SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS —*** — Brooke Smith, Glenn Fitzgerald, Marylouise Burke, Angelina Phillips, Michael Kaycheck, Merritt Wever, Richard Venture, and featuring the voice of Will Arnett; rated R (violence, profanity, gore, vulgarity, drug use, nude artwork); exclusively at the Tower Theatre.

Admittedly, "Series 7: The Contenders" is a bit over the top. But to be honest, there's probably no way this type of material could have been done with subtlety.

This satirical thriller parodies the "reality-television" craze by taking it to the extreme; among the programs being spoofed are "Survivor," "The Real World" and "Cops," which weren't exactly subtle to begin with.

That alone may make "Series 7" a must-see for anyone who's sick of such programs, though it should be noted the film is graphically violent, and it threatens to peter out about halfway through.

Fortunately, the film does recover — due in part to some particularly strong performances, as well as its twisted sense of humor (there are several in-jokes directed at canny filmgoers).

The movie actually plays out like consecutive episodes of a fictional television contest, the kill-or-be-killed program "The Contenders" ("Series 7" refers to how many seasons the show has been on the air).

The current champion, and longest-running "contender" in the show's history, is Dawn Lagarto (stage and indie actress Brooke Smith), a thirtysomething mother-to-be with nearly a dozen kills to her credit.

Other "contenders" she will be facing this season (selected by lottery and then had the challenge forced on them) are Tony (Michael Kaycheck), an unemployed father of three; Connie (Marylouise Burke), a nurse; Franklin (Richard Venture), a retiree; and teenager Lindsay (Merritt Wever).

But the most difficult of the lot for Dawn to dispatch may be Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), a thirtysomething artist dying of cancer, who also happens to be her former high-school sweetheart.

If that isn't bad enough, Dawn is also eight months pregnant, and her condition is making it virtually impossible for her to chase down the others — who aren't exactly waiting around for her to get them first.

This is one of the few movies that justifies its pseudo-documentary style of photography, which includes the notorious "shaky-cam" work. First-time writer/director Daniel Minahan (co-screenwriter of "I Shot Andy Warhol") is smart enough to use it judiciously, however, and he keeps the action moving briskly enough to cover up some script and character deficiencies.

He's also chosen his cast well. Smith somehow manages to make Dawn sympathetic, despite her many character flaws, while Burke has a heyday as the craftier-than-she-looks Connie. (Minahan's script is also frighteningly prescient — though it was written three years ago, a couple of characters are named Jeff and Colby, which just happen to be the names of two of the competitors on the current edition of "Survivor.")

"Series 7: The Contenders" is rated R for violence (gunfire, as well as throat-slashing and a bludgeoning), occasional strong profanity, gore, use of crude sexual slang terms, simulated drug use (sleeping pills and an unspecified tranquilizer, both used lethally) and glimpses of nude anatomical studies. Running time: 88 minutes.