30 Days - Season 1

[28 July 2006]

By Marisa LaScala

Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days, which recently returned to FX for its second season, is an attempt to take his successful Super Size Me formula and pare it down for the small screen. Each episode features a willing subject who undergoes a month-long social experiment: a Christian man from West Virginia goes to live with a Muslim family in Dearborn, Michigan; two city-dwelling energy-guzzlers live in a commune that’s “off the grid”; a military man from Michigan goes to live with a gay man in San Francisco; and so on.

The idea works, perhaps even more than the documentary that made it possible. While Super Size Me is certainly compelling and makes a strong argument, its central tenet—that fast food is bad for you—is mostly common knowledge. It doesn’t take 90 minutes to drive that point home.  Though the lessons learned in 30 Days can be just as self-evident (the environment is good, Muslims are good, binge drinking is bad, etc.), the hour-long television format requires less of an investment, and therefore is a better match for the concept. The resulting mix of entertaining personal stories and informational segments addressing the larger issues is reminiscent of the better moments of Michael Moore’s The Awful Truth—only with a more charismatic host.

Spurlock himself only appears as the subject of the first episode. (Commentaries reveal that he originally planned to take on all of the monthly trials, but his fiancée, Alex Jamieson, said that his doing so would quickly find him single.) He and Jamieson travel to Columbus, Ohio, where they vow to live only on minimum-wage earnings. The episode finds them landing multiple jobs, working 14-hour days, sharing a bus pass, and shivering in a run-down apartment. It’s a good thing Spurlock brings Jamieson along for the experience. His generally easygoing attitude and jovial demeanor—and all the smiling behind the goofy moustache—makes it seem like he really wouldn’t mind eating leftover pizza on the floor of a freezing, ant-infested dive for a month. It’s Jamieson who really struggles with the lifestyle, grounding the episode; she’s the one who gets upset when he spends an extra $1.60 on pastries for his niece and nephew, and she’s the one who cries from gratitude when they finally find a charitable organization willing to set them up with basic furnishings.

The rest of the episodes fall into two general categories. The first group has its participants challenge themselves in solo experiments, such as a man who undergoes a radical anti-aging hormone therapy, or a mom who lives the college binge-drinking life to send a message to her daughter. The second brings together two seemingly incompatible groups of people, such as military Midwesterners and homosexuals, and dares them to cohabitate for a month. The latter category is deeper and more fascinating because it becomes clear that both sides begin the 30 days with preconceived notions about the other, and yet they all manage to forge a common ground. (At a going-away party for Dave Stacy, the Christian man who went to live with a Muslim a family, his hosts presented him with a cake with the frosted message: “Let’s agree to disagree.”)

Commentary tracks, which appear on four of the six episodes, serve a dual purpose on the DVD collection. As most commentaries do, they give behind-the-scenes glimpse of the show’s production, which in itself is interesting enough. However, they make more of an impact when the episodes’ central players are reunited for the commentaries. These provide an engaging follow-up to the 30-day experiments, where the subjects expound upon the response they’ve received to their episodes and the moments that stick with them.

DVD-exclusive “Diary Cams”—confessional footage not used in the original episodes—are not as captivating. They don’t shed any new light on the experiences of the subjects, and it is clear why the footage wasn’t used in the first place. What would have been more interesting would be taking a cue from the commentary tracks and catching up with the participants some time after the episodes have ended—say, 30 days after their return to their normal lives—to see how the experience has changed them, if it has changed them, in the long-term.

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Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/30-days-season-1/