Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski will spend the next 30 days immersed in the grueling lifestyle of a DVD reviewer.
"You will be changed. You will walk out of this experience a different person—a much more understanding person, hopefully a much more caring person."—Morgan Spurlock
After the success of his own documentary experiment eating nothing but McDonald's for 30 days in 2004's Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock spun that formula into an ongoing series for FX. For three (short) seasons, 30 Days converted America's most controversial political issues into wacky reality TV scenarios, usually forcing people with sharply opposing views to live and/or work together. Though the results were uneven, Spurlock's series was much more interesting, thoughtful, and politically engaged than similar fare like Wife Swap or The Real World.
After a couple of years off the air, the full run of 30 Days is now available in one package—for those who didn't pick up the individual season sets along the way.
Facts of the Case
30 Days: The Complete Series includes all 18 episodes of the series, spread over 6 discs in a multi-disc keep case:
Disc One (Season One)
• "Minimum Wage"
• "Muslims and America"
Disc Two (Season One)
• "Straight Man in a Gay World"
• "Off the Grid"
• "Binge Drinking Mom"
Disc Three (Season Two)
• "Atheist & Christianity"
Disc Four (Season Two)
• "New Age"
• "Pro-Choice, Pro-Life"
Disc Five (Season Three)
• "Working in a Coal Mine"
• "30 Days in a Wheelchair"
• "Animal Rights"
Disc Six (Season Three)
• "Same Sex Parenting"
• "Gun Nation"
• "Life on an Indian Reservation"
When it was airing on FX, 30 Days was something of an intellectual oasis in the reality TV desert. It was the rare reality show that snobs like me could watch as something other than a guilty pleasure. But at the same time, it was a lot more fun than most political documentaries, with Spurlock's humor, participants we get to know well, and the extra drama squeezed out by the show's wacky scenarios. 30 Days tried to bridge the gap between PBS documentary connoisseurs and MTV reality show indulgers (which may have made it tough to market, I'd guess).
The show basically has two kinds of scenarios, both of which produced some great episodes and some more forgettable ones: "two people try to change each other's minds about an issue" and "participant educates audience about a social issue." Spurlock himself was often the participant in the latter scenario and—unsurprisingly—his charisma makes these episodes among the most memorable. They also do a very nice job of shedding light on serious social problems, like the difficulty of living on minimum wage and poor conditions in America's prison system. Once in a while, missing or misleading information sullies their educational contribution, though. I watched "Minimum Wage" with my partner, who is a sociologist, and she pointed out that people in Morgan and Alex's situation would likely qualify for government assistance programs and wouldn't be relying entirely on their paychecks like Morgan and Alex do in the episode. They complain a lot about how much they're spending just to feed themselves, for example, but a real couple living on minimum wage would qualify for food stamps. Considering that living on minimum wage is remarkably difficult even with government assistance, it's a shame that the show dulls the power of its own arguments with inaccuracies like this one. I felt some of the same suspicions about "Jail." Morgan makes a big deal about how little exercise these guys get and how seldom they go outside, but the episode itself was a little squirrely about telling us exactly what kind of facility Morgan was in. On the commentary track he makes brief mention of the fact that many of the men in here were awaiting transfer to a longer-term facility. So are conditions here designed to be short-term? Will the men have better access to exercise and fresh air wherever they end up? The series' activism on these issues would ring more true if it gave us a few more of the facts.
Spurlock himself doesn't undertake any of the "change each other's minds" experiments, but many of these are also very powerful. I was particularly moved by the anti-immigration Minuteman's interactions with Armida, the brainy and ambitious high schooler whose undocumented status might crush her dreams of a top-notch college education. Equally articulate and compassionate in representing themselves were the Haque family in "Muslims in America" and the gay couple in "Same Sex Parenting."
