[8 August 2005]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days came to a limping halt after six so-so episodes. What promised to be a major breakthrough in the way reality television treats its subject—that is, reality—ended up a flawed experiment. With only two episodes of his series delivering on their promise, along with two total failures, Spurlock needs to wander back to the drawing board and rethink his concept when (or if) Season Two is announced.
This concept initially sounded terrific: take an average person, place him or her in someone else’s shoes for 30 days, and record what happens. Since Spurlock has a good sense of the post-Michael Moore documentary format (where the individual doing the investigating is as important, or more so, as the subject matter), the series looked like it would be confrontational and yet insightful. This should have been a chance to view another culture, proclivity, or class of people without the danger of being belittled or misinformed. Unfortunately, 30 Days rarely lived up to its potential.
Take the season finale, “Binge Drinking Mom.” Michiel, a 43-year-old stay-at-home mom, decided that the best way to reach out to her immature, almost always inebriated college student daughter Jessica was to go ahead and get blotto herself. Following a “prescribed” program of binge drinking (which sounds like an oxymoron), the responsible grownup intended to teach the irresponsible child the error of her ways. Michiel repeatedly downed shots with her “mature” friends at a local tavern, while her daughter was feeling her way through matriculation and approaching adulthood.
Throughout the episode, the family avoided confrontation, and legal issues like the drinking age and campus bans were conveniently ignored. The series website claims that this scenario created a “booze-drenched Freaky Friday,” but the truth was more sobering. Early on, we learned that following her own divorce and remarriage, Michiel was incredibly permissive with Jessica, leaving the girl ethically challenged. For her part, Jess freely admitted that her mother would have to “die or something” before she would reconsider her excessive intake of liquor. Instead of intervention and understanding, we saw two soused ships passing in the night.
30 Days was more effective when it structured role reversals. Like the episode titled “Muslims and America,” in which a Christian man lived as a Muslim for a month, “Straight Man in a Gay World,” was absorbing and pointed. Christian farm boy Ryan’s adventures with Ed in San Francisco’s Castro District illustrated just how little some “average” Americans know about their minority brethren. Arriving with a couple of suitcases and a Bible-load of stereotypes, Ryan slowly came to the realization that—guess what—gay people are the same as everyone else. In this hetero exploration of a homo universe, the point was not to show a gay man’s daily struggles. If Spurlock really wanted to explore the gap between gay and straight experiences, he might have paired Ryan with a gay man in a less tolerant area, where he would face persecution and prejudice.
The episode focused attention on Ryan’s belief that God views homosexuality as a sin. Gospel entries appeared on the screen, and several fanatics argued vehemently that gays are akin to “killers.” This focus on religion left out discussions of sex and sexual practices, save for one instance, when Ed condemned Ryan’s behavior during an alcohol-fueled night out (“If you don’t wanna be touched” he chided, “you probably shouldn’t be dancing shirtless in a gay bar”). Once again, 30 Days reduced big picture concepts to isolated incidents, reducing the significance of both.
At other times, 30 Days couldn’t get a subject or premise to gel. In “Off the Grid,” Vito, a tattooed tank from “da Bronx,” just couldn’t get into the hippie-dippy tree-hugging commune where he and best friend Johari landed for a month. He complained incessantly about the lack of meat and the quality of the food. He killed rabbits for food on the co-op grounds, much to the dismay of his environmentalist hosts. He also violated one of the collective’s sacred philosophies when he dropped a plate of cooked dead animal in front of his vegan cohorts and dug in with obvious relish. Johari was initially no better, criticizing the body odors of those around her and dismissing the use of candlelight and human waste composting as “crazy.” But unlike her goombah buddy, Johari eventually came to appreciate the program. It’s telling that, at the final farewell, she walked away with pamphlets on vegetarianism and information on eco-friendly options. Vito, on the other hand, vowed to use more energy efficient light bulbs.
Vito’s reaction showed that Spurlock’s effort to educate, even if it reached viewers, did not necessarily extend to his subjects. In this way, 30 Days cheated its audience. While no one expected Ryan to “go gay” or born-again David Stacy to give up Christ for Mohammed, the fact that participants could reject any potential “immersion” experience (Vito ate meat anyway, Jessica ignored her mother’s efforts) wasn’t good television. It did, however, support Spurlock’s thesis, that we are a narrow-minded people too set in our ways to change. In most cases, he couldn’t be more right.
What the next season of 30 Days needs is a greater focus on “in the shoes of” scenarios and less reliance on “learn by example” exercises. No one is going to convince someone else to give up abhorrent behavior by mimicking it; moreover, reducing the complexities of conservation to personal discomfort or abandoning a health regime when troubled by a single aspect of it undermines the series’ objectives. Spurlock should also remind his subjects that they need to play along, not just perform for the camera. 30 Days was supposed to open the doors of perception. True, you can’t get participants in your television experiment to do exactly what you want, but in this case, several were too wrapped up in themselves even to try.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/30-days-050808/