Review

HBO's '7 Days in Hell' finds a hilarious match in Samberg, Harington

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

Timed to coincide with the occasional racquet-throwing, name-calling, game-suspension antics of Wimbledon, HBO's new quick-and-dirty sports mockumentary, "7 Days in Hell," is as strange and splendid a bit of satire as you will ever find jampacked into 42 minutes of television.

The program, which premieres Saturday, deftly spoofs Wimbledon, the tennis world, the sports documentary, the resurrection/little guy/dark horse tale, and, with scenes of outrageous nudity and sexuality, the mockumentary itself. Certainly the Andy Samberg- and "Girls" writer Murray Miller-driven satire sets new cinematic standards for digital orgy scenes and general scrotal usage.

With the aid of "playing themselves" commentators Serena Williams, Chris Evert, Jim Lampley and John McEnroe, the film chronicles a legendary (and obviously fictional) weeklong match between washed-up American bad boy Aaron Williams (Samberg in an Andre Agassi wig that may require a new Emmy category) and the dimwitted odds-on British champion Charles Poole ("Game of Thrones' " Kit Harington, as far from Jon Snow as it is possible to be while still playing a human).

The adopted brother of the Williams sisters, Aaron embodies an array of colorful players — Agassi, Ilie Nastase, Bjorn Borg, McEnroe — whose on- and off-court misbehavior is tolerated as long as the tennis is good. But after a bizarre twist ends his career, Aaron hits all manner of bottoms (figuratively and, alas, literally). Only when Poole, a cringing prodigy terrorized by mother, Queen and predatory talk show host (played with damp lechery and cigarette-ash mastery by Michael Sheen), proclaims himself the better player does Aaron emerge from his pit of despair (and Swedish prison).

The result is a match made in heaven and hell that stretches on for seven days, aided by psychology, absurdity, the weather and the passivity of British tennis rules, explained sporadically by a local expert, played by Fred Armisen.

Indeed, one could watch and enjoy "7 Days in Hell" for cameo-counting alone — June Squibb shows up as the Queen, Howie Mandel as "the Duke," Lena Dunham as a former Jordache marketer and David Copperfield as his own outrageous self. But "7 Days in Hell" does not rely on star power.

The film, like the very best satire, often seems more doc than mock — Williams, Evert and especially McEnroe remain deliciously straight-faced as they describe the fictional characters and situations. If Samberg and Miller more than occasionally veer "hard-R" for male genitalia and "monarch profanity" just for the sake of it, they quickly veer back. The most absurd moments (Copperfield appearing on Charles' shoulders, Aaron snorting coke off his tennis racket) are smart riffs on pop culture and our endless need for certain kinds of story lines, in and out of sports.

It's a bright and breezy 42 minutes. Samberg is obviously having the time of his life; Harington, having shed the weight of the Wall, looks years younger, and even HBO has a new spring in its step.

It's cool to break records, spark controversy and win Emmys, but sometimes even a premium cable network just wants to have a little fun.

Twitter: @marymacTV

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'7 Days in Hell'

Where: HBO

When: 10 p.m. Saturday

Rating: TV-MA-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)

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