Fox // 2005 // 354 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // August 2nd, 2006
Try someone else's life on for size.
Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock follows up his successful Super Size Me with this innovative reality show that originally aired on the FX Network in the summer of 2005. The first season must have been successful, because season two will air later this year.
30 Days retains both the framework of Super Size Me and its inherent goal to increase social awareness. In every self-contained episode, someone spends 30 days either immersed in a new, totally foreign environment, or engaged in an unusual, usually inimical, activity. In the first episode, Spurlock, with his fiancé Alexandra, spends 30 days working a minimum wage job and attempts to live solely on the meager earnings. A subsequent episode features a devout Christian spending 30 days with a Muslim family. Another has two city slickers spending 30 days living in a hippie commune. You get the idea.
The first season of 30 Days consists of six 45-minute episodes spread out over two discs. They include:
* "Minimum Wage"
This is the best episode in the series. Not coincidentally, it is the only 30-day experience that Spurlock imposes on himself (along with fiancé Alexandra). As previously mentioned, the two of them (who seem to be doing very well since Super Size Me) leave the credit and debit cards at home and try to make ends meet by working minimum wage jobs for a month. They live in an ant-infested apartment, eschew the bus in favor of walking, and eat bland dinners of Goya beans and toast. Still, problems arise almost immediately as Alexandra and Morgan need medical attention and cannot afford the hospital bills. Then nephews come to visit and Morgan insists on spending money the couple cannot afford on snacks at the movies. And then, after an enjoyable, and affordable, birthday for Alexandra (activities include riding on a swing set), their evening is ruined when the local bus inexplicably stops running and they are forced to pay $15 for a cab ride home. Of course, financial trouble leads to battles against hunger, struggles to stay warm, and nearly endless bickering. While Alexandra recovers from a urinary track infection Morgan takes on a second job, works 18 hours a day, and they are still unable to pay their bills. Thankfully, Morgan's genial demeanor provides welcome levity in a subject has contains very little organic humor.
Shortly after this episode originally aired my mother called me and announced that it had inspired her to rejoin the Democratic Party (she had been slowly drifting to the right over the past few decades). As one who has had the extreme good fortune of being born into a middle class family, the idea of working full time and still having to steal Saltine crackers came as a shock. For anyone who doesn't think raising the minimum wage is a "values issue," I urge you to watch this episode.
Sadly, Morgan is not the guinea pig for this episode, or any of the others in this season (for season two he will spend 30 days in jail). Instead we have Scott, a humorless door-to-door salesman who, at age 34, is concerned with his pudgy appearance. He begins injecting testosterone and growth hormone into his floppy stomach in hopes of reversing the aging process. Scott becomes even more humorless once the testosterone kicks in, causing him to kick doors and yell at the camera. After his liver begins malfunctioning and his sperm count plunges his attitude doesn't improve much.
It seems like 30 Days really hit the side-effects trifecta with Scott. It's almost suspicious how his body responded so perfectly disastrous to the treatments. Still, if these testosterone and growth hormone injections pose even a fraction of the danger presented here, and if this episode effectively discourages their use, then job well done.
* "Muslims and America"
David is a God-fearing Christian from West Virginia who suspects that Islam preaches intolerance and encourages violence. But he doesn't know any Muslims personally and has never read the Koran. So he spends 30 days living with a devout Muslim family in Deerborn, Michigan. In addition to sharing the same quarters, David also wears traditional Muslim clothing, grows a beard, and attends Mosque.
Though David is passionate about his own religion, he is curious and respectful of Islam. Many of the questions he asks of his host family, and his Muslim spiritual advisor, convey concerns that are rampant among Americans as a whole. Some may be surprised to see Muslims responding calmly and rationally to David's questions. This episode does a valuable service by providing a woefully underrepresented image of a moderate Muslim family in America. It may be a tad too Pollyana-ish for some, but it heartened me to see a Christian and Muslim argue and then, ultimately, peacefully agree to disagree.
* "Straight Man in a Gay World"
Ryan is a Christian who adheres to the scriptures' teachings that homosexuality is a sin. To combat this homophobia he is sent to San Francisco's Castro district, an area that, as Ryan keenly observes, is probably the gayest area on the planet. He lives with a gay roommate, plays on a gay softball team, prays at a gay church, goes gay bar hopping, and works in a cheese shop (which, let's face it, is pretty gay).
