50 Minutes in Heaven: A Trip Through HBO’s Off Kilter, Uneven, and Obliviously Meta Comedy Special

We at Tautonomy write a lot about HBO original programming. Most of it is dark, brutally unforgiving, and emotionally draining (ahem, Game of Thrones (permalink)), but occasionally you are treated to the glory of laughter, especially since the dawn of the John Oliver era. The one consistency at the prestige network, though, is that despite a the rare misfire (sorry, The Brink), you can always find engaging content. So when I found out that HBO had decided to make a sports mockumentary in the vein of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, I was predictably excited. With Wimbledon having just concluded, the idea of an insanely long tennis match in the style of Isner – Mahut was certainly topical, and given the cast, headlined by SNL vet Andy Samberg and GoT heartthrob Jon Snow… er.. I mean, Kit Harington, the resulting work would surely deliver smart, clever comedy that wouldn’t fail to leave me in stitches. HBO wouldn’t attach their name to anything else, right?

Well, I was half right. “7 Days In Hell” was certainly hilarious, but the humor was certainly not highbrow. And thank god for that. From a scrotum-inflaming underwear line to a daily Swedish prison orgy, the crass selection of jokes had something for the whole family. The actual tennis played was minimal, at best, but the guest interviews from Serena Williams, John McEnroe, and faux-tennis commentators, celebrities, and Wimbledon officials played by played by Will Forte, Fred Armisen, Lena Dunham and their ilk were certainly the highlight. There was no shortage of dirty jokes, absurd erotic interplay, and ridiculous dialogue. In fact, at one point Kit Harington’s Charles Poole responds to a question about his strategy with a basic explanation of Tennis gameplay. Yet, this was not a tennis mockumentary. For all the buildup, the appearance sport personalities, and the timing of the broadcast, 7 Days in Hell was actually surprisingly short on tennis related humor. With the exception of Serena Williams’s well delivered “reverse blindside” joke that was revealed in the trailer, most of the comedy is drawn from Samberg’s debauchery, Kit Harington’s perceived dimness, or June Squibb’s delightful cameo as the Queen of England. This show knows what it wants, and isn’t afraid to capitalize on its strengths. But, sadly, similar to a lot of Samberg’s work, the joke gets stale before the performance ends.

Don’t get me wrong, 7 Days of Hell is not bad. I would say it’s certainly worth a viewing. There are many memorable quotes, and quite a few bits that I’ll be talking about for weeks. But at a certain point, maybe around minute 30, you begin to get the feeling that you’re involved in some sort of meta joke that the production team and writers don’t get. The mockumentary subject is the longest, most drawn out tennis match of all time, and by the end of the week, everybody, especially the Wimbledon crowd, wants the match to end. The match wasn’t 7 days in hell, it was more 3 days of incredible tennis followed by a few days of begrudging acceptance followed by a day or two in hell. That title, of course, is too long for the show, but the point is that in the shows parallel history, the entertainment value had run its course but the match couldn’t end without declaring a winner. And as I neared that point, when the match reaches its 6th day, I too was screaming for recourse. I had become the fake crowd, and the match had become the show. As the bits progressed towards the impossible, the comedy felt more labored, and I understood the pain of the all too formal wimbledon gallery.  But, just as the match, and ‘7 Days’, were getting to be a bit too much, I was treated to a sudden, dramatic, and if at all possible, rushed conclusion. How could the match have ended so inconclusively? How could I feel that the show had ended so abruptly after like 15 minutes of far too drawn out interplay?

In the end, much like the subjects tired, cliche-filled documentaries that it mocks, “7 Days In Hell” experiences its own rise to power, peak, and subsequent fall from grace. It is, however, the total package that makes us remember the real life inspirations for our characters fondly, and this fate too will befall HBO’s newest offering. Is it funny? Yes. Is it a bit too long? I think so? Does the whole show boil down to like 30 penis jokes? Without a doubt. But is it worthy of your attention and viewership?

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