Morgan Spurlock first came to prominence with his Academy Award nominated documentary Super Size Me in which he spent an entire month eating nothing but food from McDonald's. He's built on that theme with his reality TV show 30 Days, the first season of which has just been released on DVD. Each episode features a person or couple who, for 30 days, agrees to drastically alter their lifestyle to experience life from anther person's point of view. Entertaining, educational, and even humorous, the first season of the show, a scant six episodes, isn't only a good reality show, it's a good TV show period.
The show keeps the style and form of Super Size Me, with animated inserts that explain the background and give viewers the information they need to understand the issues that the episode is dealing with. The participants also are given camcorders to record video diaries everyday that give a nice insight to their feelings. It's amazing what someone will tell a camera when no one is watching.
The show bills itself as letting viewers see someone walk a mile in someone else's shoes, and it does that, but the very best episodes are the ones where someone is placed in a situation that is way outside their comfort zone. How would you feel if you were a heterosexual man from the Midwest who was going to live with a gay man in San Francisco for a month? Or how about a devout Christian who had to live as a Muslim? These are interesting not only because you learn about a life style that is new/ The intriguing part is seeing someone come face-to-face with the prejudices and stereotypes they have and how they react to that. In many cases the participants learn as much about themselves as they do about their hosts.
This premiere season consists of the following episodes:
Minimum Wage: Morgan Spurlock and his fiancee, Alex, move to Ohio with only the clothes they can pack into a backpack and suitcase and live for a month on minimum wage ($5.15 an hour). At the beginning they give a short history of the minimum wage law and state that it was intended to give working Americans a living wage, and then show how hard it is to actually live on that.
There's a lot to say about this episode and it's sure to start discussions when viewed with a group of people. The costs and benefits of a minimum wage law aside, it was interesting to see how being poor effected Morgan and Alex's relationship, and just the way they dealt with life. One of the most touching scenes from the entire season is when Alex starts crying in charity store when they are given a set of dishes. An engrossing episode that really kick-starts the series.
Anti-Aging: A man in his 30's tries to get the body he had in college back through modern medicine. He takes daily injections of Human Growth Hormone and weekly shots of Testosterone along with 41 vitamins and supplements a day. Along with this he works out and does cardio excersizes, but when his liver starts having problems he has to ask himself if it's all worth it.
Another show that really draws the viewer in. Who wouldn't like to have the body they had in college back? Just hearing what he was going to do though made me cringe though. I was astounded that the doctor he went to would assign him the huge amount of over-the-counter dietary supplements that he did. Is it any wonder his liver, an organ that cleans the blood, was having trouble?
Muslims in America: A practicing Christian from West Virginia, David, says goodbye to his wife and infant son and moves in with a Muslim family in a largely Islamic community.
The first real fish-out-of-water episode, it was amazing at the ignorance that David possessed about the Islamic faith and Muslims in general. Not only did he not realize that the God of Abraham that Jews and Christians worship is the same God that Muslims pray to, but he didn't believe an Imam (a Muslim religious leader) when he was informed of it. He also asked his hosts if they thought there were any "sleeper cells" of terrorists living in their city. A question that is insulting and idiotic on many levels. David was very open to the experience though, much more so than I thought he would be, and seeing how his opinions change and evolve over time make this a great epsiode.
Straight Man in a Gay World: A straight young man, Ryan, who doesn't even like the idea of homosexuality agrees to live with a gay man in the Castro area of San Francisco.
This was the highlight of this first season. Ryan was definitely outside of his comfort zone. Living as a member of an outcast and hated community was something very different for the young men from the Midwest, but he rose to the challenge admirably and was ended up being a better person because of it. It's interesting to contrast his comments at the beginning of the show with those at the end.
Off the Grid: Two New Yorkers who are used to the creature comforts are flown to the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in northeastern Missouri where they will live a totally self sustaining life, growing their own food and recycling everything that they use including their own waste.
This is a very nice episode to watch, but I don't think the Dancing Rabbit people came off the way they wanted to. Their goal seems to be to lead by example, showing people that it is not impossible to live without overusing the planet's resources. Unfortunately a lot of the ways that they live, as one participant accurately observes, won't fly in mainstream America. Taking a shower only every five days and keeping your shit would turn a lot of people off to the whole idea of trying to live in a more ecologically friendly manner.
Binge Drinking Mom: A woman with an alcoholic teenage daughter in college decides to see what it's like to get drunk most nights like her daughter. For 30 day she has four drinks within a two hour period. What effect will this have on her family?
This was the only episode that wasn't very good. The whole idea just didn't make any sense. The mother said she was doing it to teach her daughter about the dangers of drinking, and to show her what it was like to have a loved one with a drinking problem. The idiotic thing was that girl didn't live at home! She was in college getting drunk in her dorm and at frat parties. She rarely saw her mother drunk. I'm not sure what the mother thought her daughter's reaction was going to be either. It was obvious that the teenage was an alcoholic, drinking till she blacks out 4 nights a week, and hearing that your mom's doing the same thing isn't really a great incentive to stop. You can guess the girl's reaction.
This is a great show, one that is sure to provoke discussions and make you think as well as learn something. The only qualm I have is that some of these could have been longer. I wish they had the time to go even more in depth and examine the issues but a bit more. The host families reactions and thoughts weren't shown nearly as much as the participant's, and that would have made the show a bit more rounded.
The stereo soundtrack is adequate for the show. Since it's a documentary at heart, with much of the show being recorded under less than ideal conditions, there are some problems. Some conversations are distorted, other scenes are a little low. Most of the conversations are easy to understand and sound fine though. There are subtitles in English and Spanish.
The full frame video is fine though not outstanding. The participants kept video diaries and those look significantly worse than the rest of the show. Aside from those segments the image was pretty soft and the colors were a bit muted. This isn't too surprising for a documentary series. The picture also has some aliasing and minor cross-colorization. Not a bad looking show, but not an outstanding one either.
There were some very nice bonus items in this set. All but two of the episodes have commentaries (Off the Grid and Binge Drinking Mom don't) with the producers and usually the participants (the single exception is Anti-Aging.) These are usually very interesting and offer more depth to the stories and you get to hear what the people thing about their 30 days now that some time has passed. Well worth listening to.
Each episode also a selection of has 'lost dairycams' in the extras section. Running around 10 minutes on average, these consist of the participant's thoughts that were recorded during their month experiment but didn't make it to the final cut.
This is really more of a series of documentaries than a reality TV show. It doesn't have the game show aspect that is such a big part of reality shows, and it's actually examining and making comments on American society. It is as entertaining as a reality show however, and it makes you think "How would I react in that situation?" This is one of those shows that sounds kind of lame on paper, but turns out to be surprisingly good. If you enjoyed Super Size Me, you should check this out too. Highly Recommended.