More or less spun-off from director Morgan Spurlock's highly successful 2004 documentary Super Size Me, 30 Days (2005-2008), is built around an ingeniously simple premise: Walk a mile in my shoes. In each episode some brave volunteer (Spurlock hosts the show but volunteers just once per season) forsakes his normal, everyday life for 30 days in a radically different environment, usually one that's controversial and often the very opposite of his or her political/social/religious views. An atheist spends 30 days living with fundamentalist Christians, a fundamentalist Christian spends 30 days with a Muslim family, a gun control activist lives with a firearms fanatic, a Super Bowl veteran spends 30 days in a wheelchair, and so forth.
The series does almost the impossible, confronting head-on divisive issues many people are extremely reluctant to discuss at all even among family and friends, fashioning it into palatable, accessible and thought-provoking infotainment. Though a few episodes don't work out all that well, most of the 18 45-minute shows are very good-to-excellent and really deserve a wider audience.
30 Days - The Complete Series appears to combine two previously released two-disc season sets with a new, three-disc third season release. However, for the purposes of this review DVD Talk frustratingly received only an incomplete, pre-release version with no packaging at all. The first two seasons seem to be identical to their earlier, stand-alone versions, while season three arrived as three DVD-Rs, with disc one positively overrun with "For screening purposes only" warnings and obviously created with much effort specifically for home video reviewers/potential thieves like yours truly. Curiously, near as I can tell season three is likewise being sold separately only as a DVD(-R)-on-Demand product. Bizarrely, both 30 Days - The Complete Series and the DVD-on-Demand 30 Days - Season Three have the same suggested retail price. Which would you pick?
30 Days generally works best when it puts a face on complex social issues, exploring them in human terms easily understood. One of the best-ever episodes places an ardent Cuban-American "Minuteman" with a family of illegal immigrants, a hard-working family squeezed into a tiny apartment and unable to visit their relatives back in Mexico, and who have a teenage daughter trying hard to get accepted into a local college. Similarly involving, often shocking, is the memorable pilot episode, with Spurlock and his girlfriend, Alex, trying to live on full-time minimum-wage jobs in a Columbus, Ohio neighborhood. It clearly demonstrates how, even with two incomes, it's totally impossible.
Oftentimes, one "side" stubbornly refuses to even seriously consider the other's position, occasionally putting up an emotional wall when the other side expresses something deeply personal and emotional. For instance, when in "Gun Nation" a gun-control activist becomes overcome talking about a friend's violent murder, or later when she unexpectedly sobs after firing a gun for the first time, her gun-collector host instinctively quotes from the NRA playbook, like a robot and without even a modicum of empathy.
Such reactions, whether coming from the conservative or liberal position, only serve to undermine their side, as in "Muslims and America," in which the devout Christian's attitude toward his Muslim family hosts reveals an ironically un-Christian like intolerance toward any faith whose tenets conflict with his own.
Amazingly, none of these close-contact debates leads to all-out fisticuffs though I wonder if any segments ever had to be redone or scrapped after the volunteer and host family decided they couldn't stand one another for the entire month. In a couple of instances, the amazing thing is very little happens at all. "Atheist/Christian" has none of the expected sparks because both sides, perhaps overly conscious of the camera, are much too cordial and polite, gingerly avoiding conflict the whole time.
Although I'm sure the network would have preferred Spurlock to have subjected himself to all of these 30-day trials, sometimes the show gets lucky, finding a volunteer who can take unpromising material and make it memorable. "30 Days in a Wheelchair" sounded pretty predictable to me, but volunteer Ray Crockett, former cornerback for the Denver Broncos, is a winning, likeable personality gamely living the life of a paraplegic for a month. His relationships with real disabled people are sweet and uplifting.
A few shows don't work, but fortunately duds like the Freaky Friday-esque "Binge-Drinking Mom" and "Anti-Aging" (a dull episode lacking universal appeal) are the exceptions rather than the rule.
Video & Audio
As stated above, DVD Talk did not receive final product so this reviewer is unable to assess the packaging and can only assume that, like the discs we were sent, final product will consist of the same discs previously released as stand-alone Seasons 1 and 2 releases. However, in the case of Season 3, I have no idea whether these will be DVD-Rs or not. The DVD-R that I examined is about par with the other seasons in terms of basic full-frame picture/audio quality (Dolby Digital stereo, English only with no subtitles except for the first season, which is offered in English and Spanish). When and if we receive final product I'll happily amend this review, but at this point I really have no idea.
The supplements previously included for Seasons One and Two are still there (audio commentaries, deleted "diary-cams"), but Season Three has none at all, at least not the DVD-R created especially for reviewers.
Despite the mysterious, frustratingly incomplete jumble of reissue and check-discs we received for this review, the content alone more than justifies the extremely modest price of this superlative series. Highly Recommended.
Note: You can read John Sinnott's Season One review here and my Season Two review here.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.