It would be tempting to call HBO “7 Days in Hell” the perfect bonbon for summer: This parody of sports documentaries is short, ephemeral and features ridiculous men running around in shorts.
But “7 Days” is so good it could legitimately be enjoyed in the depths of winter or even during an autumn cold snap. We expect HBO to try hard to reach the pinnacle of TV achievement, but sometimes its offerings are most effective when they stop grimly attempting to be Great and settle for being entertaining. On the latter score, “7 Days,” well, scores.
The premise of “7 Days,” which debuted July 11 and is available via all the usual platforms, is simple: Andy Samberg plays Aaron Williams, a bad-boy tennis star who faces down Charles Poole (Kit Harington), a preposterously dumb prodigy, in a legendary 2001 Wimbledon final. To the disgruntlement of the sports commentators who have to narrate the grinding battle, the championship match lasts an incredible seven days.
Very long matches at Wimbledon aren’t actually an unknown quantity, as anyone who sat through the legendary 2009 Roddick-Federer final can attest (that game was actually shorter than a slugfest in the early rounds the following year, which lasted more than 11 hours). Without being showy about it, “7 Days” makes it clear that its creative team knows their tennis lore, but you don’t necessarily need to be a fan of the sport to get some belly laughs from the 43-minute piece. Given how cliched, predictable and cloying they can be, aspirational sports documentaries are ripe targets, and writer/producer Murray Miller and his extremely game cast take aim at some of the juiciest ones.
Of the two leads, Samberg’s is the showier role. Aaron Williams — in this tale, he's the adopted brother of tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams — possesses an insane coiffure, a boastful attitude and a heedless abandon that eventually lands him in a Swedish prison. (It looks, as you might guess, like a spa decorated by Ikea.) Samberg’s energy can sometimes be overly dominant (it took the enjoyable “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” some time to calibrate his brash character), but there are so many other good performances and surreal touches that “7 Days” ends up being both balanced and delightfully varied.
Kit Harington’s Poole is a shy Englishman who has a shot at the Wimbledon title, so the home-court pressure is fierce, and he faces some other formidable obstacles as well: His overbearing mother, his own limited intelligence and the emotional maturity of a 4-year-old all combine to sabotage him on and off the court. Harington’s effective brooding in “Game of Thrones” deservedly gained the actor and his impressive hair a worldwide following, but you can sense how much he enjoys playing a very different character, one who really and truly knows nothing and whose brow remains knit in endless confusion. In a lesser work, Mary Steenburgen’s wandering accent as Poole’s supposedly English mother might be a problem, but in this rich, goofy stew, it’s just one more nonsensical element to enjoy.
So how does the Queen of England end up involved? Why was Williams in a Swedish prison? You may well ask, but those aspects of "7 Days" are so winningly goofy that I’ll leave you to discover them for yourself. Williams' stint as the designer of questionable underwear has something to do with his incarceration, and that’s a tangent that gets more effectively ridiculous the further it goes, but the good news is, unlike many documentaries, “7 Days” isn’t weighed down by too many side plots or a lot of questionable filler. What it does have is more male frontal nudity than the entirety of “Game of Thrones,” for whatever that’s worth.
Actual tennis personalities are deployed to very good effect; John McEnroe, the most famous on-court bad boy of his era, supplies dry wit as a talking head providing context, and Chris Evert and Serena Williams are similarly subtle and slyly funny. Sports commentator Jim Lampley pops up here and there as well, and the pivotal match is peppered with the apparently tennis-hating Lampley offering several variations on the line, “Please, let this end.”
Other lively participants include Lena Dunham, Will Forte and Karen Gillan, but the scene-stealing performance to end all scene-stealing performances belongs to Michael Sheen, who plays a middle-aged, pot-bellied chat-show host whose interest in Poole is creepy to the nth degree. Sheen is clearly having a blast playing the lascivious host, and he ferociously captures a certain kind of oily, disturbing English condescension. I don’t care how great Sheen is in “Masters of Sex” -- and he’s often spectacular on that show -- this may be his finest work yet. He’s only in a few scenes, but the whole thing is worth watching just for those ridiculous minutes.
I hope Miller isn’t done satirizing sports documentaries or other kinds of documentaries. As much as I love that kind of storytelling, the reflexive dependence on a pose of sober nobility is just too tempting to ignore. The good news is, TV is able to support so many micro-genres now that IFC has commissioned “Documentary Now!,” a documentary-mockery vehicle from Fred Armisen, Seth Meyers and Bill Hader; it arrives Aug. 20.
Even if “7 Days” is HBO’s only foray into this sweaty realm, this skillfully crafted comedy was clearly worth the effort that was put into it. It’s by no means the deepest thing you’ll watch this year, but you’d have to search far and wide to find a program that hits its chosen target with such concentrated glee.