Just a year ago, Morgan Spurlock showed America what a regurgitated Big Mac looks like in Super Size Me. Not only did this debut film become the fourth-highest-grossing documentary ever, but Spurlock’s merry Mac attack apparently shamed McDonald’s into discontinuing the supersize mode entirely. He bounded onto the screen like a skinnier, younger, less abrasive Michael Moore. A populist from the heartland—West Virginia, actually—Spurlock talks the language of regular folk, but he also appeals to the boho crowd: As he points out repeatedly in Super Size Me, his girlfriend, Alex, is a vegan chef. Leaving behind intellectual analysis (the kind of thing that irritates ordinary Americans), Spurlock laid out his case without insulting anyone—except the fast-food conglomerates—in an entertaining, personal way that flirted heavily with elements of reality TV.
30 Days, a six-part television sequel to Super Size Me, warps the line between documentary and reality TV even further as it weaves through American culture. Each episode stages an everydude’s-eye view of topics ranging from tabloid fodder (binge drinking and anti-aging techniques) to the more provocative (Islam and homosexuality). In the riveting first episode, Spurlock and girlfriend Alex take a vacation in other people’s misery, literally, by spending a month surviving on minimum wage. It feels like a retort to The Simple Life. Instead of forcing Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie to adjust to the limits and deprivations of working people, the producers of that show encouraged them to wreak havoc on their hosts’ carefully budgeted lives and wrinkle their perky noses at the icky things folks do to get by. Whereas Morgan and Alex approach their task earnestly, only to be crushed by the enormity of it all. With no savings, they can’t afford a deposit on a decent apartment and end up in an ant-infested place over a former crack den.
“Home sweet hovel,” Alex mutters after a day busing tables at a coffee shop where nobody tips. Having walked home in order to save on bus fare, our frail vegan chef settles down to a nightly dinner of canned beans and crackers she’s stolen from work. Morgan rises before dawn to get to construction jobs where the take-home pay is $44 for 11 hours of exertion. He can pass for a good old boy thanks to his trucker’s mustache and down-home drawl, but really he’s so unaccustomed to physical labor that he injures himself. And because the pair has no health insurance in this painfully realistic scenario, the medical bills threaten to capsize their fragile budget.
As in Super Size Me, Spurlock threads wisps of data through the narrative in an unobtrusive but effective way. For instance, the statistic that couples who make less than $25,000 a year are more likely to get divorced plays out before us, as Morgan and Alex struggle to make time for pleasure in their exhausting lives. These young liberals theoretically live consciously back in Manhattan—making careful decisions about what foods they put into their bodies, for instance—but their relative prosperity insulated them from more basic worries. Now they have to be excruciatingly aware of every move they make. Can Morgan afford to sacrifice a day’s work to stand in line at the free clinic? Should they splurge on a birthday dinner for Alex? They eventually decide to celebrate the occasion in the cheapest manner possible, only to have their budget destroyed when a bus cancellation forces them to take a cab home.
Maybe it’s the starvation kicking in, but the duo wander through the whole episode in a daze. They are stunned and teary-eyed when they discover that the local church has a store where poor people can pick up donated furniture, clothes, and other essentials. “Every town in America should have a free store!” Spurlock proclaims, visibly moved—but not moved enough to place the concept in any political context or reference previous movements that supported the idea, like the Diggers in the ’60s. The episode does a fine job of conveying the everyday reality of the working poor. But this is ultimately Social Justice Lite, lacking the kind of incisive analysis you’d get from Barbara Ehrenreich (who wrote about her own version of the living-on-minimum-wage challenge in Nickel and Dimed) and never daring to propose any kind of political initiative to redress the inequality. Presumably for fear of appearing . . . well, politicized.
In the other five episodes, Spurlock restricts himself to voice-over commentary while we watch other wholesome American guys play lab rat on his behalf. There’s the 37-year-old dad who whacks out his body with a 30-day regime of steroids and anti-aging serums (with effects similar to those Spurlock suffered after a month on his McDonald’s diet) and the devout Christian insurance salesman who agrees to live as a Muslim in a Detroit suburb. Wife Swap with an educational twist, 30 Days wants to change minds by exposing viewers to other perspectives—and judging by the average people on the street Spurlock quizzes about Islam, there are an awful lot of couch potatoes in need of serious schooling.
It would be easy enough to accuse Spurlock of blatantly duplicating the career moves of Michael Moore, who followed the breakout success of Roger and Me with the series TV Nation and The Awful Truth. But the funny thing is that Spurlock was a reality TV pioneer, working at the scummier end of the spectrum. In 2000, he created an Internet show called I Bet You Will that was picked up by MTV. A predecessor to Fear Factor and Jackass, it dared people to eat disgusting things or humiliate themselves for small wads of cash. Just one example of the things people will do to make a living.