The moment I realized the true brilliance of HBO’s mockumentary 7 Days in Hell, which aired on Saturday, came about 12 minutes into the program, just as the narrator set the groundwork for the fall of tennis star Aaron Williams (Andy Samberg), who faced a lawsuit after designing men’s briefs that allowed the wearer’s testicles to hang free—an aspirational design that unfortunately led to grotesque swelling and infertility. The resulting malpractice trials are depicted in a series of fantastical “courtroom sketches,” but instead of the strictly realistic pencil drawings to which we’ve grown accustomed, a series of cartoon illustrations float across the screen, featuring characters that look as though they’ve come straight out of a Disney movie, complete with smiling anthropomorphic animals perched on their shoulders.
“The Swedish courtroom sketches were just magnificent,” says Will Forte, in his role as a foppish tennis historian. Inexplicably, this kicks off a digressive two-minute segment about the man who started the Swedish avant-garde courtroom sketch movement, “Jan Erik Eckland.” The narrative that had been established to that point, about the seven-day Wimbledon match between Williams and his rival Charles Poole, falls by the wayside as experts like John McEnroe expound on Eckland’s brilliant work, which “inspired courtroom artists all over the world, and began a renaissance of courtroom sketching.” Images bearing his influence begin to populate the screen—sketches done in minimalism, cubism, etc. Eckland’s talent was so prodigious, the story goes, that he had to build his own rocket ship to find a better world. The rocket ship imploded on launch, and so, after two minutes, the saga of Eckland comes to an end as the focus of the documentary returns to tennis.
Reading those last two paragraphs, the word that might come to mind is “absurd.” And that’s absolutely correct—this was an absurd deviation from the central narrative. But it was absurd in the best possible way, and not only because it was funny in concept and execution (note: It really, really was). Beyond the humor, the absurdity represented a tremendous comedic risk—pursuing a funny idea that isn’t central to the narrative, and counting on the audience to come along with the understanding that A) the joke will be worth it, B) the joke behind the joke, which is the absurd mechanism of pursuing this irrelevant narrative thread in the first place, will be funny, and C) even as it brings you to the brink of confusion, to the point that if you’re laughing at all, you’re laughing in a puzzled, intrigued way, it will remain faithful to the rhythms of a documentary, enhancing, rather than subtracting from, the satire.
When the camera cuts back to Forte at the end of the two-minute Eckland segment, he pauses in a way that subtly nods to the odd little journey we’ve just taken, and in this moment the audience, too, has a chance to catch our breaths and absorb what we’ve seen. Only when he speaks again—”So, uh, Aaron owed $12 million to the Swedish government”—is the spell broken, and only then does it really register that you’ve just seen something that sought humor outside the bounds of what we’re used to seeing on television.
That’s when I knew I was watching something more than a mere mockumentary. That’s when I understood that, like Williams’ underwear models, writer Murray Miller and director Jake Szymanski had real balls. It’s so rare to see televised comedy take this kind of risk—it’s the kind of far-out material that comedy writers love, but which rarely makes it into an actual production since the accepted wisdom is that audiences aren’t equipped to understand or handle such material, and it will sabotage their interest. It’s something you might have seen in the wonderful BBC2 series Look Around You, and almost nowhere else. Absurdism as a televised comedic form is inherently troublesome for the sheer fact that it will absolutely alienate the part of your audience that doesn’t “get it,” and as such it’s more commonly seen in mediums like literature that attract a more uniformly intellectual audience—or in Britain, where, for some reason, this stuff works a bit better. When an American TV production can pull it off, and balance it with the various other kinds of comedy employed in the show, it’s more than just a coup—it’s practically a full-fledged revolution.
At this point, I should make it clear that 7 Days in Hell doesn’t operate solely, or even primarily, in an absurdist realm. At heart, this is a story of two men fighting it out in one of the greatest tennis matches of all-time. Williams—the adopted son of Richard Williams, father to Venus and Serena—is an Andre Agassi type, a bad boy with huge, highlighted hair and a fuck-you attitude, while Charles Poole, his counterpart, is a dim mama’s boy with faint currents of anxiety running beneath a placidly stupid face. As Williams, Samberg reaches his flamboyant best, sneering and flashing middle fingers to everyone, including the queen of England—though his best moment comes when he shoves a duke to the ground during a trophy presentation. Kit Harrington is brilliant as Poole, managing to convey an impressive range of emotion beneath a face that rarely deviates from its standard wide-eyed stare. From me, at least, he generated a surprising amount of sympathy—I felt legitimate pangs for him when he dealt with a stressful situation by hurrying to a dark room and facing the wall, as though repeating a comfort ritual enacted in countless previous traumas.
Those traumas, you guess, came at the hands of his overbearing mother, played by the always-wonderful Mary Steenburgen. Her character has just one mode—strident manipulation—but she carries it off well. In fact, she’s just one of a wonderful supporting cast that includes Forte, McEnroe, Chris Evert, Jim Lampley, Serena Williams, Fred Armisen, David Copperfield, and Lena Dunham as “experts” of various types, along with Michael Sheen as an unbearably lecherous television host. Other than Serena, who can’t quite lose her wooden “I’m-an-athlete-not-an-actor” delivery, the supporting cast is perfect.
There are too many hilarious twists and turns to mention here, but the physical comedy deserves recognition. The tennis sequences alone are worth the price of admission, particularly the net points which go on and on, with incredible gets leading to more incredible gets, to the point that it once again enters the realm of absurdity. The male nudity, too, is so shocking that it feels ingenious. From the actual hanging testicles displayed during the underwear segments to the male streaker who Williams makes love to on the court as part of a delay tactic, it’s uncomfortable in just the right way, forcing the male viewers to stare at something they wouldn’t balk at in the female form.
The streaker, especially, is designed to challenge a masculine aesthetic—the man comes after the woman, and it’s almost as if the writers are saying “you tolerated it with her, so now you have to abide him too.” It’s classically subversive in a way that will certainly enrage homophobic viewers—something I find delightful, because in reality the sight of the streaker’s penis flopping around as he darts around the court is so slapstick that it would be ridiculous to sexualize it even in opposition. The amount of crass material in modern comedies, especially in the films of Judd Apatow and all his proteges, has been extremely disappointing because it’s usually divorced from purpose. This mockumentary, on the other hand, while it may be crasser by far than those films, sends a message with each line of cocaine, and each glimpse of genitalia, and as such, these moments become something more than juvenile gross-outs—they have actual depth.
Throughout the absurdities and the provocations, 7 Days in Hell never loses its intelligence, and importantly, it adheres closely to documentary techniques with an exquisite attention to detail that proves HBO spent real money on the project. When it deviates, it’s never for long, and the miracle of this show is that it doesn’t pander or let its viewers off the hook with an ill-timed wink. After Williams and Poole kill each other on the seventh day of their match—yes, they literally hit each other with a racket at the same moment, leading to an instant double death—the film closes with archival footage of Poole acknowledging, in younger days, that William was his favorite player. It’s an oddly sad little vignette, and oddly perfect for a mockumentary that doesn’t so much subvert our expectations as ignore them entirely. This, it turns out, is the far braver act.