For the first four weeks of his trip, Ryan struggles to square the Biblical image of depraved sodomites and the hospitable friends he makes in California. To his credit, Ryan speaks thoughtfully about the Bible's teachings against homosexuality, and never comes off as hateful or bigoted (unlike Fred Phelps, who is briefly interviewed by Spurlock). During his final days in the Castro, Ryan begins to slowly understand that homosexuals are not fetishists (or at least, no more so than the general population), but are in fact a part of the universal human condition.
As one who believes that marriage equality is an integral part of a free and secular government, I think this episode does a great service in showing that there need be no natural contention between those of differing sexual preferences. Those who disagree will have a far more negative reaction to "Straight Man in a Gay World." But then those who disagree would probably not be watching a program like this in the first place.
* "Off the Grid"
In this unique episode of 30 Days, we have two test subjects. Vito and Johari are two city dwellers that use up a disproportionate amount of the Earth's resources to support their daily lifestyle. They are shipped off to Dancing Rabbit, a "hippie commune" (Vito's words) that strives for environmentally friendly living (inhabitants are mostly vegan, use solar energy, go to the bathroom in buckets, etc.).
While protecting the environment is surely one of the most pressing concerns in this country, it makes for tedious viewing. Vito and Johari's constant complaining becomes grating very quickly, and the conflict between them and Dancing Rabbit residents seems to be contrived for dramatic effect.
* "Binge Drinking Mom"
Michiel, a mother of four, is concerned about her eldest daughter's drinking habits. The girl, who is 19 and a college freshman, happily admits to binge drinking at least three nights a week. To teach her daughter a lesson, Michiel decides to...get drunk? For four nights a week, Michiel must consume at least five alcoholic drinks within two hours. Of course, she gets drunk. She throws up. She ignores her other children. In a supposedly touching scene, Michiel gets trashed in a bowling alley and her young son bursts into tears.
In the end, Michiel's daughter blows her mom off and tells her she still enjoys drinking. And why not? She's young, she's in college, and, unlike her mom, has few responsibilities. I certainly don't endorse binge drinking, but an alcoholic mother of four is in no way comparable to a teenager who likes to party hard. In the end, Michiel says she learned that when she is drunk she is not a good mother, but did she really need 30 days of boozing to learn this? Unless you have an urge to see a grown woman do shots with a bunch of college kids, feel free to skip this poorly constructed episode.
As you can see, the episodes vary greatly in quality, with returns slowly diminishing as the season progresses. Still, the show's premise is clever, and holds great potential for future seasons. I only hope that Morgan Spurlock can free up enough time to use himself as a guinea pig more often.
Like most reality shows, 30 Days was shot on video and employed hidden cameras, so the picture and sound are negligible. However, the bonus features on this DVD set are pretty generous. We get audio commentary on four of the six episodes (not surprisingly the two without commentary are the weakest -- "Off the Grid" and "Binge Drinking Mom"). The test subjects are involved in all commentaries except for "Anti-Aging," in which producers drone on about technical aspects of the show's construction. In addition, every episode features "Daily Cam" excerpts, in which test subjects vent their frustrations. All in all, Fox has put together a nifty set that is sure to be appreciated by fans of the show.
As you have probably noticed, many episode themes dovetail with Democratic Party talking points. This doesn't bother me too much. But dittoheads will find much to rankle them here.
"Minimum Wage," is probably one of the most edifying and affecting hours of television produced last year. It could have easily been expanded to feature length, and perhaps should have. It deserves as wide an audience as possible, but should be required viewing for America's lawmakers. The rest of the show is largely hit or miss. The fact that the last episode was so poorly thought out hints at a possible creative bankruptcy, but the series still holds great potential.
Morgan Spurlock is guilty of teasing us with his starring role in the introductory episode, then making only brief, cameo appearances through the rest of his series.
Review content copyright © 2006 Brendan Babish; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 354 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary on four episodes
* "Diary Cam" for every episode
* Morgan Spurlock's Weblog