Since the late nineties, there has been a growing trend in the world. One that encapsulates the American dream in a nutshell, where people can achieve great fame and fortune, oftentimes by just being themselves. It has made average people into worshipped icons, as well as hated villains. That trend is reality TV. And in the new Brazilian TV series Supermax, the fictional show takes that idea and asks what would happen if you threw a group of the most desperate people possible into an isolated reality show, which also happens to be haunted…
…Arriving on Shudder as a new exclusive earlier this week and created by Jose Alvarenga Jr., Marcal Aquino & Fernando Bonassi, Supermax is a 10-episode series which tells the story of 12 “contestants”, all with dark pasts, who are confined to an old prison where they must compete in challenges and knock each other off until only one remains with the grand prize of 2 million. What the contestants (and producers?) don’t know going in is that the prison just so happens to be haunted by malevolent ghosts.
Immediately, Supermax has one of the more intriguing concepts I’ve come across recently. As someone who works in reality TV, I understand how well each of these shows is designed to produce maximum drama between contestants, whether the show pushes them in a certain direction or not, and in this first episode of Supermax, we’re introduced to a number of potential pot stirrers. Every character has been or is currently in trouble with the law. Dark past, check. They are locked inside of a prison with no contact to the outside world other than a single red phone, a phone that, if used, eliminates the contestant that uses it. Confined setting ripe with potential for paranoia, check. The winner of each challenge not only decides what food contestants are allowed to eat, but also decides who gets to eat, period. And there are already plenty of characters that dislike each other. Check and mate. Throw in a bunch of ghosts, and you can begin to understand just how ripe with tension Supermax is. This is like Big Brother and Survivor had a bastard child too ugly for “family oriented” networks like ABC or NBC.
With great drama and conflict comes great characters, and Supermax is swimming in them. You have Sergio (Erom Cordeiro), an ex-cop, Artur (Rui Ricardo Diaz), a drug addicted soccer player, Bruna (Mariana Ximenes), an ex-hooker, Nando (Nicolas Trevijano), an ex-priest, and eight others. At this point, most of these characters have something that stands out about them, especially Sergio, the typical down and out cop you want to see redeem himself, and Artur, the kind of villain you love to hate. Supermax is well calculated in the way it reveals its characters and who they are. We get a brief intro package for all of them, along with flashbacks for certain characters sprinkled throughout, a la Lost. Judging by the professions listed above, you can probably guess at how screwed up some of the contestants’ pasts are. Even worse for them, they discover that each of their stories will be fully revealed to the other contestants throughout the course of the show. Sucks for them, but this allows us as the viewer to get to know these characters pretty well pretty quickly. Even though there are twelve contestants and the episodes run at about forty-five minutes each, I feel like I already have a pretty good sense of who is who, and that’s a credit to both the creators and actors, who are all wonderful.
Part of the genius of Supermax is that it’s like watching a reality show inside of a film. Everything about it screams of production value (something most reality shows don’t have), including the prison set, which is pretty damn eerie with its cramped corridors and silent, observing cameras watching from high up in the shadowy corners. I’ve never been a fan of reality TV, though like horror films, I’ve always enjoyed the notion of guessing who will get picked off/voted out next, and with such interesting characters, Supermax has that element to the max! You find yourself rooting for many of these people. But alas, this is a horror series, so I expect there will be quite a few tragic surprises coming down the line.
Admittedly, Supermax does take a bit of suspension of disbelief. For one, as someone who knows the ins and outs of reality TV, it’s hard to imagine a show like this EVER existing in the modern world. Who the hell would put twelve convicts in an unsupervised, close counters situation together, and tell them to compete in competitions like cramming up into a hot box and seeing who can last the longest inside of it? Sure, reality shows love to torture their contestants, but this walks a fine line between torture and likely death. The legal repercussions would be a nightmare! You also have to ask, considering that some of the contestants are those that are currently in trouble with the law, why in God’s name would any of them sign up for this? We all want two million dollars, but I don’t think I’d ever admit my darkest secrets in front of the world for cash (no, I don’t have a collection of Beanie Babies behind that door)!
Nitpicks aside, while I found the dramatic element of Supermax to be, er, super, the horror is pretty damn standard. Pools of blood creeping out from nowhere. Quick images of ghosts. The sounds of a girl crying in the dark. We’ve seen this all before. As of yet, there’s nothing original about that side of it. Bial, the ominous host which the contestants interact with on a TV screen, has a little bit of an odd creep factor to him, but he could learn a thing or two from the Cryptkeeper. Supermax does provide enough room for the audience to wonder if this is all really happening or not, which is part of the advantage of setting this around a reality show, so that should keep audiences guessing. On the other hand, the horror isn’t the main focus in episode 1. There’s still a lot of show to go, so you can’t expect full-fledged terror right away. Supermax is following rule number one of good horror, which is build your characters up, and then beat the leaving shit out of them.
On the surface, Supermax may sound like something you’ve seen before…and the creators know it. Many of the expectations I had were subverted, especially towards the end, and following a surprising couple of twists, I feel like one of the contestants, waiting in a cell before I get the chance to watch episode two. Don’t wait on this one. Grab that Shudder subscription if you don’t already have one and give Supermax a shot. And remember…Big Brother is watching.
By Matt Konopka