Documentaries and comedy specials flood streaming services more rapidly than true crime, each trying to out-gimmick the rest in order to maintain relevance in the constant deluge of content. 7 Days Out, Netflix’s documentary series contextualizing large-scale events by looking at the week leading up to them, rests its premise on an idea that all but the most laser-focused documentaries already include.
The episodes Netflix made available to critics cover the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show and the grand reopening of top New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park. Going behind the scenes in these high-end situations is appealing, but their prestige already implies understanding: We already know, at some level, that these events must be tough to put together, because the institutions holding the events are among the best in their fields. In order to prove its mettle, then, 7 Days Out either has to find unexpected new details about the processes it depicts, or meet expectations very, very well. Instead, it’s caught in between: an entertainment that sacrifices insight along the way.
Most DVD special features showcase the lead-up to or daily operations of what most people will only see as a finished product, and in many ways, these prestigious events are—like movies— massive undertakings of project management. Understanding them might require unique access to high-level competitors, or perhaps focus on the unsung workers and middle managers toiling to hold up front-facing icons, as in Frédéric Tcheng’s film Dior and I. It may even mean looking beyond the actual preparation and execution of the event to the larger culture that created them.
In the case of 7 Days Out, the balance in the workflow isn’t perfect, especially since the format horns in on the careful curation of huge amounts of footage. Gorgeous establishing shots, insightful interviews, and a trivia champion’s appetite for mundane details—applying a ticking clock to a premise is more effective than applying it to create a narrative. Sure, this approach turns Eleven Madison Park’s quest to get their gas turned on into a do-or-die nailbiter, but the constraint can feel unnatural since every other detail—including those that only get a brief mention—could hold similar power. The tight scope never feels more gimmicky than when you realize you’d like to watch a much longer documentary on the same subject. One week stuffed into less than an hour is tough to make satisfying. Wrestling with its own time limit is where 7 Days Out confronts its biggest hurdles, and delivers its most exciting pleasures.
As the format settles in (and as the viewer settles into the format), becoming a structure rather than a selling point, the mounting stress emerges as the engaging quality—not unlike how watching lots of Chopped will have you more excited to watch the chefs act under increasingly impossible conditions than to see their final concoctions. The talking heads become distractions that should’ve been left behind during the intro: We just want to see what blows up next. Once we’re all the way in and the progress reports fall away, the purity and passion win out. We see how the best of the best react when the rest of us would throw our hands in the air, move away, and find someone rich to marry.
And sure, sometimes there’s too much talking. Too much set dressing. But when haute couture and esports—both topics covered in Season One, according to promotional materials—are held up as equally important, a healthy percentage of people are going to need a sales pitch as to why they should care. When the questions land, there’s still some hovering self-awareness in the interview subjects’ responses, and the documentarians’ lack of interrogation keeps things cordial, almost stifled. That can sometimes make the episodes feel more like advertisements than true peeks behind the curtain. But then a detail slips through. A grimace. A scowl. A bead of sweat. A heartfelt handshake. The shattered phone screen a beleaguered manager is working through.
For all the hiccups that distance the series from its more intimate ideal, 7 Days Out has set itself up to find beautiful little human moments just as well as it tells the bigger stories of these institutions. That is, if it can square the competing extremes of sweaty minutiae and glossy slogans, especially with regard to documentary subjects that have been parodied better than they’ve been earnestly done, like a dog show. 7 Days Out may not be great documentary—in fact, it will likely be less fun for diehards than Best in Show or Documentary Now!—but it’s quick, accessible, and consistent. That’s enough to get through an episode or two, and perhaps pique one’s interest for more.
7 Days Out premieres Friday, Dec. 21 on Netflix.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.