Morgan Spurlock turned himself into a lab rat on a monthlong all-McDonald’s diet for “Super Size Me,” but that clever premise can’t be easily replicated, as becomes clear in this ambitious but flawed documentary series. Preachy and heavy handed, the program endeavors to repeat the 30-day experiment in ways that seem arbitrary and exaggerated and comes across a little too much like “Jackass: The Liberal Lecture Series.” Kudos to FX for daring to bite the corporate hands that feed it, but “30 Days” ultimately is more a snack than a meal.
In the first episode, Spurlock and his girlfriend, Alex Jamieson, try living on minimum wage salaries in Ohio for a month. Subsequent hours previewed, featuring different guinea pigs, explore the effect of anti-aging regimens and bias against Muslims.
Spurlock wants Americans to experience walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, but presented with such tilted options, most will simply opt to take the bus.
For starters, embarrassing a big, fat corporation skirted some pitfalls that this program faces in tackling diverse targets. The minimum wage experience, for example, isn’t analogous to the McDonald’s test, and direct-to-camera confessionals by Spurlock and Jamieson during the ordeal feel melodramatic at best.
This relatively new permutation of documentary filmmaking doesn’t fret much about fairness, which is often part of its charm. Even so, it’s off-putting to hear Spurlock say, “I’m better for being here,” the presumption being that he is suffering for our sins to showcase the injustice of life on $7 an hour.
Subjects in the second and third hours are a 34-year-old guy who engages in an absurd round of testosterone and human growth hormone injections, trying to reshape his body in a month. Not surprisingly, there are health consequences, causing his wife to worry about a diminished sperm count.
The final hour made available features a devout Christian taking up residence with an American Muslim family, which, again, delivers a rather predictable “Prejudice is bad” message, using a stunt as old as “Black Like Me.”
Although his collaborators in-clude filmmaker R.J. Cutler, nothing really new has been added to the formula of Spurlock’s Oscar-nominated indictment of the fast-food industry. And while it wasn’t feasible for Spurlock to undertake each monthlong challenge, rotating test participants (who are these people, anyway?) sacrifices any connective tissue linking these hours.
To be fair, credit FX officials for allocating time to a potentially provocative, issue-oriented enterprise that runs counter to News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch’s well-known stature as a pro-business Republican — as, for that matter, does the upcoming Iraq war drama “Over There.” As structured, though, “30 Days” doesn’t really draw blood, and Showtime’s “Penn & Teller: Bullshit!” actually does a far better job of shishkebabbing sacred cows.
Seeking to pry open eyes is surely laudable, but as Spurlock can attest, a cheeseburger goes down easier when it doesn’t taste like medicine.