In general, I am the fan of the mockumentary (mock documentary) format. It’s a way to put an interesting twist on your method of storytelling and when done effectively it can be quite entertaining and give you some flexibility in your narrative, as it gives the characters a way to directly address the audience and comment on events. I think I first discovered the genre with the hilarious Waiting for Guffman and This is Spinal Tap before rediscovering it on TV with series like The Office, Summer Heights High, Arrested Development and Parks and Recreation. Mockumentaries vary in their commitment to the format in how much they actually acknowledge the idea of a documentary film crew; in The Office this was overtly part of the show, with the film crew eventually breaking the fourth wall in the final season of the show and becoming part of the story line, while Parks and Recreation never explained why they had so many “talking head” segments or who they were talking to.
This Saturday, HBO will debut a new sports mockumentary, 7 Days in Hell, starring Andy Samberg and Kit Harrington (Jon Snow to Game of Thrones fans). The 45 minute special charters the tennis rivalry between party boy superstar Aaron Williams (Samberg) and the simple prodigy Charles Poole (Harrington) as they battle each other in a tennis match that lasts seven days (hence the title). The special fully embraces the format and plays with the tropes of sports documentaries. It is also extremely silly; there is a lot of ridiculousness at play in 7 Days in Hell and while I wouldn’t necessarily say that it was laugh out loud funny, it was very amusing and I enjoyed it.
Samberg has the showier of the two roles as Williams, which isn’t all that surprising as he is also a producer. Williams appears to have been inspired by Andre Agassi, right down to the ridiculous mane of hair. Williams is the sports resident bad boy who hasn’t met a vice that he doesn’t like. Poole, on the other hand, is a reserved man-child who is great at tennis and lives for the approval of others, especially his mother (Mary Steenburgen). Poole may be great at tennis, but he’s dumb as a box of rocks and Harrington doesn’t have to do a ton here other than have a black expression and look pretty. Harrington sells it, however, and it was kind of nice to see him do something other than know nothing on Game of Thrones.
Part of the fun of 7 Days in Hell is that it is chock full of cameos; you really never know who is going to show up. Some people, particularly the tennis pros, are playing themselves, while others are portraying some of the silly characters that litter the special. I won’t ruin any of the surprises by saying who pops up, but there are a lot of familiar faces that turn up in some unexpected places. Some work better than others, but all bring something fun to the table. I was particularly happy to discover the narrator of the mockumentary was none other than Jon Hamm; I had no idea that he had anything to do with this project, but I would recognize the dulcet tones of his voice anywhere.
7 Days in Hell is absolutely playing in the absurd end of the comedy pool, but doing so in a smart way. In some ways, the special feels like a super-sized SNL skit, with lots of diversions along the way that don’t have much to do with the actual tennis match. Some of the bits land better than others – a few jokes last a beat or two too long – but the good far outweighs the bad and there are so many silly things happening that if you don’t dig one joke they will quickly be on to the next one. With a 45 minute running time, this is a fairly sleek special; it doesn’t feel like it was padded for time and it tells the story that it wants to tell and then ends. Honestly, the time watching it absolutely flew by; 7 Days in Hell was very efficient and I was surprised to see that twenty minutes had passed as quickly as it did.
One caution – 7 Days in Hell takes full advantage of the freedom that is available at HBO and might be a little raunchier than you are expecting. There’s also a fair amount of nudity – including male full frontal – so this may not be something that you want to watch if there are little ones around or if that makes you uncomfortable. There’s also sex and drug use as well. It all pays off in the comedy, but it took a few turns that viewers might not be expecting, so consider yourself warned.
7 Days in Hell was a funny little diversion that I enjoyed quite a bit. Andy Samberg gets to ham it up to his heart’s content and it was fun to see Kit Harrington expand his range a bit in a comedic role. Some of the individual components work better than others, but the whole thing comes together to form a consistently funny special. You don’t even have to like tennis to enjoy 7 Days in Hell; you just have to open to some very silly shenanigans.
7 Days in Hell debuts Saturday July 11th at 10 pm on HBO.