30 Days is a television documentary series on the FX Network in the United States that began airing on June 15, 2005. The series is hosted by Morgan Spurlock, the documentarian behind Super Size Me, and in fact each episode comes off much like a miniaturized version of Super Size Me. In each episode, a person spends 30 days participating in some sort of activity designed to "change their perspective." The first season was six episodes in length and received strong enough ratings that FX has ordered a second season of the show.
This show has obvious parallels to Michael Moore's television series' TV Nation and The Awful Truth in that both feature a documentarian attempting to tackle issues in a bite-sized television format. As a fan of Moore's shows (I generally like Moore's work up until he went crazy with Bowling for Columbine and decided that facts were no longer a part of a documentary as long as the documentarian has a point to promote), I will say that 30 Days has even greater potential than these, although often it does not live up to the promise.
In concept, this show seems like a real winner, because the viewer actually has the opportunity to see a multitude of perspectives challenged and perhaps some preconceptions could be altered by this show. Unfortunately, the series falls completely flat because each episode falls into one of two distinct logical traps.
- There is no real perspective to be overcome. This is the same fundamental problem behind Super Size Me; everyone knew going in that fast food was bad for a consumer. Was anyone actually shocked that Spurlock's health collapsed during that film? Some of the episodes of the first season fall into this logical trap.
- All of the changed perspectives were to foist liberal perspectives on conservatives. The remaining episodes of the season actually did do a good job of challenging perspectives, but in each case, the person being challenged was holding a conservative perspective going in and was put into a situation to "liberalize" their perspective. Not once did the reverse happen.
This is not to say that the show isn't entertaining. It is a very entertaining program and is perhaps the best hour of reality television to be found this side of PBS (some of the "reality" shows on PBS, such as 1800 House are both entertaining and informative). Spurlock has tons of personality and this comes through time and time again in the series, even though he is often not the focus of a given episode. Much like Super Size Me, the show incorporates a ton of humor into the situation, making the medicine go down quite smoothly.
Season 1 Episodes
Episode 1: Minimum Wage
First aired June 15, 2005
In this episode, Morgan and his fiancee Alex move from New York City to Columbus, Ohio for thirty days. They each work at multiple minimum wage jobs (minimum wage being $5.15 an hour). This episode merely reinforces what we already know: it is very difficult to survive in the United States on $5.15 an hour, particularly if you're used to a relatively posh New York City lifestyle. The stronger points of this episode came not from the work experience itself, but from the peripheral issues. Both Alex and Morgan were injured at work, but it became clear to them that taking time off of work means that there simply won't be enough money to go around. In addition, Morgan's niece and nephew visit for the weekend which ends up impacting their budget quite a lot, demonstrating that children are a very desperate problem for those on minimum wage. Although on the surface Morgan attempted to justify the low minimum wage by suggesting that some would be laid off if minimum wage were raised, the show seemed to clearly indicate that minimum wage ought to be raised.
Episode 2: Anti-Aging
First aired June 22, 2005
In this episode, Scott is a 34 year old man who used to be a top athlete and wants that body back - at pretty much any cost. Not only did he start eating better and working with a weight trainer, he began a regimen of human growth hormone and testosterone injections. Almost immediately, Scott began to look better, but he started to suffer liver damage, his sperm count dropped drastically, and he began to have steroid rage fits. After 22 days, Scott stopped with the injections, but planned to continue with the diet and workouts. At the same time, Morgan went to Mexico and demonstrated that it is effortless to acquire anabolic steroids there (he basically just walked into a pharmacy and asked for them). The moral of the episode was obvious: steroids and growth hormones are a Faustian bargain.
