Amiable of nature and handlebarred of mouth, Morgan Spurlock was the darling of Sundance 2004 due to his documentary Super Size Me, in which he spent 30 days on an all-McDonald’s diet and reaped the repellent consequences. The film became an unusual Oscar nominee — part diligent reporting, part character piece — with the unassuming Spurlock as its star.
With his new FX series, 30 Days, Spurlock and exec producer R.J. Cutler (The War Room) spin out that formula, daring people to live a certain life for a month and see what insights arise. The debut episode, clearly inspired by Barbara Ehrenreich’s investigative memoir, Nickel and Dimed, has Spurlock and his vegan-chef fiancée, Alex Jamieson (his charming Super Size costar), trying to survive on minimum wage. The show combines ugly, sharp facts (minimum wage has been stuck at $5.15/hour since 1997) with ugly, sharper reality. Plopped in Ohio, Spurlock and Jamieson share a bus pass, work several jobs, live in an ant-infested, freezing dump, and still barely get by.
The episode is full of heartfelt moments: Jamieson, buried in winter wear and worn with work, weeps when she discovers a free store for people in need. ”Human beings can be so incredibly wonderful, and sometimes I forget that,” she sniffles. But the vagaries of a working-poor life are unnerving: Halfway through the 30 days, the two find themselves squabbling over whether to splurge on 60-cent pastries. Ultimately, the uninsured duo are undone by a pair of doctor’s visits, with such obscenities as a $40 Ace bandage.
Spurlock continues as the host of subsequent episodes. Thirty-something family man Scott embarks on an antiaging regimen that includes myriad supplements and shots of testosterone and growth hormones; Dave, a devoted if blinkered Christian, lives with a Muslim family for a month. While Spurlock, with his down-home demeanor, has been compared to Michael Moore, his is a mellower kind of documentary. 30 Days has minimal money shots — no intentionally combative gimmickry here. There are even cartoons to explain things like, say, the differences between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. It’s anomalous in this day of Moore’s staged antics and docuseries like Bravo’s Project Greenlight and Showbiz Moms & Dads, which are cast with the most combustible friction makers possible.
Instead 30 Days showcases people grappling. Scott bickers with his wife over the program: He nervously soldiers on through liver problems and testosterone tantrums, but the father of three — boyishly proud of his supersize sperm count — drops out when he starts shooting blanks (health and sire-ability trump desirability). Christian Dave and his Pakistani-American hosts butt heads over whether Muslims should publicly denounce 9/11. They don’t reach a conclusion — Dave’s goodbye cake reads ”Let’s agree to disagree.” But that’s the joy of the show. 30 Days is not about black and white, but about gray matter at work.