideline or being harassed by the Queen of England. It's a credit to Szymanski's direction that Armisen, Forte, and Sheen are ridiculous, but no more ridiculous than the standard cast of characters that get interviewed in their bourbon-soaked man caves for real life sports docs.
The Story (or Lack Thereof)
7 Days is at its best when it makes light of the fact that the titular match isn't actually enough source material for a forty minute story. The idea that a fake event isn't enough source material for a fake documentary is enough to make your head spin, but the conceit is executed with absurd precision. A long detour is taken early on, as the documentary suddenly veers into a tale about a Swedish court stenographer who attempted space travel. What begins as a streaker running onto the court during the match devolves into an hours long group sexscapade. A minor character responsible for Williams' short-lived Jordache sponsorship (Lena Dunham) claims her own subplot as we get piecemeal details of her personal decline. Unlike in lesser comedies, these deviations aren't throwaway gags. In fact, they are part of the story's real central conflict—between filmmakers telling a story and an event that won't yield the story they want to tell.
The joke is that even in the longest tennis match of all time, there isn't enough story. No matter how dramatic the event may have been for spectators of the time, once the moment is gone, so is the magic. As it turns out, the longest tennis match in history was something that even the participants got tired of.
7 Days in Hell will resonate with sports fans because it mocks and celebrates our relationship to sports. The thesis of 7 Days is that no matter how great a sports moment may have been, you can't begin to recapture a meaningful percentage of the magic that was on the field that day. No matter how detailed the research, no matter how esteemed the talking heads, no matter how many hours of behind the scenes footage you unearth, all you can hope for is a blustering, blundering, faltering grasp at something that was lost forever as soon as the last point was scored.