Episode 3: Muslims and America
First aired June 29, 2005
Dave is a Christian man from a rather conservative town in West Virginia, and an avid Bush supporter. Dave moved in with a Muslim family in Michigan for thirty days, in which he was required to appear and behave like a Muslim. I found this to be the best episode of the series, because you could really see Dave's perspectives being changed throughout the show. At the beginning, he almost seemed to believe that he was moving in with terrorists, but by the end, he was standing up for their faith, which (as I know quite well) is a hard thing for many Christians to do. My real problem here was that Morgan spent a portion of the episode asking people what they thought of when they heard the word "Muslim," and almost all responded with some form of "terrorist," which makes me wonder if the tape was being edited or not. I tend to think that it was edited, with a lot of non-"terrorist" answers being deleted; I can't conceive such a huge number of people would actually say such a thing. The point here is again obvious: Muslims in general are not evil terrorists.
Episode 4: Straight Man in a Gay World
First aired July 6, 2005
Ryan is a straight and rather homophobic Christian conservative who moves into an apartment in San Francisco's Castro district with Ed, a gay man. Although the point of this episode is that gay and straight people aren't really all that different, it didn't seem to alter Ryan's worldview very much, although he does admit that his homophobia may be a part of the culture he grew up in. I did enjoy Morgan's interview with the Reverend Fred Phelps, but I got this vibe that Phelps was being shown as a representative of the Christian perspective on gay issues, when in fact Phelps is an ultra right wing nutjob.
Episode 5: Off the Grid
First aired July 13, 2005
Vito (a white male, for those who care) and Johari (an African-American female) are both involved in the night life in New York City, and for thirty days they move into an ecological commune in Missouri called Dancing Rabbit where the focus is on rural ecological living. Mostly, this episode came off as a promotional junket for such a lifestyle: vegetarianism and simple living are heavily promoted here, and techniques for the application of biodiesel and use of purely organic materials for building purposes were shown off. This episode mostly just demonstrates that a lot of things we view as requirements in modern life (gasoline, prepackaged and processed foods, etc.) aren't really requirements at all.
Episode 6: Binge Drinking Mom
First aired July 20, 2005
I felt that this was the worst episode of the series, as it didn't even seem to have a point other than excessive drinking is bad for you. Michiel is a single mother of a rather rebellious teenager named Jessica, who is into binge drinking. In order to demonstrate the problems with binge drinking, Michiel spends thirty days getting smashed every night at a local club. Rather than getting through to Jessica, the daughter basically just shrugs her shoulders and often thinks her mom is doing a good thing by letting her hair down. At some points, the episode looks at the parenting role that Michiel has, but it all sort of falls flat.
Thoughts on Future Directions
This show has a great deal of potential because of the wide open fundamental idea of the show. However, the first season only really shined when it was clear that perspectives were actually being changed; this is why the "Muslims in America" episode was clearly the strongest one in the first season. Another deep problem is the rather liberal slant that the show takes on choosing topics. Almost exclusively, the show takes conservatives and puts them in liberal settings, or takes liberals and puts them in even more liberal settings. Basically, the show forced the audience to see things a certain way rather than making up their own minds. This is what separates good (albeit entertaining) documentaries like Super Size Me apart from great ones like Hoop Dreams: the audience doesn't have to be force fed the message.
If each episode must have such a fundamental point, a better way to do it would be to reverse the "fish out of water" premise and have the outsider be the more liberal one. For example, an episode having a local gay rights leader in San Francisco move in with a conservative Christian family for a month would likely expose both sides to some new ideas rather than simply having the outsiders learn something new. Another idea would be to have a relatively liberal Christian family (ones involved with relatively progressive perspectives in the church) have a staunch atheist move in with them for a month. Why not have Morgan go completely homeless for a month to see exactly what conditions are like for the homeless (are they better or worse than the prevailing perspective)? Almost as a parallel episode to the minimum wage one, how about putting Morgan in charge of a small business for a month (i.e., a franchise situation or something like that)?
This show has a huge amount of potential for future episodes and it seems as though the appropriate production team is in place to make it be a very worthwhile program, but the first season only showed glimmers of what is possible in 30 Days.