Americans like to live in a comfort zone, a realm of blissfully unenlightened social, economic, and dogmatic ignorance. We don’t want to know what goes on outside our own well defined and defended boundaries and as a result, feel that our concerns are the most important in the world.
As part of his campaign to violate this massively myopic vision, Morgan Spurlock has created 30 Days. Those unfamiliar with the Super Size Me director’s modus operandi might envision Michael Moore with less of an axe to grind. Spurlock embodies a new ethos in fact-based entertainment. He’s a daredevil documentarian who uses his camera to participate in the world, not only to observe and judge it.
30 Days is surprisingly good, if a tad uneven. Though it has to deal with the censoring parameters of pay cable, it offers a very brave, unusually harsh view of that televisual realm known as “reality.” Proving he is a genius when it comes to “why didn’t I think of that?” ideas, Spurlock uses the hour-long format to propose that ordinary, decent folk live for a month in the shoes of someone else.
With half of its six episode season already gone, 30 Days has yet to find a consistent voice. The opening installment does not focus on anyone ordinary, but on Morgan and his fiancée Alex Jamieson, who are literally whisked away from the Oscars and all its glitz and glamour, to relocate in a rundown apartment in “The Bottoms,” a notoriously “bad” part of Columbus, Ohio. Their goal: to live on minimum wage for one month, paying all their bills solely from what they earn. Instead of presenting this story in linear fashion, Spurlock fashions a mini-film, complete with confessionals, man on the street interviews, and always interesting “off the cuff” moments, as well as breakdowns of the more “complex” issues, and gobs of that trademark Morgan bemusement. Honestly, no one does sympathetic smarm better than this mustachioed master.
One hoped that, following this Spurlock-focused intro, 30 Days would settle into its “everyday people” premise. The pilot aggravated by virtue of its implied safety net: while Morgan and Alex bitch about an ant infestation or wonder where their next meal of bland beans and rice will come from, a tiny voice in the back of your head reminds you that you’re watching celebrities, people who have all advantages at their beck and cell phone call. In a few days, they’ll be back to being renowned documentarian and published vegan chef. This is just a vacation.
But with Episode Two, 30 Days still didn’t crackle with the controversy it courted. The subject, middle-aged Scott Bridges, was looking to regain his high school athleticism with a bizarre regimen of steroids, Human Growth Hormone, and mega-doses of vitamin supplements. Scott failed to follow through with the program, citing health concerns. Namely, his wife was devastated when she learned that the program had left Scott shooting blanks, and he wasn’t happy about it either. With all their hand-wringing, you’d swear he’d been diagnosed with a terminal disease.
It wasn’t until the most recent installment that 30 Days finally lived up to its confrontational promise. Maybe it was the subject matter—a devout Christian living with Muslims—or perhaps it was the openness of subject West Virginian David Stacy, a man who, while deeply committed to Christ, wanted to know more about this so-called “wrong” religion. Even when he said or did the occasional insensitive thing (like wearing shoes in the Mosque, in front of the Imam), he made an effort to learn, counter to the previous episode’s me-first message. As he dropped his stereotypical views and embraced the common ground between Christians and Muslims, 30 Days’ design became clear. This is TV that’s real, not reality TV.
Still, 30 Days does play a little fast and loose with truth. The experiment in minimum waging unraveled when Spurlock and Alex end up in the hospital, he for a badly bungled wrist, she for a sudden urinary tract infection. As the nearly $1600 bill loomed over their third act, Spurlock never presented the “rob Peter to pay Paul” solution that gets so many working poor through the month, and neither did he borrow from family, work the welfare state or opt for other governmental assistance. Rather, he presented penury as a fascinating faux utopia, where charities offer free furnishings, landlords treat you with respect (it helps when you’ve got a camera crew in tow), and jobs land in your lap. A more convincing version of this story would focus on the daily mechanics of such monetary dire straits (Morgan’s blog
is pretty good about providing follow-up information).
The same can also be said for the other two installments. The doctor treating Scott looked like a refugee from a correspondence school of medicine, with a strange bedside manner more competitive than considerate. And even in David’s enlightening episode, we never met “angry” Muslims. Everyone our concerned Christian ran into was warm and only mildly political (extremism and fundamentalism warranted only a single, two-minute conversation before being brushed back under the rug).
Yet, you cannot challenge 30 Days’ goal. This is a wake-up call as entertainment, a chance for the American couch potato to look at people and problems beyond his dead-bolted door. Spurlock has apparently picked issues to unsettle and incite narrow, Fox News-fed minds. He’s not forcing a leftwing agenda or relegating the right to the role of villain. When discussing why the minimum wage hasn’t been raised in eight years, he allowed both sides of the debate to have their say. And while no one loves being indentured for a mere $5.15 an hour, we did meet a couple of people who were happy to be employed… period. About the only time we see any one-sided reporting is when Spurlock interviews folks on the street, about Islam. We don’t see much support for Mohammed’s faithful. It’s not a PC picture.
While it sometimes reduces catastrophes to television tidbits (we never get closure on the arm or bladder troubles) and too carefully picks its punching bags (Congress is called on the carpet for the lack of a wage hike, while corporate lobbies get off completely), it is a marvelous, mostly unpredictable show. Americans have long stuck their arrogant heads in the sand. Spurlock’s kick in the backsides may not motivate them to move, but it should get them up and looking around. The public sure paid attention when he went after the Golden Arches. I hope they stick around for the meatier menu items on 30 Days.