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Spurlock's "30 Days" super-sizes contrasting lives
Seattle Times TV critic
Morgan Spurlock made a splash with "Super Size Me." His new effort is a six-part TV series called "30 Days" that's more ambitious, less exaggerated and quite winning.
I entered as a skeptic. Spurlock's 2004 film about eating exclusively at McDonald's generated lots of buzz and an Oscar nomination. Yet it was based on lousy science and stretched logic, and Spurlock seemed to be just another anticorporate grandstander. Then came "30 Days," airing at 10 tonight and for the next five Wednesdays on FX.
The show is an extension of Spurlock's interest in offering first-hand experiences of how the other half lives. Here, the other half is defined along a half-dozen broad lines dividing America: e.g., poor versus rich, gay versus straight, sober versus drug-addled.
Spurlock hosts the series and again is the lab rat in tonight's first experiment — living on minimum wage for 30 days. The other installments feature ordinary citizens willingly plucked out of their usual existence to plunge for one month into another lifestyle.
I screened the debut and episode three, about a self-described "red-blooded American" from West Virginia who goes to live in the Muslim community of Dearborn, Mich.
While TV has played the walk-in-my-moccasins card in reality series such as "The Simple Life" and "Wife Swap," the executive producers of "30 Days" (including R.J. Cutler of "The War Room") aim for a meatier presentation. Each episode is laced with facts and figures.
Still, the whole effort might have proved gimmicky and maudlin, beginning with the first show. C'mon: A rich filmmaker living on minimum wage for 30 days? It's precisely the kind of faux Hollywood sympathy that Preston Sturges skewered in "Sullivan's Travels."
But it works. Spurlock and his fiancée, Alexandra Jamieson (the vegan chef you may remember from "Super Size Me") go to live in Columbus, Ohio, on an income pegged to the current national minimum wage of $5.15 an hour.
We see Spurlock and Jamieson find a crappy apartment with insufficient heat, then negotiate with the manager to work out payments of their security deposit. They get jobs (as kitchen worker and daily temp/jack-of-all-trades), share a bus pass and just subsist.
The precariousness of their existence hits when Jamieson gets a urinary tract infection, Spurlock's arm swells up from the landscape work he's been doing, and both have to visit the emergency room because the free clinic is so overcrowded.
However, the show is never a drag. Spurlock is quietly appalled rather than preachy-screechy. Some of the most affecting moments actually stem from small kindnesses, like the free store where Jamieson and Spurlock finally get some furniture.
Episode three is more visceral and tense. David Stacy, a devout Christian, and ultimate regular guy, cautiously agrees to room with a Muslim family, the Haques, to learn about their culture.
In his hunched posture and darting eyes, you can feel Stacy's struggle between a desire to learn and the screaming impulse to reject everything strange. The gap finally is bridged by the very topic that promised the most volatility — religion.
Like most documentary efforts, "30 Days" is an advocacy piece rather than an effort to be impartial. But the unmistakably liberal tilt is far outweighed by a greater goal: To open our minds just a bit to the world beyond our living room walls.
Kay McFadden: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company