Through his form of participatory journalism, Morgan Spurlock seems committed to at least try to be a reasonable man in unreasonable times, putting a face on stories the media frequently reduces to statistics and polarized shouting matches. By occupying that niche, he’s well suited to the zone in which CNN hopes to operate, and his new series, “Inside Man,” is an understated effort — less showy than his signature documentary “Super Size Me,” and less gimmicky than his last TV foray, FX’s immersive “30 Days.” All told, it’s a laudable exercise, if one unlikely to lure many who are outside the tent inside.
The first of Spurlock’s single-topic hours, devoted to medical marijuana, is probably less urgent and timely than the second, which focuses on guns. In each case, the documaker goes to work at a store where the product’s sold — a medical marijuana dispensary in Northern California; a retailer of high-powered guns in Virginia — giving him a chance to interact with the normal-looking folk who come in to buy weed or load up on assault rifles (and in the latter case, fret about President Obama disarming them).
“Are there more than two sides to the story?” Spurlock asks in the second hour, making clear he thinks there are, as he seeks middle ground between the National Rifle Assn.’s resistance and those who would like to impose significant restrictions on private gun ownership — just as he makes a case against prosecution of pot sellers.
One reason the opener smells a little stale, frankly, is because the distributor in which Spurlock embeds himself — Harborside Health Center, headed by Steve DeAngelo — has already been featured in the Discovery Channel series “Weed Wars.” Granted, DeAngelo has fought a public court fight against the government, but he still feels a trifle overexposed for these purposes.
Mostly, though, one has to wonder if Spurlock’s approach — exploring sensible solutions, and expressing an opinion without being pugnacious about it — can gain much traction in the current cable news environment. And while he does bring a higher profile to the task than the average correspondent (as did CNN’s other recent Sunday addition featuring food/travel guru Anthony Bourdain, whose show ended its first season June 9), his first-person narrative style isn’t distinctive enough to knife through the clutter and noise.
It would be nice, actually, if this sort of programming could work on on the channel, which is clearly in a period of experimentation under new management, trying to be more provocative without compromising its brand.
“Inside Man” tackles serious topics (future hours will deal with migrant farm workers, elder care, union workers, education, bankruptcy, and the drought), and it certainly isn’t shrill. While there are places for that on TV — think PBS, or Alexandra Pelosi’s projects for HBO — the odds of such shows generating sustainable ratings in ad-supported venues are about the same as drawing to an inside straight.