This last episode stands out from many of the others in its deviation from the show's usual formula. While the 30 days of immersion usually changes the participant's views in some significant way—not a 180 reversal, but often a significant softening to whatever it was that they were so against at the beginning—the woman who moves in with the gay dads doesn't seem to emerge any more open-minded. She sticks to her hard-line, biblical disapproval of gay parents for the whole episode, prompting one of the more emotional and dramatic scenes of the series. One of the dads, who has been a very warm and soft-spoken individual throughout the experiment, sits his guest down at the end of the month and tells her—as gently as possible—that they're not going to remain friends. For him, her refusal to accept a part of him (his role as a gay dad) that is so integral to who he is and that represents his proudest accomplishment in life means they can't be in each other's lives and just agree to disagree. For me, this was a very upsetting episode—and also very powerful—because it showed how deeply ingrained anti-gay feelings can be when they stem from religious beliefs rather than a simple lack of exposure to what gay people are really like. I felt deeply sad that this woman couldn't recognize through the dads' example that gay parents routinely provide wonderful homes to kids from the adoption and foster care systems who might otherwise end up without families (picking up the slack for straight people with unwanted pregnancies, I might add—we queers don't have a lot of those). And I felt proud of the gay dad who refused to just smile and accept this bigotry at the month's end. I'm sure that anti-gay viewers also found this episode powerful because of the participant's stalwart commitment to her religious views.
Weaker moments in the series often stem from poorly constructed scenarios. As Judge Brendan Babish points out in his review of the show's first season, for example, "Binge Drinking Mom" takes a rather silly approach to the issue of binge drinking, as alcoholism in a mother of four with lots of responsibilities is not really equivalent to the binge drinking habits of a college student. "Outsourcing" is another example of an issue that doesn't fit well into 30 Days's approach. While the American worker learns that Indians desperately need the jobs that are going overseas, there is crucial element missing from the episode's formula: it was never the Indian workers who were the "enemy," but rather the American CEOs who make the decisions to outsource jobs, and these people are noticeably absent.
In terms of the release itself, 30 Days: The Complete Series simply collects the discs from the previous releases of individual seasons and throws them all into one box without any added material (the discs themselves have their original image printing, too, so they don't look like a consistent set). Consequently, the set will be a nice space- and money-saver for folks who didn't buy the individual seasons, but not a worthwhile purchase for those who did. Image and sound quality are pretty impressive compared to most documentary releases, and indeed the production values on small-screen 30 Days seem stronger than they were on the show's big-screen inspiration, Super Size Me. Extras (most generous in the first season) include commentary tracks on eight episodes and "diary cam" footage from each Season One episode. The additional footage totals about 10-15 minutes per episode and gives us some additional insight into participants' experiences as they talk privately to a tripod-mounted camera during their down time. Obviously, this material isn't as strong as what made it into the show and there is a fair amount of repetition—explanation of events we've already seen play out in the episode itself. The same kind of repetition happens on the commentary tracks, but these are a little more interesting because they also provide background on the production—like how they cast participants—and the reflections of the on-screen guinea pigs looking back at their experience. There are some funny moments, too, as when Spurlock describes the jail's food as what would be produced if food from hospitals and airplanes mated and when the guy who had to live in a gay neighborhood misremembers finding penis flavored gum at a local novelty store (it was actually penis shaped).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though the series keeps a firm focus on political issues, it can sometimes wander into potentially dangerous ideological terrain with its emphasis on how folks with any beliefs can still turn out to be good people if you get to know them. That insight seems largely true and important, to me, but the danger comes from letting empathy and identification across political lines overwhelm the crucial issues that drew those lines in the first place. Debates about immigration, abortion, gay rights, the environment and the like are not just intellectual—their outcomes have a tremendous impact on real people's lives. So as much as it's great when combatants can take a moment to recognize each other's humanity and find common ground, these actions are only a supplement to, not a substitute for, continued activism.
The rare reality show with a brain and a heart, 30 Days is a treat. This collection of all 18 episodes is well worth picking up for those who haven't seen the show or want to revisit episodes they saw in broadcast.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Virgil Films
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