Thus far, 2015 hasn’t been the strongest year for HBO original programming. The one-two punch of Veep and Silicon Valley made for one hell of a comedy duo, but only for ten weeks. Last Week Tonight is still a Sunday night saving grace, but replacement comedies Ballers and The Brink have been, at best, middling. After a Game of Thrones season that left many feeling cold as a Night’s Watchman, and with the jury still out on True Detective Season 2, it’s not like HBO couldn’t use something to invigorate its summer slate. 7 Days in Hell, airing this Saturday, should provide just such a shot in the arm.
For one, the special has timing on its side. A 45-minute film starring Andy Samberg and Thrones’ Kit Harington, 7 Days in Hell is a faux documentary recounting a weeklong tennis match at the Wimbledon championships. Half a day after the special airs, the men’s singles finals at 2015’s real Wimbledon tournament will be decided. It will no doubt make for a respectful and elegant display of the finer points of tennis that make it a sport cherished by millions. 7 Days in Hell, then, is the pre-ceremony bachelor party, a vulgar and ridiculous good time that’s as crass and unpredictable as it is really bloody funny.
Serendipitous scheduling clearly isn’t the only thing 7 Days in Hell has going for it, as the special was met with positive reactions back in March at SXSW. You don’t need to know all that much about tennis to get in on the joke, either. Though carefully assembled so as to evoke the look and feel of a proper HBO Sports documentary (McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice likely providing the greatest source of inspiration), one needs to be as familiar with tennis to enjoy 7 Days in Hell as they would NASCAR for Talladega Nights, or figure skating for Blades of Glory.
Those specific comparisons owe to the fact that 7 Days in Hell does play a fair bit like some lost entry from Will Ferrell’s Sports Comedy phase, just one that benefits greatly from distance, a shorter runtime, and a gleefully flaunted lack of content restrictions. The formula is the same in broad strokes: take one asshole and one airhead, and have them compete against/humiliate one another in a public arena that sports fans usually treat with some reverence.
Samberg gamely handles the first half of the equation as Aaron Williams, an American court jester and hard-partying bad boy. In 1995, Williams (as in Venus and Serena, Aaron having been adopted as a child in a reverse-Blind Side) leaves the world of tennis in disgrace after a soul-shattering defeat at the Wimbledon finals, one that involved him maybe-kinda-sorta killing a line judge. His opponent for the historic seven-day match is Charles Poole (Harington), a daft young Englishman who rockets up the ATP rankings in Williams’ absence, all in order to win the love of his horribly abusive mother (Mary Steenburgen, continuing her domination of TV 2015, to our collective benefit).
Presented as previously recorded footage, the two competitors collide in a first round match at Wimbledon 2001, but not before a number of healthy and gut-busting digressions into each player’s backstory. Even if the genesis of 7 Days in Hell seems no more complicated than, “what if that 11-hour Isner-Mahut match from 2010 was even longer,” the special works terrifically as a send-up of oversized sports egos, tennis having its own fair share of talented preeners and pricks. You won’t have to be an expert on Serena Williams, Chris Evert, or John McEnroe (all excellent contributors as present day talking-head interviewees) in order to follow along, as the near-scatological absurdity of 7 Days in Hell puts more of an emphasis on bizarre jokes than fine-grain parody.
Offering evidence as to why the special is so frequently hysterical would risk spoiling the best bits, but many are almost too outlandish to be believed. Seemingly tame gags about British etiquette pair brilliantly with sidebars into the surprising history of Swedish courtroom artists, and the last, best, filthiest Taiwanese Animation joke the world will ever need. A huge supporting cast (each getting maybe two minutes of screen time per person) doesn’t go to waste, and includes Karen Gillan, Will Forte, and Michael Sheen, playing a drooling creep of a talk show host to great effect. Harington does well by the dim pretty boy shtick (a well-orchestrated pratfall from him is resigned to the closing credits), but this is Samberg’s circus to run, which he does shamelessly, and with aplomb.
That you’ll come out of 7 Days in Hell thinking it could have gone on a while longer is probably the best indication of its appropriate length. The premise is too rich for just a Funny or Die sketch, and perhaps too thin to support a feature. 7 Days in Hell plays with speed and consistency, even as Samberg, and writer Murray Miller take the humor to places more befitting an R-rated gross-out comedy than a mock sports doc. The rather perfect ending to the whole thing makes a follow-up seem unlikely, but 7 Days in Hell will hopefully mark the beginning, not the end, of HBO’s dive into rollickingly fabricated sports legend.
7 Days in Hell makes for an uproarious and bawdy spin on the HBO Sports doc.