In one of the latest efforts to demonstrate just how nuts it is to expect anyone to live on what low-wage jobs are paying these days, the cable network FX will present tonight (Wednesday, June 15, at 10 p.m., EDT/PDT) “30 Days.” Morgan Spurlock, of “Super Size Me” fame, will, along with his significant other, Alexandra Jamieson, try to survive for 30 days as a low-wage worker. With all of the so-called “reality TV” out there, it’s nice to see someone who cares about what really is the unfortunate reality for millions of Americans.
Spurlock, who received widespread critical acclaim (and an Oscar nomination for best documentary) for his previous work, “Super Size Me,” now turns his lens on what it’s like to immerse oneself in the lifestyle of another: a first-hand experience in how the other half lives, with much more substance than say, for example, “The Simple Life,” or “Wife Swap.”
Spurlock hosts the series, and is its first target as well. He says that “When I first got the idea for this series, it was my idea to be the subject every week, to go out and do something different every week,” Spurlock says. “Then Alex said, ‘well you’re not going to have a girlfriend very long.’ ” (See Scripps Howard article.) So other subjects will be featured in later episodes, including a Christian man living for 30 days with a Muslim family in Dearborn, Mich.; a straight man spending 30 days with a gay couple in San Francisco; a woman who takes on the binge-drinking experiment to make a point to her college-age daughter; an over-the-hill athlete who tries steroids to regain his former glory; and, Spurlock says, “a family of mass consumers who go to an experimental eco-village where they live, essentially, off the grid for 30 days.” (See New York Times article.)
I saw this first episide when it was previewed at the Take Back America conference, and have to say that I really enjoyed it. You felt Morgan and Alex’s pain as they lived in a poorly heated, ant-infested $325-a-month apartment in a Columbus neighborhood called “the Bottoms,” and struggle to survive on his wages as a laborer in multiple jobs and hers as a dishwasher in a coffeeshop. In some cases, the pain was literal, when Alex had to go to the emergency room with a bladder infection, and Morgan injured his wrist doing construction work. But it was almost harder to experience their wait for several hours in the cold for a bus that never arrived, just so they might try to celebrate Alex’s birthday and feel slightly better for a little while. And their struggle to entertain Morgan’s niece and nephew for a few days really hammered home how impossible it is to provide a decent life for kids on a minimum-wage job.
Critics seem to like the show as well, acknowledging that its social contribution never fails to outweigh its entertainment value.
Spurlock makes the case that the minimum wage is too minimal and that health care for the poor in our country is in a deep crisis. His approach is good at drawing attention to the pain of social problems, without necessarily pointing to solutions. But he’s an engaging on-screen personality, and it’s easy to muster sympathy for him and (by extension) anyone caught in the poverty plight. He and Jamieson’s cozy relationship soon deteriorates into petulance and angst.
[T]he 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.
Is it revolutionary? No. Will you “learn” something about the experiments unfolding in front of you? Maybe. As a social experiment, is it flawed? Sure. But none of that matters. “30 Days” is entertaining and interesting, a summer diversion you can talk about without the embarrassment of everyone hearing that you’ve been watching some artless reality show.
Spurlock’s work reminds us that “If you’re working 40 hours a week, you should be able to have food on the table, a place over your head, a comfortable life. I’m not saying you should be able to go out and buy a Ferrari, but you should be able to provide the necessities of living to yourself and your family. And that’s not the world we live in right now.” (See New York Times article.)
For the readers of this blog, the show may in many ways be preaching to the choir, but I still suspect that many — if not most — readers are not recently familiar with this kind of personal hardship. At the very least, it’s a reminder and an inspiration to keep up every effort to make sure that no person working 40 hours a week or more should have to worry about having a place to live, food to eat, or a doctor to go to. It goes without saying that you don’t see enough of that on TV these days, even on the networks that should be considering it “news.”